After major tragedies, the same thing happens: People say they are sending “thoughts and prayers.”
In the last few months, thoughts and prayers have been sent about hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Houston and Florida; to Edmonton following that city’s terrorist attack; and, of course, to Las Vegas following the deadly shooting.
Today, most people seem to send their thoughts and prayers by social media. But they also are shared by politicians.
Research by Ben Rowen in Atlantic shows that since 1995 there were 4,139 instances in which a congressperson expressed thoughts and prayers in the Senate or House.
As Rowen points out, “given that the House has averaged 138 days in session a year and the Senate 162 since 2001, this equates to close to one ‘thoughts and prayers’ entered into the record per workday on the Hill.”
In Canada, a search of Hansard going back to 1994 shows that “thoughts and prayers” were shared only 540 times in Parliament, mostly by Conservatives.
The practice has also produced a backlash—don’t just pray, do something! That’s how Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy saw it after the Las Vegas shootings.
To his colleagues who sent thoughts and prayers, but who refuse to try to check the proliferation of guns in that country, he tweeted: “Your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers. None of this ends unless we do something to stop it.”
Most would agree that prayer without action is meaningless. But does that mean that sending thoughts and prayers, in themselves, is a bad thing?
I don’t know what it means to send thoughts. There are some who believe that energy can travel across space to positively impact other people. But this seems to be a minority view.
As for prayer, lots of people say they do that—an Angus Reid survey from a year ago found that 86 percent of Canadians pray at least once a month or more.
Fifty-nine percent of the time they pray to ask God for help; 35 percent of the time they pray for God to help others.
And what about the effect of those prayers? The same study found that 44 percent of Canadians said their prayers are answered “sometimes.” Twenty-four percent said they were answered “often,’ and 11 percent said “always.”
But not all the effects of prayer are for others. It turns out praying also benefits the one who is doing it. Eighty-sex percent of Canadians said praying added something to their own lives.
In his book The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach, Kevin Ladd, a former pastor and associate professor of psychology at Indiana University, confirms this. For him, a major function of prayer “is the key role it plays in helping people cope with the problems encountered in social living.”
Prayer, he says, is significant for helping people deal with things like relationships, illness and death. Pausing to pray also has a calming effect, generates a sense of peace, and reduces stress.
“That prayer helps one better cope and adjust to life’s challenges has become increasingly evident over time,” he states.
Today we seem to be awash in tragedy and misery—natural disasters, refugee flight, famine, mass shootings. It is easy to be overwhelmed and feel powerless to do anything to help. We want to help, but what can we do?
At times like that, prayer might be the only thing, for those who are suffering and also for our own peace of mind.
Of course, we shouldn’t only send thoughts and prayers—we should also donate money, give blood, volunteer, make a casserole for a neighbour in distress or do anything else that might make a practical difference in the lives of those who are suffering.
A final word from Ladd about why people pray.
Prayer, he writes, “is a paradoxical spiritual practice that does not guarantee predictably discernible efficacy at every turn. It’s not a cosmic vending machine. So why do people pray? Because they have faith that it is the right thing for them to do.”
And to that I can only say: “Amen.”
From the Oct. 14 Winnipeg Free Press.
From the Oct. 14 Winnipeg Free Press.