Thinking and Praying
A post from 2009 called “Our Thoughts Are With You” has been getting an unusual amount of traffic today due, I can only assume, to people’s wrestling with how to think and respond to the unfolding tragedy in Japan. I have received a few emails today loosely related to the question of how (if at all) we are to talk about suffering, whether from the perspective of belief in a providential God or not. Do we attempt to “explain” or are all such attempts offensive by definition? Do we say we are praying? Thinking? Do our hearts go out to those affected? Our minds? Our hands and feet? Our wallets? We see images and hear stories like the ones coming out of Japan, and feel we must have something to say. So… what?
To be sure, it is always somewhat perilous to force words into the context of suffering (I think of Job’s “miserable comforters“), but I thought I would re-post an edited version of the original today.
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.
For many of us, our words, our thoughts, our prayers—whether of the situation in Japan or any other tragedy—come from places of relative comfort. But we feel that somehow theirpain is ourpain for the simple reason that it is humanpain. So how do we publicly acknowledge this?
Well, at least some of us wish and 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—such meagre offerings in the face of the storms of life.
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 crushing waves of the Pacific? We wish things like tsunamis and earthquakes didn’t have happen? We wish these strangers 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? Even if we (quite appropriately) resist the urge to offer “reasons” for suffering, does attempting to locate pain within a framework of cosmic meaning change anything?
Obviously, many would say no. Horrible 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 from the perspective of the faithful, of course, just as there are wishes that come true for those who would never give a glance to heaven. 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.
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 peace, and that somehow God can and does help us participate in this promised future even now, amidst the rubble.