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Our Thoughts are With You

I was watching a hockey game on Saturday night and couldn’t help but be struck by a couple of innocuous comment from one of the announcers.  Just before the drop of the puck, he paused to acknowledge the weekend tragedy in Newfoundland and to assure those affected that “our thoughts and our wishes are with you.”  I spent the rest of a very forgettable game (my Flames somehow contrived to allow one of the worst teams in hockey to score eight goals!) thinking about these words.

On one level, saying “our thoughts are with you” is a relatively safe and pragmatic approach.  In a pluralistic country like Canada, where many different faiths in many different gods/non-gods are practiced, it is no longer politically correct or fashionable or acceptable to say “our prayers are with you” in the face of tragedy. But we feel we have to say something.  So how do we publicly acknowledge tragedy?

Well, I guess we wish and we think.  We offer our somewhat resigned and bewildered expressions of sympathy and solidarity to those who suffer.  We no longer know which gods (if any) are worth praying to.  We no longer have any broadly accepted reference point within which to locate our tragedies.  All we have are our wishes and our thoughts.

In a sense, of course, our thoughts and our wishes are fairly useless.  What does it mean to say that our “wishes” are with a family whose loved one met her tragic end in the frigid waters of the Atlantic?  We wish it wouldn’t have happened?  We wish them well as they deal with their loss?  What good is a wish? What good is a thought?

Or, for that matter, what good is a prayer?  Is saying “our prayers are with you” qualitatively different than offering our wishes or our thoughts?  Obviously, many would say no.  Nasty things are always happening, after all.  Rain is always falling on the just and the unjust irrespective of what we are thinking or wishing or praying.  There are answered prayers for the faithful, of course, just as there are wishes that come true for those who would never give a glance to heaven.  Are we all doing the same things and just calling them by different names?

Yesterday I spent another evening worshiping with the inmates at the Nanaimo Correctional Centre and, as always, I was profoundly moved during the open prayer time midway through the service.  There is no pretense here, no long ceremonial proclamations, no sophisticated theological language.  Just raw, short, emotional spurts of need: “My mom just found out she’s got cancer God, and I need you to help her make it.”  “Please take care of my wife and kids.”  “I just found out that Jimmy died of an OD this week so I’m sending out a prayer for him.  This prison chapel was the only place he ever seemed happy.”  “I’m gettin’ out next week and I need you to help me.”  These guys seem to know that thoughts and wishes aren’t enough for the problems that face them and those they care about.  They know that they need help.

We may be less willing to acknowledge it, and our circumstances may be less desperate on the face of it than these inmates, but deep down I think we also know that we need help.  And so we wish.  And we think.  And we pray. Some of our thoughts are just about hopeful enough to be prayers and some of our prayers are little more than half-hearted wishes directed God-knows-where.  But they are all cries for help.

So what’s the difference between a “thought” and a prayer?  Maybe just that those who pray have not yet given up hope that there is help and healing on the horizon—that the hurts and the aches, the joys and the triumphs, the tragedies and trials, and the hopes and fears that are such a deep part of all of us will one day find their place in a future of goodness and shalom, and that somehow God can and does help us participate in this promised future even now.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I heard the same statement made on HNIC and was struck by how flippant and trite the statement seemed. It seemed as though it was delivered from an obligatory notion of courtesy. As such it was troubling. I found the statement an explicit neutralization strategy. In effect it was a way for HNIC to give polite sympathy to those who were suffering in the face of the gluttonous hedonism of a professional hockey telecast. How can you compensate for selecting Fan Fav’s and making your own MashUp when people are facing these devastating losses? And in the event that a hockey game provides one of these families with enough distraction to alleviate their pain momentarily it would seem completely hollow to remind them so flippantly of their tragedy. Don Cherry’s, “God Love Ya!” seems more and more awkward and obligatory as the conflict in Afghanistan continues. At least takes a little more time to intone his sentiments but they seem shallow even though he actually addresses God.
    I’m not sure that I completely follow your argument about prayer and its connection to hope. I would guess that it would be difficult to access the motivation of people who pray. I would also wonder if the simplicity of the prayers you refer to necessarily reveal the greater role of hope.

    March 17, 2009
  2. “Gluttonous hedonism of a professional hockey telecast?” Dale, I’m shocked. How very un-Canadian of you! I actually think HNIC should just worry about the hockey game and leave the religion and politics out of things. Cherry embarrasses himself more and more every week, and even the humour of watching CBC walk the tightrope between their commitment to political correctness and Cherry’s lunacy is getting old…

    Re: the connection between prayer and hope, I don’t really understand what you’re reacting against. Do you think that there is no connection between the two? I wasn’t saying that there was a causal connection between simple prayers and a greater role for hope. I just think that in many cases these are guys that have reached the end of their own resources and they know that they need help from somewhere else.

