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.