“Your "thoughts" should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your "prayers" should be for forgiveness if you do nothing - again.” – Sen. Chris Murphy – Twitter – 12/2/15In the aftermath of the horrendous shooting in San Barendino, there has been some heated discussion about the place of prayer in our society. The quote I just read is from our junior senator here in CT; there are some who have applauded his stance, others who were offended.
In much of what I have seen, there are some who were furious that some politicians wrote that “their thoughts and prayers” were with the victims and their families. They were outraged that there was no plan for action. They felt the prayers were empty, just like Chris Murphy.
Others felt this was an attack on all prayer or at least on Christian prayer. That it was insensitive to the millions who do pray. But this is not the first time I have heard issues about such public prayer.
President Obama after the shooting at a community college in Oregon two months ago said, “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It's not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America.” (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-on-oregon-shooting-our-thoughts-and-prayers-are-not-enough/) - which of course the carnage has – over 1,000 mass shootings since Sandy Hook, with shooters killing at least 1,327 people and wounding 3,784 more…
The Dalai Lama echoed those words after the terror attacks in Paris, when he said “humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it… It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place. We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest. So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.” (http://www.mediaite.com/online/dalai-lama-prayer-not-enough-for-paris-humans-have-created-this-problem-and-must-solve/)
And as so often happens, sides were chosen, defenses set up and battle lines drawn – all on prayer. But I want to ask some basic questions: what is prayer? What does God ask of us as individuals and as part of the Body of Christ?
In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul said, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you… and this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless...”Prayer is something St. Paul often talks about. In 1 Thessalonians, “rejoice always, pray without ceasing.” In Romans, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.”
So what is prayer? I love this definition from a contemporary writer:
“Prayer is communication from the heart to that which surpasses (our) understanding… from one's heart to God. Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we're invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.” (from Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott)That someone is the one who created each of us, the God in whom we live and move and have our being. So what does Jesus say? In the Gospel of Matthew we hear:
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in worship and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven…”The Lord’s Prayer is the example Jesus gives for our lives. There is an expectation that prayer is part of who we are as faithful beings and that God already knows our needs and our prayers are bringing us into union with our creator.
Muslims pray, Jews pray, Buddhists pray and so do we. As the great reformer, Martin Luther put it, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
So if prayer is part of our lives, something we do all the time, with words, without words, in silence, in music, in so many different ways, what does this prayer do to us?
Martin Smith, former superior of SSJE puts prayer this way, “we are not calling God’s attention to people’s needs; the Holy Spirit is calling ours to a place where God already is. Our response in prayer [intercession] is to unite our love for those persons with God’s, to offer our concern to be taken up into God’s, for God to use in bringing about the good in them we both desire.”Our prayer unties us with those with whom we are praying and for whom God is already present.
But is it enough to say we are just praying? Does prayer imply doing?
That is the dilemma. We may not always be in a position to do something, but prayer isn’t just passive, prayer is action.
“When you pray, move your feet.” An African Proverb reminds us.We may not be able to assist the hurting in San Bernardino, but we can here in Connecticut. Who are the victims in our area? How can you and I pray and support them? Put our prayerful words into action?
The Gospel of Luke tells us that “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” & John the Baptist didn’t only pray, but he baptized many as a sign of the reign of God come near.
How will your life be a sign of prayer in our dark and violent age? May our lives reflect the divine glory by what we say and do, so God can guide us to give “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death & move our feet in the way of peace.” Amen.