Prayer is taking a beating these days.
It makes sense that folks feel the need to distance themselves from “devout” politicians who will offer “thoughts and prayers,” but no gun reform measures, especially after we witness mass shooting after mass shooting.
The phrase has been repeated until it’s understandably meaningless to many.
Recently, actor Chris Pratt found himself dragged into this debate when he tweeted at Kevin Smith that he would pray for him while he recovered from a heart attack.
Many Twitter users quickly criticized this sentiment.
Most criticisms of “thoughts and prayers” buy into the cynical view that prayer is useless. It’s magical thinking. A wish list to Santa. An excuse to do nothing.
But prayer isn’t the problem.
I grew up praying multiple times per day in a conservative Mormon tradition. I left the faith in adulthood (due in part to their attitudes about women and gay people) and subsequently dropped my daily prayer habit.
After wandering in spiritual wilderness, I stumbled into a congregation in New York City where the liberal minister prayed boldly with atheists, Christians, Jews, Hindus and non-believers.
The female minister at the front of the room didn’t set the same parameters on God I was used to. When I stopped praying, it was because of unanswerable questions about who (if anyone) was listening to me (and if he wouldn’t take my call because I was wearing the wrong underwear).
Listening to her pray made all those logistics fall away.
The congregants here held different beliefs, yet I felt a thread connecting us and extending out as we opened our hearts to each other and the world.
I felt transported back to my newlywed days when my husband and I fought about finances and sex and how to properly make the bed, but praying together allowed us to finally hear one another.
When we got up from our knees, we behaved differently.
I wanted a similar prayer dialogue with my young children. My family started by taking turns saying gratitude prayers at the end of each day. I was stunned when my 18-month-old son chimed in “thank you for meatballs” before we even knew he could talk.
Later, he prayed for his sister to make friends in her kindergarten class. My daughter prayed for the oceans and then recoiled in horror when I attempted to place her sandwich in a plastic baggie. (It will kill the fishies, Mama!)
I was often surprised by the things my children offered up during these few precious moments we set aside to simply listen to each other (without interruptions or screens or jokes). Of course sometimes, someone cried or pouted or tried to choke their sister in a sneak attack from behind.
But other times, they would unzip their souls and reveal jewels as they spoke openly of their fears, disappointments, hurt feelings and triumphs.
As challenging as it was, we kept practicing and watched in wonder as prayer transformed our family.
One night after listening to his sister pray, my young son placed a drawing (and his favorite toy) in his sister’s backpack to help her feel less alone at school. My husband heard my shaky, overwhelmed voice and started cooking dinner without a nudge from me. My concerns for my daughter’s school occupied so much of my thoughts and prayers, that I went and got myself elected to the PTA.
Prayer was a lifeline to each other and our best selves.
We should continue to criticize politicians for their inaction and for perpetuating a cynical view that we should harden our hearts and schools because we can’t change anything. Mass shootings do not have to be a fact of modern life that we must accept.
Regardless of what anyone believes (or doesn’t) about God, I ache for us all to step into the space that listens with full hearts and a willingness to change.
I will always pray for love to visit people in pain, for wisdom to guide us as we seek to transform our world, and for the courage to show up for my fellow human beings in every way I can.
Sometimes we need grace and wisdom and love bigger than our own to navigate the uncertainty and insecurity of the moment until we know what to do next.