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Thoughts and Prayers

I often write the words “thoughts and prayers” to friends facing sorrow and tragedy to express empathy and to tell of my request of God to bring solace and comfort.

But the phrase has been ridiculed by many claiming it is too little, too late. Or critics accuse us who pray to be delusional, traders in magic and god-creators. I plead guilty to all charges. My wife knows best of my delusional moments; I often wish for magical results and I’ve made many an effort to shrink God to a manageable, controllable size.

Nevertheless, prayer remains one of our three Lenten disciplines: forty days of more intense time given to prayer. Prayer doesn’t always come easy, prayer demands one eschew self-absorption and attend to another. Life in these United States encourages a focus on “me;” our government’s constitutional responsibility includes protecting opportunities for each of us to pursue our  “inalienable rights….to the pursuit of happiness.”

“It’s all about me” is a construct dominating our thoughts and invading even our prayers. It is little wonder prayer loses its appeal if prayer is but another self-centered, self-absorbed moment in our day.

Prayer is much more. Prayer is about us, about us as a community, us with God. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The focus of prayer is not the self, it is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns.”  “To pray,” Heschel wrote, “is to dream in league with God, to envision God’s holy vision.”

The “thoughts” offered at times of sorrow and tragedy diagnose anxieties and through empathy unite us. Our “prayers” confirm a collaboration — for friends in AA with a “higher power” and for us, people of faith, a collaboration with our Creator, with Jesus who teaches forgiveness, love and justice, and with the life-giving Spirit known through our community the church.

Prayer may not bring back the life of a child lost in tragedy, but prayer can help repair a broken heart, prayer can restore and revitalize an exhausted will, prayer can awaken hope, prayer can guide our vision, prayer can inform our dreams.

When prayer is difficult, check to see if a bit of narcissism has invaded the heart.  After admitting the brief solo dance, take the next steps, set aside self-absorption and direct one’s thought toward God and toward others.  Prayers will follow, prayers to God, who, “when it gets dark, doesn’t immediately switch on the lights but rather comes and hangs out with us, on the cross, in the dark, and lets us in on the most intimate of conversations within the very heart of the Trinity” (William Willimon). Prayers will then turn to action.

“Prayer that does not lead to concrete action toward our brothers,” writes Pope Francis, “is fruitless and incomplete. Prayer and action must always be profoundly united.”

When words don’t come easily to one’s lips, remember these words of Martin Luther, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.”