What if when we offered our "thoughts and prayers" we actually did some serious critical thinking and praying?
When a tragic news story goes viral, it's customary to decorate the Internet with thoughts and prayers. They come in many forms: memes, profile filters, status updates. Sometimes that is the best we can do. Many times we can do more.
The challenge we face is that we're not always sure of what more can be done. So, in the face of incessant bad news, we often feel helpless. So we offer people comforting but empty sentiments: thoughts and prayers.
But the fact that we have so little show for all of thoughts and prayers makes me suspect that not much serious thought or prayer happens once the memes are posted.
For all of those quickly offered, heartfelt “thoughts,”it’s rare to hear the product of those thoughts—balm for the wounds or preventative medicines against future injury. Where are the thoughts that conjure up change?
And for all of those awkwardly offered “prayers,” where are the answers that people are receiving from a God who cares? Where are the helpful insights that only the Holy Spirit could reveal? Where are the creative solutions?
How is it that we have so little to show for all of this thinking and praying we've done over the years?
Reasons vary, I'm sure. But I think that one explanation is that people pray as though they are giving the problems we see entirely to God. The problems we're facing--violence, poverty, racism, war, climate change, and so on--are all so overwhelming. It's easier to think we'll outsource the work to heaven.
Also, many of those problems don't feel as immediate to us as the challenges of our personal, daily lives. Sure, it's terrible that immigrant children are being separated from their parents at our southern border, but I'm having tooth pain and my check engine light is on again.
The dirty truth--and most of us won't admit it--is that at the end of the day, we only care so much about that which doesn't seem to directly affect us. And "I'll pray for you," can be a brilliant way of saying "This overwhelms me and I don't want to be burdened with other people's problems," while also appearing to be compassionate.
But prayer is not a way to pass the buck on to God for all the shit that goes on in the world. Prayer is also not how we keep the pain of our neighbors at arm's length. Prayer is a way that humans participate in what God wants to do in the world.
Can I Hide This From Abraham?
There is a tiny little passage in Genesis that arrests my attention when I think about this idea.
In the story, God has decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because these cities were famously opulent, unjust, and arrogant (Ezekiel 16:49). But before raining down judgment, God has a conversation with Godself: "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" (Genesis 18:17).
God asks this question for two reasons. First, Abraham is God's friend (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). Second, Abraham's nephew is living in Sodom at the time, and that would be super awkward for God to do his friend's nephew like that. So God tells Abraham about God's intentions.
Abraham is understandably taken aback: "Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike," he says to God, "Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
Together, Abraham and God decide that if ten righteous people can be found, the cities will be spared.
Early the next morning, Abraham springs out of bed and hurries to the hillside where he'd argued with God the day before, checking the horizon to see what had happened to the cities. There's smoke rising coming from Sodom, but his nephew is safe.
When I consider this story, I think about how God invited Abraham into that space to discuss what was going on in those cities and what should be done about it. And I can't help but notice Abraham's commitment to the outcome: he's so entangled in the trouble approaching his nephew that it's the first thing he checks on the next morning.
That's what prayer does: invites us to participate, to some degree, in what God is doing in the world and involves us, entangles us, in the troubles our neighbors are facing. The church veterans call that kind of prayer "intercession."
A Handful of Razors
I’m no exemplar of intercession, but I do have one personal experience that stands out to me. When I was high school, I started a gospel ensemble with a few friends. Eventually, our group was invited to perform at an event where we sang a couple of my original songs.
Shortly after the concert, I got a letter from a girl we’ll call Nekeisha. She was a younger sibling of one of the choir members and had come out to hear her sister sing a solo. She’d been impressed with the music and was hoping to connect.
When you’re a young and zealous Christian (and we both were), there is something inspiring about meeting other young and zealous Christians. She included her email in her letter, and we became electronic pen pals. We would write each other often, always talking about God, faith, the Bible...Christian stuff. NeKeisha became like my own little sister. I eventually left town for an out-of-state college, but we kept in touch.
One day, NeKeisha confided in me that she'd been cutting. I was deeply concerned for her, but I had no idea how to be there for her. But I knew that I could pray. And I did: every afternoon. Sometimes I'd even skip lunch so that I could talk with God about NeKeisha. I'd told her she could call me when she felt compelled to cut, maybe talking could get her mind off of it for a while. She did sometimes.
Eventually, I returned to my hometown to preach and invited NeKeisha to come out. I was thrilled to see her in the audience. Afterward, she and I met up outside the church. We talked for a bit, caught up on life. Then she handed me a small bag full of razors. I got rid of them for her.
If you’re asking if NeKeisha ever cut herself again after that moment, you may be missing the point. This experience didn’t teach me that prayer “works,” or that intercession gets results. I learned that I had no business praying anything that I wasn't at least willing to be part of the answer to. I learned through that experience that prayer pulls us deeper into relationship with one others, and into each other’s struggles. I learned that choosing to intercede for someone is disruptive, because we become invested in the story of their healing and liberation. We find ourselves springing out of bed to check for smoke on the horizon. We find ourselves with a handful of their razors.
If the resistance will include thoughts and prayers, and I think it must, then those thoughts and prayers must be meaningful. They must call us into deeper relationship of human trafficking victims, domestic violence survivors, persecuted migrants, survivors of gun violence, abused people of color and LGBTQ people, and all those who experience oppression. Our thoughts and prayers cannot simply be a way of shoving their pain into the heavens.
Are we willing to wrestle with God to see that "what is right" is done for our neighbors? Are we willing to be present to our neighbors' stories? Are we willing to be a part of the answers to the prayers we pray? Because that is the kind of prayer the resistance can use.