What’s the Fuss about ‘Thoughts and Prayers?’
Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
Sunday, September 16, 2018 — The Second Sunday in the Season of Creation & Emergence
Knox-Metropolitan United Church — Regina, SK — Treaty 4 Territory
At the very outset I want to name that in pondering today’s today topic, I’ll be alluding to some tragic situations, namely shootings in schools and natural disasters, I’ll not be discussing any examples of these in great detail, and I do recognize that still right now Hurricane Florence, though now downgraded to a tropical storm is causing devastation along the Eastern Coast of the US.
I don’t bring any of these up to simply make a point, but because they are two of the situations from which, in the past few years in particular, have arisen conversation, sometimes quite heated, about the phrase Thoughts and Prayers, a phrase, and if you will, cultural phenomenon that I’d like to invite us to ponder today, not just in the sense of political actors offering this in the wake of a tragedy, but as an inroad to continue to ponder what we speak of when we speak of God, and how we might understand the nature of prayer.
I think it’s a phrase that I believe resonates with this morning’s readings from Isaiah and Mark, both of which grapple in different ways, with the idea of a personal cost to discipleship/to engagement with a religious tradition.
An article on CNN’s website this past May suggested that the phrase Thoughts and Prayers had reached what the author called semantic satiation – the phenomenon in which a word or phrase is repeated so often it loses its meaning.
They were referring to the way in which, following tragic shootings particularly in schools, US politicians were quick to publicly state that they were sharing their thoughts and prayers for the communities and individuals affected yet were unwilling to enter into meaningful discussion about legislative solutions to issues of young people being able to access the means to commit such violence, assault grade weapons and large amounts of ammunition.
The use of this phrase by people in prominent positions is certainly nothing new nor is some level of frustration — although it has certainly risen to a particular level.
But this is not simply about the use of the phrase in that context, I bring all of that up to allow us to enter into the implications of this phrase on a much more personal level — whether accompanied by the exact words of not — because I think that this can invite us into pondering what we understand to be the nature of prayer, and the nature of God.
What do we mean, when we use the word God?
When we pray, in particular in offering prayers for situations of concern for others, are we appealing to something external which we believe can affect change. Is that change that we would wish be affected one of external or internal circumstances of those for whom we are praying?
When we pray, are we expecting perhaps that a change to affected within ourselves?
Can the knowledge that prayers are being offered have an affect for the person on whose behalf they are being offered?
Our reading from the book of Isaiah began with the lovely phrase:
…God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word…
This certainly speaks of words that are no mere platitudes, but words that have a potency to create something of goodness, relief and healing within one who is suffering.
I wonder if you’ve ever experienced something like this?
Our reading from the book of Mark, is a challenging one. Jesus and his disciples are engaged in a pretty tough conversation which has been interpreted by some as being about the nature of Jesus’ own person and the pre-Jewish understanding of the Messiah.
But if we understand the book of Mark, not as a first-hand eye witness chronological account of the life of Jesus, but as a product of a community of Jesus’ followers grappling in the decades following his presence with them about what it means for them as a community to pick up his teaching, both his words and example, and to like him, seek to confront systems of oppression and exploitation and engage with th suffering of their communities in particular time and space — then I think this takes on a less esoteric theological meaning and instead a much more earthly one about the social and sometimes personal cost to being part of the fledgling community that followed the way of their departed Rabbi Jesus.
In this light, it seems that the community is grappling with the question as to whether the way they are seeking to embody will either insulate them from, or open them up to suffering and hardship as consequence of the way they will live and with whom they will find themselves in solidarity and opposition.
Rabbi Sharon Brous, who I quoted last week, and whose podcast can be found on our Facebook Page, ponders, albeit with humorous language, whether religion should make one feel better or worse — should it make one’s life simpler, easier and more comfortable, or whether instead the goal is more about wakefulness to realities within and without that actually make life more complex, make certain decisions harder because we are more aware of the implications, and perhaps less comfortable because we have invited into our thinking uncomfortable truths about the world.
I think that these are the sorts of questions Jesus’ followers are asking in their composition of this passage of Mark, and I would argue that the appeal to the image of the cross is less helpfully read as Jesus’ foreshadowing of his own particular method of suffering, often interpreted as thus and then listed as proof of miraculous or divine power, and also not, as it sometimes lifted up, a justification for the myth of redemptive suffering, but as an evocative and provocative invitation to the inherent conflict between the power of empire, and the power of solidarity.
This is a multi-faceted passage with much more in it to ponder, but for now, in the light of this, let us return to the phrase with which we began this morning, thoughts and prayers.
Our passage from Isaiah invites us to ponder the effect that words can have when offered to those who suffer — and if we had time, I wonder what we’d say and share with one another about words that have helped us in times of challenge.
Were they words from people who had been through the same thing or something similar?
Were they words that acknowledged the uniqueness of our experience even if the one offering them could never fully understand it?
Were they words at all, or simply presence?
I wonder if we have ever experienced that phenomenon of having words offered to us in challenging times wherein it feels suspiciously like the person offering these words are offering them more for their own comfort than our own.
I wonder if we have ever recognized that this was our own motivation?
When we read this phrase thoughts and prayers through our Gospel reading from Mark, I think we can also ponder not just what affect such words have for those who receive them, but what affect thoughts and prayers can have on those who offer them — which again I think reveals things we imagine about God.
Certainly some of the criticism of these words being used in the context of the tragedies we mentioned at the outset names them as a tool of insulation and abdicating responsibility, of self-justification, giving the impression of compassion and action without the cost.
The book of James in the New Testament, which is offered as an additional lectionary source for today grapples with the dichotomy of words and actions:
If [your fellow human] is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
So prayers alone for that which is within our power to affect are problematic.
Poetic theologian Eugene Peterson offers this perspective, that “Prayers are tools not for doing or getting but for being and becoming” suggesting perhaps that what we seek to affect when we pray is not the circumstances external but ourselves. That our prayers might best be understand as opening up the self and seeking personal transformation — perhaps a greater awareness that leads to a deeper compassion, and from there to engagement and action.
Vanessa Zoltan, a multi-faith chaplain at Harvard University and host of the fabulous podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text says this:
What I love about blessings is, I feel like when you bless something you are tapping into your most vulnerable wish for someone. And I just think that when you bless someone, you are admitting you have no power over something, and yet you are hoping with every fibre of your being.
I like to understand Vanessa’s and Eugene’s words not in contradiction but in tension, forming a profound paradox of agency and humility, and I would suggest that just like in a rubber band pulled tight or in the strings of an instrument expertly tuned that in tension there is potential and energy and beauty ready to be released — perhaps God is in that potential, perhaps God is even the name of that potential, not a static reality, but a potential, inviting and awaiting to be called into being.
And perhaps the invitation to religious practice is an invitation to engage that tension and that potential.
For we believe in God, who has created and is creating.
And in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.