“Thoughts & Prayers”
Rev. Chris Mereschuk
November 12, 2017
“My thoughts and prayers…”
It has become something of an automatic response.
“My thoughts and prayers for the victims…”
A partial acknowledgement of someone else’s hardship.
“My thoughts and prayers for the victims and survivors…
of this hurricane;
and also of this other hurricane.”
“My thoughts and prayers for the victims and survivors…
of the shooting in Las Vegas;
of the shooting in Texas;
of the next shooting.”
“My thoughts and prayers…”
As someone who likes to think of himself as both thoughtful and prayerful, I understand the impulse of this go-to response. I want to acknowledge the hardship and grief. I want someone to know that I have taken notice and that I am not callous or apathetic — or at least give the appearance that I am not callous or apathetic!
“My thoughts and prayers…”
When someone offers their thoughts and prayers, I always want to know more about what they mean by it: What are they thinking about? What are they praying for? Sometimes I think that our auto-response of “thoughts and prayers” is a cover for a confession that we do not know how to handle the grief confronting us. Our brains short-circuit and become flooded by the enormity of something. “Thoughts and prayers” can be used as a shield to guard ourselves from facing and embracing that grief. When someone loses a loved one and we cannot bear to consider our mortality: thoughts and prayers. When natural disaster devastates an entire community or country, the idea of their suffering and the seemingly impossible journey of recovery and rebuilding restricts our movement: thoughts and prayers. When innocent lives are taken — one life or dozens or scores of lives — through acts of violence and terrorism, and we cannot bear to accept our own vulnerability: thoughts and prayers. To me, those are understandable defense mechanisms; an act of self-preservation; ways that we be present at a safe distance until such time that we can be more fully present and actively supportive. And often in these cases, we are able to transform our thoughts and prayers into presence and action. These are the thoughts and prayers of someone who is also grieving, also hurting, also scared, and who is maybe feeling temporarily helpless.
However, there is a version of “thoughts and prayers” that I cannot tolerate. And those are the “thoughts and prayers” of politicians and power holders who have been entrusted with the welfare of hundreds, thousands, or millions of people, yet betray that trust for the sake of their own power and prosperity — when “thoughts and prayers” do not bring consolation, resolution, relief, or reconciliation, but serve only as the motto and mantra for the oppressive systems of injustice and violence.
When suffering, injustice, violence, or evil occurs, and we cannot bear to face our culpability, when we refuse to acknowledge our part in suffering — how we’ve given our tacit approval, how we’ve been complicit, how we’ve enabled or even encouraged it, even our refusal to make changes and take actions that are fully within our power yet we lack the strength of will, or the courage, or simply the moral compass to do so: “thoughts and prayers” are not only useless, but are insulting. “Thoughts and prayers” in those cases are worse than hollow — they are harmful, even sinful. What good are these kinds of “thoughts and prayers” when people are suffering and dying, and you could do something about it, you could take action to stop it or maybe prevent it happening in the future, but instead you offer “thoughts and prayers?”
This is the same harsh rebuke of prosperous power holders spoken by God through the Prophet Amos. Amos warns the unjust elite that God has grown tired of their “thoughts and prayers” and worship. And God is not only tired of rituals that are nothing more than performance — God is infuriated and disgusted:
“I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
Take away from me the noise of your songs”
Amos arose as a prophet in Israel during a time of relative peace and prosperity for the nation. There was great territorial expansion and tremendous wealth — that is, for a certain segment of the population. With this unprecedented wealth for a few came oppressive inequality and suffering for many. The economy was manipulated so that those who already had wealth could easily gain more, but at the expense of those who had little or nothing.
The “Quartet of the Vulnerable,” as they are sometimes called — widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor — were neglected, abused, and exploited, kindling God’s fury, while the wealthy and pious praised God in ritual and song, rejoicing in what they believed to be God’s favor upon them. But since they had not honored their covenant with God to care for the vulnerable, their rituals had become merely performance, their songs just discordant noise. Ignorant of this transgression and so certain in their prosperity yet greedy for more, they called upon God to multiply their blessings and hasten the “Day of the Lord” when Godself would arrive to vanquish all enemies and ensure their prosperity for eternity.
But God was having none of it. The most perfectly offered sacrifice and the most beautifully sung hymn means nothing to God in the absence of justice and righteousness. Not only does it mean nothing, but it is offensive to God, provoking divine anger. All of the festivals, the solemn rituals, the offerings and prayer songs: they had become hollow. It was simply empty worship; going through the motions; actors delivering a performance, playing the role of someone who was faithfully living out God’s witness and work in the world.
