It is a sad time in the world. More terror…this time in California. And now the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’ is falling victim to the violence too. Some politicians offered their condolences with the overused but heartfelt phrase: our thoughts and prayers are with them. Now that is being castigated. It is called ‘prayer shaming’. It will be a big stick that is used to clobber anyone who offers only thoughts and prayers. Detractors will way that the phrase is too mild. Too pat. Too trite. Not enough. It is ineffective and tired. We must do something.
Thoughts and prayers are not enough.
Christopher Hitchens famously said that religion poisons everything. He was wrong. That honor goes to politics. Some pundits are now trying to dismantle the most compassionate and heartfelt way that we can respond to tragedy and terror.
Okay, perhaps the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’ is overused by people who have no intention of doing either thinking or praying. But rather than toss the phrase into the pile of other phrases that have been ruined by politics, let’s really think and pray about it first.
What does it mean to offer your thoughts to someone else about a terrible event. Doesn’t it mean this: that your tragedy does not escape my thinking. I am not just ‘moving on’. I am not only going to notice your suffering or your situation, I am going to somehow bear the burden of it. I am going to think about you, your loved ones, your loss, and the pain you must now bear. I can never know the full depth of your sorrow, but I don’t want you to think that I am indifferent to it. I am not. I am thinking deeply about it. I am emotionally engaged with you.
In other words, you are not alone. I am there with you.
It is a huge relief to have another human being bear some of the weight of sorrow, even if separated by distance. Everyone who has been hurt by life’s trauma knows that just having someone else who knows and cares is a balm, a salve on an open wound. It helps.
And what we do mean when we pray for someone else? Doesn’t it mean that we are bringing the pains and sorrows of life before a loving Father (Luke 11) and a Great Physician? Jesus said, “He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted.” (Luke 4:18) He is, after all, the God of all Comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3) Prayer is an acknowledgment that there is a spiritual reality around and above and underneath us. Prayer is the admission that we are more than physical bodies, we are more than meets the eye; more than just physical beings in a material world. We are creatures made in the image of a Holy God.
In other words, you are not alone. God is there with you.
Those who discount the need for prayer might actually be admitting that, as they see it, we might be alone in the universe and since there is nothing beyond this life, there is no help for us in this life. God save us from this.
But still, we must also agree that ‘thoughts and prayers’ are not enough. We must do something as the result of our thinking and praying. The bible makes this point too. James tell us that we should never see another in need and offer nothing but platitudes. (James 2:16)
What do we do? For starters, while we should tolerate people of many religions, we should NEVER tolerate any evil aspects of that religion. That must stop. We must also look at the violence in our communities and confront the evil that spawns it.
But frankly, we must all repent. Every one of us. We must all get right before our Holy God. This is the hardest thing but it is the thing that Jesus told us to do in these kinds of tragic events.
In New Testament times there were two terrible episodes reported in the news. There was an incident of horrific religious persecution. And there was, at the same time, a deadly collapse of a tower structure (Luke 13). Remember what Jesus told his followers to do? Repent! Turn around. Get right before God. Do it now before it is too late for you.
With everything seemingly out of control in our lives, there is one thing we can control: our attitude and humility before God. We must repent. Everyone one of us who share thoughts and prayers with those who suffer. We must repent for allowing humanity to come to this point of terror; for allowing the best and most useful force for good on the planet, the Judeo-Christian faith, to grow tepid and weak. We must repent, change our course before God, strengthen our churches, and stand against evil…even as we share our thoughts and prayers with those who grieve.