Unexpectedly last week in the aftermath of the shootings in San Bernardino, the nation, or at least the nation on Twitter and certain thinkpiece-addicted outlets, engaged in a highly metaphysical discussion. Does it mean anything, anything at all, to offer “thoughts and prayers” to victims of tragedy?
As a confirmed “thoughts and prayers-er” myself, I think it does.
Regarding offering thoughts: Sometimes, often, when something truly terrible happens, all you have to offer is sympathy. When a friend has cancer, when a friend loses a parent, when a friend’s child commits suicide, when a friend’s husband dies suddenly, when a friend’s house burns down, when a friend’s son is killed on the battlefield in Iraq, when a friend loses a baby, there is not really anything you can do besides tell them you are thinking of them.
All of these things, and more, have happened to people we care about, as happens in the course of human life. Once you’ve delivered a casserole or a ham, once you’ve watched the kids or the dog, once you’ve done what little pitiful thing you can that only helps a tiny bit, you are left with thoughts and concerns.
Those thoughts are vitally important to express. They say, “I see your suffering and it hurts my heart.” They say, “Your pain matters to me because you matter to me.” They say, “I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I am here with you as much as I can be.”
To those of us who have lost loved ones, those sincere expressions of concern are etched on our memories. We remember who sent flowers, who stopped by, who called or emailed. We remember who did not.
Never fail to express thoughts of concern to suffering people. It matters. It makes suffering worse to feel like one is suffering alone and no one cares. It makes suffering a bit more bearable to know others are willing to bear some of the load.
Definitely Offer Your Prayers
I’ll admit I’m a pray-er, an imperfect, inconsistent, lazy, but confirmed pray-er. I pray for my family, for my friends’ families, for those I hear about whom I don’t know, for the guy in the ambulance going by, for Christian, Muslim, and other victims of violence in the Middle East, for victims of earthquakes and storms worldwide, pretty much everything I think of big and small.
I’m a tad ashamed to admit my most frequent and hopefully increasingly sincere prayer is “God bless you, asshole” about the guy who just cut me off in traffic, which is either the most or least Christian prayer ever. Here are four reasons prayer matters.
Prayer is action. If you believe in the reality of a God who hears prayer, then taking the time to both request an outcome and align yourself with divine will is action—powerful, important action. Plus, prayer leads to worldly action. You pray, you act. You act and then you pray. You find direction on how to act, you ask for blessing on your actions. It’s a chicken and egg thing. It’s not either-or.
Prayer is corporate. I do not know much about Muslim, Jewish, or other religious concepts of prayer (although I’d love to learn), but the way Jesus taught Christians to pray is corporate. He said, “Our Father” and went on to say “Forgive us our sins as we forgive others” and “Deliver us from evil.” There is no “I” in the Lord’s Prayer, only “We” and “Thou.” This is not to say that we do not ask for our individual daily bread, our needs and wants to be met, but that there is more to it.
When we pray, we are somehow mystically affirming that we are part of one body, one humanity. When I pray “deliver us from evil” from the safety of my own pew, I am mystically putting myself into the shoes of an Iraqi Christian hearing ISIS knock on the door and of a woman staring down the barrel of a rifle in San Bernardino. There is no division between us. When a throat is slit in Iraq, mine is slit, too. When an innocent is shot in California, I am shot, too. When a child drowns on the shores of Greece, my child drowns, too. Humanity needs to be delivered, although my own body is currently safe. Deliver us from evil. All of us.
Prayer may be meaningless. The secularists and atheists seemed to harp on this the most in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings. “God Isn’t Fixing This,” trumpeted the New York Daily News. Others pointed out that none of the prayers brought the victims back to life or stopped the rampage.
This is true. And it is not a new thought to those of us who pray. Seriously, those smugly posting this, did you think we’d never thought this thought? We know, more than anyone, that if there is no God we are not only foolish but also pitiful. I guarantee there is no regular pray-er who doesn’t sometimes wonder if she is doing nothing more than talking to a wall. I suspect there are more than few pray-ers who would like to hear God explain why he did not answer certain prayers.
Some of us are angry, some of us are confused, some of us are weary. We pray anyway. We pray because we are convinced there is something more. We pray because we suspect that our own intellects, wills, and selves are not the extent to which reality reaches. We pray to align ourselves with something beyond ourselves. That is why it is called faith, because on some level there is an element of choosing to believe without proof.
Prayer is an act of defiance. Sometimes there is nothing you can do but pray. I cannot save a single life in the Middle East or in California. I cannot stop cancer. But I can fight all that is evil and broken in this world on my knees, proclaiming to a universe that seems to be against all that is good that I do not accept the status quo, that I believe we are made for something better, that darkness will not win.
Perhaps it is meaningless, but I do not believe so. I believe it is one of the few things that has meaning, one of the few human actions that will, in the light of eternity, matter at all. So I will keep praying, New York Daily News, hopefully until my last breath.