    March 17, 2009
  3. It’s hard to be overly critical of prisoner’s prayers. Far be it from me to judge the real motivation that lies behind their calls for help from God. I’m just not sure whether it is possible to attribute any more nuanced recognition of hope (or need of God) in their prayers than those of the announcers unless you do draw some causal ties. And there really is no point debating the issue of sincerity on the part of the prisoners since we are unable to access that in any meaningful way.
    In the same way it is impossible to access the sincerity of the broadcasters’ statements even though the context of their words and their delivery leaves us highly sceptical.
    You have accurately drawn the parallel between the broadcasted words and the ones spoken in the prison chapel as functionally similar. I’m just no sure how the contrasts that you draw out are supported without making judgements about the sincerity of the speakers.
    Hope seems to keep people going through the darkest of times so perhaps hope cannot be measured in words but in actions.
    Prayer as an expression of hope seems more like a crafty version of the magician’s incantation “hokus pokus”! Prayer seems to me to be about self orientation to the divine agenda. I suppose that means that prayer should be less about declarations and petitions more reflexive. Discussion for another time…

    March 19, 2009
  4. Russell #

    How do we reconcile prayer as request to an omnipotent, loving God, should we have to ask? Does God wait for some arbitrary prerequisite number of prayers of the faithful before he answers? Does God need to be awoken and reminded that we need help? Is God some adoration hound and he waits to respond to us until we have fulfilled his requirement? I think the answer to each of these questions is “no”. Prayers of supplication are one of the great mysteries of our faith. Clearly we are to ask them, “Give us this day our daily bread.” So how do they work? One of the most mysterious parts of the bible to me is the point where Jesus prays to God in Gesthemane asking to have his “cup” removed. God says “no.” What does it mean when God denies a request from himself? I like what C.S. Lewis had to say on the subject.

    “Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctu­ary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.”

    March 19, 2009
  5. I’m just not sure whether it is possible to attribute any more nuanced recognition of hope (or need of God) in their prayers than those of the announcers unless you do draw some causal ties.

    Well, I think the main reason I would attribute these things is because the prisoners actually addressed God. This seems to be an important start to me—and presumes some kind of a hopeful future (or even present), however conceived.

    You have accurately drawn the parallel between the broadcasted words and the ones spoken in the prison chapel as functionally similar. I’m just no sure how the contrasts that you draw out are supported without making judgements about the sincerity of the speakers.

    I don’t think the main issue is sincerity. I’m sure Ron MacLean was very sincere in offering his thoughts/wishes, just like the prisoners seemed very sincere in their prayers. The issue isn’t the sincerity of the belief but the content. I think as a post-Christian culture, we’ve lost any meaningful belief in a good God who promises a hopeful future. So we offer our thoughts/wishes instead. At the very least, the prisoners still seemed to have this belief.

    I agree that prayer is about orienting ourselves to God and his will. I don’t think that this precludes it being an expression of hope. I think these are just two parts of the same package.

    March 19, 2009
  6. Thanks for your comment, Russell—some very difficult questions indeed. For me, the issue of how an all-knowing and all-powerful God is influenced by prayer is one of the bigger mysteries out there.

    The Gethsemane prayer is a pretty fascinating one theologically. God Incarnate praying to God Excarnate? I think one of the most compelling things about Christ is the kenosis or self-emptying (Phil. 2:7-8) that was part of his (limited) earthly vocation. Whatever was going on in Gethsemane—however we are to think of one member of the Godhead praying to another—a God who willingly gives up the privilege of deity for the sake of humanity will always be one of the most significant features of the gospel for me.

    I like the Lewis quote. I like the idea that in prayer we get a clearer and clearer picture of who God is. This seems to be the broad umbrella under which everything else we do in prayer takes place.

    March 19, 2009
  7. “Some of our thoughts are just about hopeful enough to be prayers and some of our prayers are little more than half-hearted wishes directed God-knows-where. But they are all cries for help.”

    But isn’t the content of prayers largely irrelevant from the perspective of intention. (the spirit interprets our prayers…) How does addressing God actually convey hope?

    I’m not sure how far the pursuit of these questions is helpful. It certainly does not honor the rhetorical direction of your post which is strong. Cheap, flippant prayers and wishes seem entirely unsatisfying not just to the hearer but to their intrinsic meaning. My questions are a reflection on how our rhetorical constructions often inform significant conceptual paradigms. This seems like one of those times when deconstruction is best not engaged…

    March 19, 2009
  8. But isn’t the content of prayers largely irrelevant from the perspective of intention. (the spirit interprets our prayers…) How does addressing God actually convey hope?

    As I read Scripture, I get the sense that it does indeed matter to whom we address our prayer. I certainly hope I didn’t convey that I don’t think this is important. In the Psalms, for example, it is YHWH alone who has the power to deliver and the prerogative to judge. Israel’s hope was focused very specifically on a particular God; we come at a point further along in the story, but it’s the same (hopeful and redemptive) story and it’s the same God. I agree that the Spirit does interpret our misdirected, confused, and inarticulate “groanings” but I don’t think this means that we shouldn’t be concerned with praying “better” and more accurately. As Russell mentioned above, one of the main things prayer does is show us a clearer picture of God. I think the object of our hope should at least gradually come into view as we move along the journey of wishing/thinking/praying.

    March 20, 2009
  9. Travis #

    Good thoughts Ryan but I resent your thoughts about the Maple Leafs

    March 20, 2009
    • Hey Travis, good to hear from you. You can resent all you want, as you and your beloved Leafs are watching the playoffs from the sidelines.

      Again.

      March 20, 2009

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