Thoughts and Prayers

With the death of 26 people in a Texas church due to another mass shooting our nation began to go through the liturgy for these moments. Leaders and politicians offered their thoughts and prayers as condolences during this awful time. Then others got angry, accusing our politicians of only offering thoughts and prayers and not doing anything else. Responding back, some argued that prayers are doing something and that these attacks on “thoughts and prayers” are really just thinly veiled attacks on religion in public life. On and on the liturgy goes.

I’m a pastor. I have no real problem with thoughts and prayers. I do both frequently (although neither as much as I should). Public displays of religiosity are part of a community’s mourning process. I’m glad people offer thoughts and prayers during this time.

That said, these massacres have become all too frequent. Do they even shock us anymore or do these news stories simply sink us further into the despair? Worse yet, suspiciously little is ever done about these shootings. Thoughts and prayers are offered, but then everything returns to the way it was. Gun control debates return to their quagmire, mental health funding and care is virtually ignored, and we avert eyes to the idea of taking a good hard look at our communities in order to diagnose the problem.

In the Bible, prayer is a funny thing. It’s used in all sorts of ways. Angry ways, joyful ways, desperate ways and surprising ways. Funny thing about prayer though is that prayer often comes with a response. Certainly not always. Many great saints of the church have felt that God was not responding to them, but often times calling out to God does get a response from God. The psalms often testify to this with Psalm 138 being a classic example: “When I called, you answered me; you greatly emboldened me.” all in all, the Hebrew word of “answer” is used over seventy times to refer to God answering after people have cried out.

Certainly God does not automatically answer, for as CS Lewis notes, God is not tame. However, clearly the Bible maintains that God often answers.

But the trick there is that it helps to be listening. It is in utter silence that Elijah finally finds God’s presence (1 Kings 17). Psalm 46 counsels us to “be still and know I am God.” Samuel is only able to progress further in the story after he says “speak, for your servant is listening.” Finally, a bright cloud and voice from heaven will declare That Jesus is God’s beloved and that we should “listen to him.”

So listening is part of this whole life of faith that we are trying to walk in this increasingly tragic world. Here is my one thought and prayer going forward: in addition to our thoughts and prayers we need to listen. Prayer is great, but we need to listen to what God is calling us to. After the prayers of mourning are finished we need silence and time for listening; time for paying attention to the Holy Spirit.

Up to this point we have not done this. We have prayed, consoled, mourned, and then moved on with our business. Going back to our politics as usual, our fighting as usual, our divisions as usual. To paraphrase Martin Luther, God certainly does not need our listening in order act. Part of the grace of the whole message of scripture is that God decides to act despite ourselves. However, we might find ourselves breaking out of the cycle of death and more death if we start listening.

So if you are offering thoughts and prayers, great. Please continue. After we call out and cry out to God I propose we add one more step: listening for God’s answer.

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