Another day, another mass casualty shooting in America. Dead children. Dead grandparents. Dead mothers and fathers in between, who died shielding their baby from the rapid fire. As Aaron Burr sings it: “death doesn’t discriminate.” The bullets do not care how old you are. How rich or poor. How many people love you, how long your to-do list is today, or how many good deeds you’ve enacted on the world.
The killing is senseless; and the responses to the endless violence, often senseless as well.
When people in political power respond to these horrific acts with “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and families, we share a collective groan. It’s almost pavlovian– we know they’re going to say it, and yet we cannot stop the eye roll, the sigh, the shake of the head that comes after.
The hollow nature of those words– coming from those with the power to do something and yet do nothing–cannot be denied. Prayer alone is not enough. Desperate times call for desperate action. “Action” being the operative word. Even the most faithful among us cannot pretend that prayer alone is going to fix this mess.
And yet… I wonder if our readiness to cringe at the very words “thoughts and prayers” might lead to an over-correct. Could the repeated meaningless use of the word lead us to believe that prayer is, in fact, meaningless?
If so, then it’s time to reclaim the word–and more importantly, the practice–as the world changing force that it is. Prayer is not meaningless. Sure, it is no magic bullet (pun intended, hard). Nor is God a magic genie in a bottle. But prayer can be a deeply transformative act, when approached in the right frame.
Maybe it’s just that we’ve been praying for the wrong thing.
I want to be clear that by “we,” I mean collectively, as a nation. Not to over-generalize anyone’s faith or practice or belief system. But when it comes to the corporate kind of “the prayers of a nation are with you” kind of prayer, what is meant by “prayer” often comes up short. It is a request to “fix it, Jesus,” with nothing behind it in the form of personal sacrifice or investment. It is a wish lifted to the heavens with nothing required on the part of the one who speaks it.
That ain’t gonna fly.
As my pastor reminded us Sunday in a sermon about prayer– prayer is meant to change us. But it’s not just about us, individually. Prayer is an act of community.
Prayer is meant to change US. They pray-er. But it is not the American way to want to be changed, is it? We want everyone ELSE to change. We want bad things to go away, we want good people in charge, we want things to go our way. But if we really wanted to see change in the world around us, we would pray first to be changed.
Put that on a national stage, in a wider context. If we really want the heart of our nation to be transformed, we have to pray first to be transformed as a nation. And if our leaders truly wanted to make change, like ending gun violence, they would pray, first, to be changed themselves.
Thoughts and prayers are sure not everything. But, let’s not let the weight of these times convince us that prayer is nothing. It’s not nothing.
Maybe we are praying for all the wrong things. (Collective ‘we.’) Maybe what we (and our leaders) really need to pray for is:
Forgiveness. We repent of our faith in false idols; our love of power; our failure to reject the way of violence and follow in Christ’s way of peace.
Wisdom. We pray for the wisdom to dismantle systems of racism, nationalism and toxic masculinity that breed violent killers; we pray for the wisdom to elect thoughtful, compassionate leaders who can bring about meaningful oversight of deadly weapons.
Courage. We pray God will gift us with strong voices in the face of fear. We pray for leaders who possess the same.
Vision. We pray for the thoughtfulness and empathy that it takes to dig deep into complex issues. We pray for the strength to resist reaching for easy answers and scapegoats.
Humility. We pray to know our own human limitations; we pray to remember that someone who disagrees with us might have at least part of the solution to what ails us; we pray that we might know when get out of the dang way and make room for the Holy Spirit to move among us.
Compassion. Most of all, if we–collective we– wanted to be truly transformed, we would pray to be moved. That God would turn us around (this is literally the meaning of repentance) from being inward-looking nation to an outward reaching one. To be a people who seek the greater good over personal gain, and who value the empowerment of all over the perceived power of the individual.
Is prayer everything? Nah. But it’s not nothing. This sort of prayer–rooted in a deep desire for transformation of self and community– has the power to move. It is a deep intention that becomes lived reality. Get enough people acting out of this prayerful desire, and we might just end the violence once and for all.
Next time someone says “thoughts and prayers,” let it mean something different to you. However hollow the words ring in the moment, hear them as a call to your own transformation–and see what change that brings to the world.