Dear Elected Official,
I read today that once again you have offered thoughts and prayers in the wake of another mass shooting tragedy in our country. I’ve also read the responses of my family and friends taking you to task for this response, and asking you to stop praying and start doing something.
I am angered by your response as well. Once again, I’m scraping wax off the floor of my church from all the candles we’ve burned, mourning the loss of life and the fact that your “thoughts and prayers” have failed to prevent another tragedy. But, unlike others, I’m not going to ask you to stop praying. Because I don’t believe you ever really started.
You see, I pray for a living. As a pastor, I’m called to live as a public example of what it looks like to live a prayerful life in all its beauty and struggle and messiness. I pray with my congregation each Sunday. I pray for them daily, and for myself and for the rest of the world while I’m at it. Not everyone gets it. Not everyone necessarily wants it. It’s a Unitarian Universalist congregation with its fair share of atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and dissenters. Prayer befuddles some of my flock, but I do it anyway. Every once in a while, they ask me what the point of it is, what I’m expecting as a result.
I tell them: I don’t pray with any expectation of outcome. I don’t pray so that I can put in an order from my “wish list” with some all-powerful deity. And I especially don’t pray to shift any of my responsibility to myself and others in this world off onto that same deity.
I pray to remember who I am and who I’m supposed to be and what I’m called to do in the world. I pray so that I can get over myself and stop thinking that I’m the center of the universe. I pray so that I can name my struggles with hard choices and seemingly impossible situations. I pray to shut out the white noise of the all-encompassing hopelessness of the world. I pray so that once that noise is cancelled out, I can see the heart of my struggles with more clarity. I pray so that with that clarity there comes an openness to the person who was already offering their help, to the answer that was already staring me in the face. I pray so that I can focus on what it is within my ability to do in the face of the seemingly impossible – and maybe muster up the courage to act accordingly.
THAT is the real power of prayer.
And this is why when another episode of mass gun violence shakes this country to its core, and you tell us that your prayers are with the people, that I have such a hard time believing you. There are countless examples, home and abroad, for what a government can do to curb the rise of gun violence – of what is within your ability as an elected official to do. There are common sense ideas that millions of Americans agree are worth putting into practice. There are the examples of how other civilized nations have addressed the epidemic with striking success. There are examples of state legislation in place that has been achieved through compromise between gun control advocates and gun owners. The answers are out there.
If you were truly praying, you’d have seen these answers staring you in the face by now. If you were truly praying, you’d have mustered up the courage to act on behalf of the safety of your constituents instead of the safety of your campaign war chest. Instead we get the bloody-minded Pavlovian response of “thoughts and prayers” with no evidence of sincerity or the action that should follow.
It is the emptiness of the sentiment that angers so many people I know. I don’t blame them. I’m angry, too. But while others might ask you to stop praying and start doing, I suggest the opposite course.
Start praying. Start doing it for real. Do it for all the reasons I list above. Then show us you’ve seen the answer. Prove to us that you’ve actually done it. And do it now. Time is brief and we’ve lost too many.