Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 8, 2017
“Thoughts and Prayers”
1st Timothy 2: 1-3 – Common English Bible
“First of all, I ask that requests, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving be made for all people. 2 Pray for kings and everyone who is in authority so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity. 3 This is right and it pleases God our savior.”
On Monday morning, a pastoral colleague of mine posted on Facebook: “I'm not weeping. I'm not distraught. I'm not confused about how this happened.
I'm numb. I'm cynical. And I feel like we all know how this happened.
I long to feel shocked by mass violence, and I wish I could cry, but instead, right now, I feel numb. I'm so sick of this.”
I knew exactly what he meant. Mass shootings are so common we’ve ritualized our response. Just fill in the blank. Which city this time? Las Vegas. How many victims? “The biggest number in modern history.” And then, “what do you want for breakfast?” But actually, only super-sized, massive mass shootings are reported or even noticed today. By some reports, there have been mass shootings in America, involving at least 4 people, nearly every day of 2017.
Among the rituals we know who is going to say what, including “now is not the time to discuss policy.” The NRA’s ritual is to say nothing. But we especially know that we’re going to hear a lot of people promise their “thoughts and prayers.”
Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers. But for an increasing number of people, what was once genuinely comforting has begun to sound not only insincere, but profane; obscene even. Not just empty or hollow, the promise of prayer without action is blasphemous. In fact, the Bible has something to say about that. The Book of James declares, “If a person says to those who are cold and hungry, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? Faith without works is dead.” Eugene Peterson translates that last line as this: “Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?”
The prophets frequently spoke of how God will stop listening to their prayers if the people won’t change their ways. “Cease to do evil, learn to do good;” Isaiah said.
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.”
And if not, Isaiah said, Thus saith the Lord:
“When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.”
Again, Eugene Peterson cuts to the chase:
“Your hands are bloody.”
So, “When you put on your next prayer-performance,
I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I’ll not be listening.”
God is sick and tired of our thoughts and prayers.
The problem isn’t that “thoughts and prayers” are meaningless. Far from it. Prayer is something real we can do. As a person of faith, I’m grateful that we are not helpless. Prayer is an action we can take – one that matters. When we are numb and in pain, we draw strength from getting on our knees. And survivors of tragedy often comment that they do feel comforted when they know people around the world are praying for them. When we can’t be in Mumbai or San Juan or Las Vegas, we can be together in prayer. It is a form of solidarity.
But not only when we can’t think of anything else to do, on a regular basis we can follow the instruction of 1st Timothy: 2 Pray for kings (or presidents or senators) and everyone who is in authority so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity. 3 This is right and it pleases God our savior.
Faith is one antidote to cynicism, although a healthy dose is not wrong. There is a time for everything under the sun. So I think the author of Ecclesiastes would agree, “There is a time for faith, and there is a time for cynicism.” But only for a time. But just so I’m clear: Prayer is not doing nothing.
Kirsten Powers sums up the problem, however. Some people use “my thoughts and prayers are with you” as a sort of inoculation against any further action or responsibility – particularly as we have seen ritualized time after time after time when it comes to gun violence. When politicians say these words to prove they care, it just mocks God. It’s cowardice. It buys them time until people have moved on. But God is sick and tired of thoughts and prayers.
But, Powers adds, as nice as it sounds, “we didn’t elect politicians to pray for us. We elected them to find solutions, enact policies, and keep us safe.”
However, politicians are one thing. When Christians utter “thoughts and prayers” in response to Las Vegas and Aurora and Orlando and Virginia Tech and Columbine – moments of silence without the intention of any other action… Why are so many churches silent on gun violence? After a while, God, sick of thoughts and prayers, may stop listening. “Your hands are full of the blood of the innocent.”
But I really don’t want to give up on thoughts and prayers. “I’ll be thinking of you and praying for you” are genuinely and sincerely meaningful when spoken with love and intention. I don’t want to give up that phrase, yet in the meantime, we may need to consider some alternatives or at least some additions.
But after Las Vegas, perhaps the most meaningful thing we could say to victims is “my thoughts and prayers are with you. And, in your honor, I’m going to join the effort to pressure Congress and the President, and keep it up, until they have no choice but to act in order to save lives.” To stop creating more widows and orphans.
Of course, we must remember that all our attempts at social change unaccompanied by prayer to sustain our resistance will lead to burning out. And we must remember that we can’t all do everything. We can’t each take on every issue. We have to be wise with our time, talent, and treasure. But we can support those whose passions include things we cannot do. Through such means as… our thoughts and prayers. And saying thank you. And I’m here to listen if you need to talk. After your next march or rally, could I stop by with a casserole?
As we struggle to understand tragedies and catastrophes – natural disasters or man-made ones – I keep asking “How can we redeem such a time as this?” Such times as we are living through as a nation…
Yet, I am grateful that the redemption of this horrific but all too predictable act falls not to you and me alone but in our asking, how does God redeem such a time as this? We are not saviors. We are disciples of the one who is. And isn’t that good news!? I am grateful to relinquish this burden to solve it on my own. Even as I know this is not an abdication of responsibility.
Because I am the church. And you are the church. But most importantly, we are the church – together. With each other and with God. Grateful for genuine and sincere thoughts and prayers. For I know that our church family, you, do act and will act.
 But by saying this, the media ignores mass violence against people of color. See further, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/entry/calling-las-vegas-massacre-deadliest-shooting-in-us-history-ignores-our-violent-past_us_59d24e68e4b05f005d35ae02
 James 2: 14-17 (NRSV)
 The Message
 Isaiah 1: 15, 17 (NRSV)
 Isaiah 1:15
 Common English Bible
 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/10/03/why-thoughts-and-prayers-is-starting-to-sound-so-profane/?utm_term=.b181f9569942. Another great article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/06/14/when-people-prayfororlando-is-it-empathetic-or-selfish/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.39c5ea11452b