These thoughts started a conversation that was had at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, February 25, 2018. The discussion was based upon a reading from 1 Thessalonians 5:13-24.
I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the discussion in your home or small group. You can download it here. Note: the questions on this handout are often different from the questions raised in the discussion.
What is prayer? What is its purpose?
It trended on Twitter in the days following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida which left 17 people dead: #ThoughtsAndPrayersDoNothing.
My social media feeds were inundated with memes all with the same message: prayer is ineffectual in dealing with real problems in our society. One meme said it simply: the words thoughts and prayers were crossed out with policy and change written underneath. Another meme showed an empty box-truck and underneath it read, the first shipment of thoughts and prayers have arrived. Another, a picture of what one woman actually did, was of a check made out to a senator made out for the amount of “thoughts and prayers” with a note attached that said, I hope this helps your campaign.
In an impassioned speech offered at the Florida State Capital, Sheryl Acquaroli, one of the shooting survivors, screamed, fighting back tears: “How many of the thoughts and prayers that I have received do I need a check in for some damn action? Because thoughts and prayers don’t mean anything without something behind it, and to be quite frank, thoughts and prayers won’t stop my brothers and sisters from dying!” (You can find an excerpt from this speech here–posted by @nowthisnews on Twitter, February 23, 2018 at 1:58pm)
As a person of faith (who presumably understands prayer to be an important practice), how do you respond? What difference does prayer really make?
I get where the frustration with thoughts and prayers is coming from. Very often prayer becomes a way for us to tell God about all our pains and frustrations. This is scriptural. Psalm 55:22 tells us to “cast your burden on the Lord—he will support you!” But, is it prayer?
I get where the frustration with thoughts and prayers comes from. Prayer is often used as a pious shroud for inactivity at best or a passing of the activity to God alone. We somehow believe that an all-knowing God has to learn from us about all that’s going on. Isn’t God already there? Isn’t God already at work? We pray asking for God to intervene and rarely ask how we might become the hands and feet of Jesus.
I get where the frustration with thoughts and prayers comes from. Prayer is often used as a means of gossip and a way to share life with one another–a way for us to pretend like we care, but not be moved to actually walk with each other through whatever dark valley or mountain peak we may be traversing. Many insist that corporate prayer must be centered on the sharing of our personal joys and concerns. This form of prayer is a way for us to share what’s going on in each other’s life. But, aren’t we already called to be living life together? Our insistence on sharing “joys and concerns” has, I think more to do with our desire for community than it does with us expecting that God will actually do something in and through us and the community. God calls us to share life together every day, not just for 5 or 10 minutes during a worship service.
I understand where the frustration with thoughts and prayers comes from because I think often what we call prayer isn’t prayer. Why do I think this? Because prayer makes a difference. It changes things. It is not passive, but leads us and others to a response. It is the prelude to action. If our prayers aren’t leading to faithful action, then we’re not really praying; we’re just beating God’s ears with empty words which Jesus explicitly told us not to do (Matthew 6:7).
What our world needs is people who are praying; persons who offer prayers that truly change the world. We don’t need prayer that functions as gossip, or is a way for us to complain to God about all that frustrates us. Prayer cannot be a substitute for walking daily with one another. We need real, faithful prayer that leads to change. If our words to God are not transformative (in a way that leads to abundant faith, hope, peace, and live) then put very simply—we’re not praying.
Prayer is about seeking answers and a Godly response so that God’s kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven. We should not pray for things we’re not willing to act upon and address. We shouldn’t pray for victims of violence if we’re not willing to stand up to it and beside the victims. We shouldn’t pray for unity and peace if unity and peace depends solely upon everyone else changing to agree with or act like us. We shouldn’t pray for the comfort of a loved one, if we’re not willing to drop everything and stand by their side. Prayer is about discerning a faithful response. Prayer is the search for a loving, Godly response. It’s about opening us and the world to the power of God to bring about God’s reign. Prayer leads us to respond. Prayer changes everything.
As United Methodists, we are called to faithfully participate in the church’s ministry by our prayers. Those prayers must lead us—individually, corporately, and globally—to a more faithful place. They must open us to God’s grace such that we are changed. Prayer must lead us to make a difference in the world for Christ’s sake.
And, if they don’t? Well, then maybe, we’re not really praying.