After a tragedy you’ll hear a lot of people saying “thoughts and prayers,” and increasingly, a lot of people saying “stop praying, do something!” Most of the people doing either of these things have no idea what prayer is. My favorite is people with no idea what prayer is tell others not to pray.
I don’t lump prayer in with any religiously affiliated quiet time or meditation. It’s a common thing these days. Someone will talk about the power of prayer, and someone else will say, yes, calmly sitting in a room and doing nothing has been proven to help you, as seen in studies of 17 different belief systems. Hmm… guess that’s interesting, but prayer is a real thing for many people, not nap time on your carpet square after juice and a story.
So when people say “thoughts and prayers”, what’s that about? If you’ve ever seen someone in desperate circumstances on Facebook asking for prayer – they may even say, I’m not religious, I have no idea what prayer is, but I really need help desperately here, you’ll see lots of responses from people who care. Some will say I’m praying, I’ll pray for you, or they’ll write out a prayer. Some other people say “sending good thoughts your way.” Those are thoughts and prayers. So what’s the difference?
In Luke 11 in the Bible Jesus was praying, and when he finished one of his disciples asked him how do you pray? You can tell from Jesus’ response that this wasn’t just a stylistic question, he wanted to know how does it work? Jesus told him a prayer to use that would fit in 2 tweets with room to spare (In Matthew 6:7 he goes a little further and says don’t keep babbling. You don’t get credit for more words.) Then he explains with a couple of examples how persistently and earnestly praying will show you what you are looking for, open the doors you’re trying to open and give you what you need. Praying isn’t hiding and silently doing nothing, begging a distant and impersonal god. It’s asking for wisdom, knowledge, will, ability and opportunity. Basically, you’d be a fool to run off and do something of consequence without praying. Really, you should be praying all the time. I know some people who came to respect it after praying for parking in Manhattan.
In another story in Luke Jesus told of a widow who pestered an unjust judge so much that he did the right thing. Won’t God, who is actually just, give his people justice when they cry out for it? Jesus says pray and don’t lose hope. God will give justice.
OK, so you know what pray really is. What are thoughts? They’re…thoughts. Happy thoughts. I’m thinking nice things about you. Hope things work out. You may not believe in prayer, but there’s a good chance you sense prayer might be weightier than thoughts. And when you hear someone talk about thoughts and prayers, you can be pretty sure they’re not a big prayer person. So expect those thoughts coming your way.
Should people stop praying and do something? They are doing something, and they should pray before they run off and do whatever they dream up. Maybe they should stop sending happy thoughts, though.