I was distressed to learn that you suffered a heart attack last month, but was also relieved to hear of your improving health and current sabbatical. Did you sense my thoughts and prayers? Did they help? Did you need them?
Did you want them?
It’s not terribly courteous to question peoples’ “thoughts and prayers” these days. Scroll down any social media platform, especially after the latest tragedy, and you’ll read a steady stream of “thoughts and prayers; thoughts and prayers; thoughts and prayers; thoughts and prayers”.
Is it just me or have “thoughts and prayers” become a synonym for “I really don’t have much to do with this situation, so I’ll offer a brief span of attention to show I gave a psuedo-crap and plop something on Twitter”?
Who’s praying? More than that, who is praying to Whom? Why are we praying when praying isn’t really our practice or custom? Why are we praying when we really don’t believe in Anyone or Anything who might be listening? Why are we praying when we really don’t believe in any divine power or even collective human power that will effectively take action against whatever evil has befallen us?
Why are we praying?
Why are we thinking?
We aren’t we doing and being?
I am not against thoughts and prayers. Turning our deliberate attention towards heinous acts, facing the darkness head on, and offering intentional interaction with God are powerful ways we can engage the sorrow and suffering of the world. But these ways need to be followed up with moving feet.
When we pray, we move our feet.
And I have to tell you, Jean, while there are many good feet a-moving against the darkness in our world, there are millions more of us who only shift in our seats a little bit. We’ve done our due diligence. We’ve lit a candle. We’ve mumbled a few words.
We are paralyzed by indifference and powerlessness both.
And if we’re going to be truly honest, most of the thoughts and prayers are tossed over towards people we believe are worthy of them. Worldly powers have taught us the black men in hoodies are thugs that carry handguns; that women wearing the hijab are dangerous; and the indigenous people in Canada are whiners for demanding justice.
Thoughts and prayers are readily given to the acceptable victims.
Our thoughts and prayers start to morph into moral judgment and social wish fulfillment that the demonized would change. There’s little empathy, but plenty of entitled (and often uninformed) opinion.
So I hope you can forgive me for becoming suspicious of “thoughts and prayers”.
In a world that needs my action and transformation, thoughts and prayers are my easy out. I give my token. I do my duty. I offer a bit of feeling. I process my own shock.
And I move on.
My thoughts and prayers aren’t for the afflicted. They’re for me. I’m the one hurting, I’m the one grieving, I’m the one paralyzed. This world is so EVIL! So if I offer my token, then I’m the one who looks and feels better.
So why don’t I feel better? Why isn’t the world getting better?
What are we so afraid of?
That we might be called on to do something?
That we might be called on the change or stop something we’re already doing that we think is good or helpful?
That we might simply be called?
I understand that in our age of globalization — we are all now so close together and still so grievously apart — a form of shared tears through “thoughts and prayers” with strangers can be truly cathartic. Perhaps even healthy.
I don’t know about you, but for me thoughts and prayers have become like cotton candy: tastes good in the first mouthful, but the rest of the cone makes me sick. There’s nothing in there that actually offers nourishment or refreshment. And yet this is the kind of kinship I am offering a grieving world? This is what I expect the sorrowful and exhausted to be grateful for? This is what I expect will change things?
How can I expect the hurting and the suffering to truly sense they are loved and beloved when all I offer is my token cotton candy?
Yet people are upset when thoughts and prayers are critiqued. How dare I question someone’s good intentions! And they might have a point. Cynicism and suspicion over a social movement is bound to stomp the nerves of well meaning individuals. And I really can’t judge the heart of each person. For all I know, the Buddhist monk who appears sincere and present in their thoughts and prayers is far more absent or uncaring than the western teenager scrolling through Snapchat. Appearances are, as always, deceiving.
Yet I would hope that for all the power contained in thoughts and prayers, that there would be changes in perceptions and attitudes towards ourselves and each other. And yet for all of our thoughts and prayers, people keep dying in the same unjust ways; and we keep scrolling on through our newsfeeds.
I don’t want to stop praying or thinking. I don’t want others to stop praying or thinking. But when prayers and thoughts offer us the illusion that we’ve actually meaningfully engaged both the darkness and the lightness of our worlds, and we embrace this offer wholeheartedly, it is becomes clear as to why so many of us are burned out with all of our thoughts and prayers.
So with that, Jean, may you be well. May you be renewed in sweet rest and deep connection with God and others. Thank you for your life of service and love. May you be given the grace of wonder as others serve and love you now.
Until next time,