And so God spoke through Amos, a shepherd from Judah, warning the people of Israel that so long as they “[trample] the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way,” they will not curry God’s favor with their empty worship, but rather are inviting judgement and devastation.
God did not care for their words of praise while they committed acts of injustice. God had grown angry at hearing their “thoughts and prayers” while the vulnerable suffered. God rejected the pious performance of those who passively or actively refused to do anything for the most vulnerable, oppressed, and exploited in society.
This was the word spoken by God through Amos, through Hosea and Isaiah and Micah, through the Psalmist, through Jesus, and through his early disciples, and through Moses before all of them: Your worship is nothing but noise and performance if your heart and your actions are not inclined toward justice. And yes, it is the word spoken by God through and up to today and the next day and the next day until God’s kin-dom comes. All of these prophets both ancient and modern and prophets yet to come tell us that God is not satisfied, that our worship is empty and hypocritical performance if we are only offering our “thoughts and prayers.”
I wonder how much like Israel in the time of Amos is the United States at this moment? We have tremendous income inequality and disproportionate prosperity. We continue to have wide gaps in access to quality healthcare, education, and public services. Low income communities such as Flint, Michigan suffer daily from environmental racism. Those who are most vulnerable in our society are continually prosecuted, persecuted, and victimized. Creation itself is exploited for temporary financial gain at the expense of safety and sustainability. And the show of performative religiosity is being used and abused as a tool of oppression and injustice. Literal and figurative widows, orphans, immigrants, and poor folks are not only being neglected, they are being actively targeted.
God is not pleased with the “thoughts and prayers” of those who prosper off the continued suffering and exploitation of the vulnerable. Scripture tells us again and again in myriad and direct ways that God is only pleased with justice and righteousness. Proclaimed over 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, justice looks like equitable treatment for those who are wealthy and powerful as well as those who are vulnerable and have limited or no social power.
Justice is for the society as a whole, and righteousness is about individual action. Righteousness is not about our private morality, but about how justly one lives — how one shows care and concern for others, especially those who are vulnerable in society. The prophets teach us that justice and righteousness are the measure by which God would judge the nations and the people — not by their eloquent prayers or the perfect performance of rituals. God demands care for the vulnerable because God is present in a unique way with and to the vulnerable. Psalm 68 praises God as “Parent of orphans and protector of widows…God gives the desolate a home to live in; God leads the captives to prosperity.” So to deny equitability, dignity, or rights or to neglect, exploit, oppress, or do violence to those who are vulnerable is to mess with God’s most cherished people. So to paraphrase the voice of God through Amos: Your thoughts and prayers are simply damning and self-incriminating if you are offering them while your foot is on someone’s neck.
We should continue to offer our thoughts and prayers to those who suffer and grieve. But we should do so recognizing our thoughts and prayers as a starting point; not an end point in-and-of itself. Lifting our thoughts and prayers can call or cause us to transform. I think of the words attributed to the 16th century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart: When you pray, do not do so believing that God’s mind will be changed about something; pray rather that your mind would be transformed. We can turn our thoughts to a real examination of the injustice around us — who is impacted and how; the ways in which we perpetuate or benefit from injustice — and our prayers can be an earnest plea that we would seek, and enact, and do justice.
Certainly, the overwhelming fear and the enormity of our grief might lead us to a sense of helplessness and despair where we impulsively and with some measure of resignation or even compassion fatigue offer our thoughts and prayers. Yet through courageous faith, that same fear and grief can be fuel for personal and societal transformation. In response to the mass gun murder in Las Vegas just last month, Rev. John C. Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, encouraged the same, writing:
“Moved by our grief, we must transform that deep pain into meaningful actions of hope, of resistance, of recovery, to create a different narrative than this unending cycle of violence.”
We are called to a courageous faith response — one that is thoughtful and prayerful and active — that commits to rejecting injustice, violence, and oppression as inevitable. It is a response that requires us to set our hearts, minds, and hands on repairing brokenness and co-creating with God and each other a just world for all, believing that the God we worship and proclaim is a God of Justice.
So please: offer your thoughts and prayers. Offer them generously. Offer them sincerely. Offer them as a promise and a pledge to God.
And let our thoughts be on justice and our prayers be for righteousness.
Let our thoughts be with those who are suffering. Let our thoughts be on how we can relieve their suffering and prevent future suffering.
Let our prayers be for the comfort, healing, and protection of those who are vulnerable and oppressed. And let our prayers be a plea to God that our minds would be transformed and the eyes of our hearts opened so that our hands might do God’s work of justice and righteousness in the world.