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What Presbyterians Believe: ‘Thoughts and Prayers’

Digital conversation after Las Vegas shooting massacre questions practice of extending ‘thoughts and prayers’

by Charles Wiley | Special to Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — The day after the Las Vegas shooting massacre, I posted on Facebook, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.” I didn’t really know what else to say at the moment. My friend Bruce Gillette replied with a political cartoon depicting God in heaven saying, “Enough already with the ‘prayers for the victims and their families,’ you morons. Go enact some meaningful gun control!”

“Thoughts and prayers.” Shallow or meaningful?

What does it mean to pray in such situations?

Prayer as communion with God

In prayer we sense God’s grace, purity, love and majesty. In prayer, we offer our lives to God. And so, in prayer, we align ourselves with God and God’s purposes in the world. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are aligning our wills, our actions, to those of God. We learn to pray in harmony with God’s eternal purposes. Far from being a giant wish fulfillment list of parking spaces, new cars or a promotion, prayer is learning to love God and God’s ways in the world. When we read in the Psalms “give to me the desires of my heart,” we are really asking that our very desires be the desires that please God.

Prayer is good for the self

We believe that growing closer to God and being filled with the Holy Spirit is good for us, although not necessarily that it will make us healthy, wealthy, and wise. The Study Catechism (q. 121) tells us that “Through prayer God frees us from anxiety, equips us for service, and deepens our faith.” In times where many people are experiencing profound anxiety for a whole variety of reasons, prayer helps us to center our lives around communion with God.

There’s even some research that substantiates that prayer is good for us. Those who prayed regularly were more focused, less anxious and felt more connected to other people.

Prayer delivers us from the paralysis of cynicism or despair.

Prayer is good for others

Prayer aligns us with God. Prayer is good for us. And prayer aligns us with those whom God loves. This leads us to praying for others, from personal needs of family and friends to the biggest issues that face our entire world. Sometimes praying is all we can do. And knowing that others are praying for you can be very meaningful. Thoughts and prayers can be powerful. But often there is more we can do. And in those situations, “thoughts and prayers” becomes a banal excuse for not embodying those prayers in action. Jesus tells us that when we serve others in his name, we serve him.

Prayer builds solidarity with those who are suffering. Prayer is a way of practicing empathy. When children (or adults) hear the church praying for people who are poor, they learn that this is something that matters to Christians. Prayer also provides an initial way to respond in faith, and thus becomes the first step toward action. This is especially important when hearing about something distant or overwhelming that you really can’t do anything about, at least not immediately. While “first responders” are responding to a tsunami on the other side of the world, our “first response” is to offer our pain to God; then God may begin to illuminate what we can do to help. It keeps us from getting stuck.

Praying leads us to action, but it does not substitute for it. If we pray for the people of Puerto Rico, how might we concretely act? Perhaps donating to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance or writing Congress to release more aid. If we pray for the victims of gun violence in Las Vegas, working for legislation or community action that would reduce gun violence is a way to live out our prayers. If we pray for someone who is sick, perhaps sitting with them or bringing them a meal might be a way to practice what we pray.

A shallow practice of extending “thoughts and prayers” with no self-reflection and no commitment to action is no prayer at all. Embodied, emboldened thoughts and prayers is a powerful movement that follows Jesus Christ in aligning ourselves with God’s concern for all people.

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