“Sending thoughts and prayers to (fill in the blank).”
I see these words all the time lately. Following every natural disaster or unnatural tragedy, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of posts like these.
I admit to a certain amount of cynicism about these posts. They remind me of a cartoon that depicts a drowning man yelling “Help!” and a man on the dock calling back, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
You’re probably wondering why someone writing a church column would be anti-prayer. I’m not. Prayer is an important part of a life of faith. It is perfectly appropriate to turn to God when one is overwhelmed, in despair or grieving. We pray in times of joy or awe as well. Ann Lamott, in her book "Help, Thanks, Wow," says that all prayers fall into three categories — supplication (help), gratitude (thanks) and awe (wow). When faced with tragedies like hurricanes, fires, shootings, and hatred, sometimes all one can say is, “God, please help.”
As a kid, I knelt by my bed and prayed every night, starting with the Lord’s prayer, followed by a long list of asking God to bless family, friends, pets and others. I learned to pray by bowing my head and closing my eyes. As I matured, my prayers changed, becoming more a sense of awareness of God’s presence as I went about my day. Now I pray with my eyes open and my feet on the ground. I believe that prayer is transformative, but it is more about changing me than it is about changing others or the situation around me.
“Thoughts and prayers,” then, are how we focus our awareness on a person, a problem or a situation. But it doesn’t stop there. Awareness leads to empathy and compassion. Prayers help us see God’s presence in our lives and in the lives of others.
From compassion, the next step is action. What does God call us to do in response to our prayers? Are we asking God for action, or asking God for help in knowing how to act ourselves?
We are exploring this at my church. Every year, we focus on a theme to help us grow in our faith and to discern where God is calling us as individuals and as a faith community. Last year, we explored "where your heart is.” We shared those things about which we are most passionate, the things that touch our hearts. We found that as a community, we are concerned about social justice, God’s good earth (especially our lakes), arts and music, children and youth, education, refugee resettlement, and the full inclusion and embrace of all people.
This year, we move from caring to doing. How can we actually make a difference for the people and things about which we feel most strongly? After listening to our hearts, how do we put our hands to work?
This year’s theme is “you are Christ’s hands.” It is based on a quote from Theresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Some respond in big ways. I have friends who are already planning trips to Texas or Florida to work on recovery efforts. Others might not be able to rebuild a house in another state, but they work on Habitat for Humanity homes here in Auburn. We can give money to recovery efforts or donate clothes, furniture or household items to local homeless programs. We can visit the sick, deliver meals, write cards. We can start with small steps, and keep taking them.
The quote by Theresa of Avila inspires me to move personally from “thoughts and prayers” to putting my hands to work. Prayer is transformational. It is a start. It starts with caring, and moves to doing. It changes me, so that I can bring change for others.
Jill Fandrich is a ruling elder and clerk of session at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 17 William St., Auburn, where she edits the newsletter, church website (westminsterauburn.org) and Facebook and Twitter pages.