In Defense of Prayer in Times of Tragedy

Over the past few years there has been a trend after tragedies: Politicians quickly take to social media to offer “thoughts and prayers” and others take to social media to criticize those thoughts and prayers as useless.

I understand the criticism. I really do.

There is something almost vulgar in the knee-jerk reaction of saying “I’m praying for you,” and then going about our lives as though our brothers and sisters in other places and situations aren’t being crushed under suffering and grief.

It’s that vulgarness, that lack of compassion, that has led to the criticisms–because offering prayers without actions is meaningless.

Words can be powerful. They can persuade or manipulate. They can inspire bold change or they can cause one to fearfully cling to the past. They can encourage love or they can stir up hatred. Words are powerful, indeed.

So why do I feel these words, “thoughts and prayers”, are so often hollow? Especially given I am a woman committed to my own prayer life as well as the prayer life of those around me?

Because what makes words so powerful are not the words themselves, but the actions that follow. When we use words to stir up hatred and resentment, the acts of violence and cruelty that follow are what bring us to our knees. When we use words to soothe, heal, and offer compassion, it is the acts of love and charity afterward which lift us back up again.

Prayer works in the same way.

First we, hit our knees and we pray.
Then we stand up and we do something.
God will always give us something to do when we pray.

Over the weekend, my church family celebrated All Saints and Souls Sunday. We lit candles in honor of our church members who have passed away and entered into the great cloud of witnesses. We broke bread together at the Lord’s Table and we shared with those saints and with each other in Holy Communion. We shared stories about the people who made such a difference in our lives, who inspired us to draw closer to God. We promised to go out into the world and live lives which echoed those of the saints and reflected Jesus.

After worship, close to a third of the congregation drove to a nearby town to join another church in a community meal it offers. We wanted to be in community with them as they strove to live the lives of saints and to literally fulfill the call to “feed my lambs.”

I made a new friend with a woman who had come from yet another town to do the same thing. We talked for a long time about the places from which he had come and why we were here in this little town in Southern Idaho. These were stories which went beyond that day’s drive–I had moved from West Virginia a few months ago, she had come from California a few years ago. She had family in Appalachian Tennessee and we talked about what two very different people had in common.

It was a beautiful day.

I came home, ready for my Sunday afternoon pastor’s nap. I curled up with the dog in the bed and looked at my cell phone, which had not been on all day.

To my horror, that beautiful autumn day of celebration and remembrance came to a screeching halt as I read the words, “More than a dozen dead in church shooting.”

My heart shattered.
My eyes filled with tears.
My mind raged with the questions: “Why? How? Again?”

I thought of all the things we could have done, that we should have done to have made this unlikely. I was angry that nothing had been done after the last mass shooting to prevent further massacres.

I wept.

And then I read that there was another shooting at another church in another state–a domestic dispute which ended in gunfire in a church parking lot. It was overshadowed by the carnage in Texas, but the shooting in Fresno was no less devastating.

Already, the “thoughts and prayers” memes were filling my Facebook timeline–and, already, the angry responses were filling the comments sections.

And I prayed.

I prayed because that’s where my every action begins and ends.
I prayed because it is an important aspect of my faith discipline.
I prayed because it is a balm which soothes a wounded soul.
I prayed because it allowed me to meditate on the problem.
I prayed because it opens my heart and soul to hearing God speak in my life.

But if my prayer ended when I unclasped my hands and rose from my knees it would be hollow and meaningless.

God expects us to be more than just a people who complains about the way things are going and then continues living the way we did before the prayer was uttered.

God expects change.
God expects us to hear God’s calling in our lives, and to respond.

Prayer has significantly changed me over the course of the years.

Those who new me a decade ago can testify to this change.

I entered seminary as a conservative student. Because the seminary I attended was very liberal, I stood out like a sore thumb. Sometimes, I felt as if my name had become synonymous with “conservative” in my classes.

But as issues arose, as discussions weighed me down with heavy questions, as I struggled to understand my life in the context of God’s being, I often heard God calling me to surrender myself and my own agendas. God was changing me, teaching me to love more broadly, to be more bold in trusting God’s grace and mercy.

As a result, I have become a rather progressive person in the red states in which I have lived the past few years. In those contexts, my name has often become synonymous with “liberal.”

Prayer changes people. If it doesn’t change us, we’re doing it wrong.

Because so many of the offers of “thoughts and prayers” which are made after tragedies go without any visible evidence of changed hearts and minds, or any noticeable action, the general public has become weary. They are tired of hearing empty words and not seeing the evidence of faith.

Rather than get angry at the backlash, rather than assume Christianity is under fire, I can’t help but feel that this a prime chance for today’s Christians to live their faith. People don’t want to hear about it anymore. They want to see it. In many ways eyes are more open than they have been in a long time because the people behind those eyes are hungry to witness what faith in the public life looks like.

So, let’s pray.

Let’s pray for answers.
Let’s pray for the lost.
Let’s pray for the hurting.
Let’s pray for guidance.
Let’s pray for the shooter (because Jesus told us to pray even for those who hurt us).
And then let’s get up and do.
Let’s get up and act.
Let’s get up and live our faith.

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