It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
-Acts 6:2-4 (NIV)
Believe it or not, there’s a Wikipedia page for the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”
The page exists, of course, because there’s something of a backlash against “thoughts and prayers” in our world right now. The criticism is usually in the context of gun violence, as a response to politicians who, it’s perceived, could do something more tangible, choosing instead to tweet out “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families. The criticism is understandable. People affected by violence — or any other disaster or injustice — rightly want something to be done to prevent something like they’ve experienced from happening again. They’d like to see their politicians passing legislation about gun availability or sentencing laws or whatever. People who’ve been injured in a building collapse, or have lost people in an earthquake, want their elected officials working on building codes or early warning systems. Over the last decade or so, after large-scale tragedies there are calls to “move beyond thoughts and prayers” and take action.
In the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton last week, at least one writer opined that “thoughts and prayers” have become “a cynical punchline conveying inaction….It’s what people say when they plan to do nothing.”
That can be true: tweeting “thoughts and prayers” is easy (especially in comparison to actually thinking and praying). It can be — not always is — a dog whistle for a politician to use to show that he or she is engaged with the issues without, you know, engaging with the issues. I can only imagine the frustration and anger a victim must feel when they see nothing but empty platitudes from a person who is supposed to represent their interests and the interests of their family and their fellow citizens. “Thoughts and prayers” — prayers in particular — should never be invoked in lieu of doing something more that is within the power of the one offering the prayers. Whenever possible, prayer should empower, motivate, and be accompanied by further action. (James seems to think so.) Maybe one of the reasons that God wants us to pray is that it’s hard to be detached from something you’re often in prayer about. Praying helps you to see other actions you can take.
I do want to push back a little, though, at the idea that seems to be in the background of some of this criticism of the phrase “thoughts and prayers”. For some critics, prayer is a waste of time. To pray at all is to abdicate responsibility. It would surprise me, of course, if people who openly or functionally have no belief in God felt any other way about prayer.
The danger is when believers start to buy into the assumption that prayer is what you do when there’s nothing else to do. Prayer is doing something — and in fact sometimes prayer is the thing to do.
The book of Acts tells about a crisis in the church that, if I was making the movie, would have ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s the first real crisis in the church we know anything about. It’s a crisis of love. It forces the question of who belongs, and who doesn’t. It’s the first referendum we see on whether the gospel really overcomes barriers between people.
The problem is really just sketched out in Acts 6, but it comes down to a question about those who are insiders and those who are outsiders. There’s a festival in Jerusalem. It’s brought Jewish people from all over the Greco-Roman world, many of whom don’t seem to be all that Jewish. They’re from other, faraway places. They have different customs. They don’t even speak the language! Some of them — the widows — need some help with daily food. But they aren’t being included in the church’s daily provision to the widows who actually live permanently in Jerusalem. Now the church is asking, “How far does our responsibility to them go? Or are they actually us?”
It’s a pretty fundamental question. What does it mean to be part of the church if you’re going to be treated as second class to those who speak the language and are from here? If it was us, we’d expect statements from the church’s leaders. We’d expect mea culpas to be issued, heads to roll, and a plan to be executed. There’d be photo ops with native Jerusalem church leaders handing over food baskets to Hellenistic Jewish leaders.
What do the apostles, the leaders of the church, actually do? Here’s the statement they issue: “Uh, folks, we have other important things to do. We need to focus on telling the story of Jesus and praying. So these other guys are now in charge of making sure the food gets to everyone who needs it.”
They pray, they proclaim the gospel, and they empower the church to solve the problem themselves.
They pray because they believe that it’s God who will help the church to love one another as they should.
They proclaim the word because they’re convinced that if the good news of the love of Jesus is heard, then the church will do the right things.
They empower the church to solve their problems because they know that the church is indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of God and that the only way the church can possibly meet the needs before it is if everyone is using their gifts, talents, and opportunities to love and serve in the name of Jesus.
I know a little about how the church usually does things. On the one hand, we sometimes meet, and meet, and meet some more. One elder I know used to sometimes ask, jokingly, if we ought to “have a meeting to see if we need to have a meeting.” Sometimes the church version of “thoughts and prayers” is to meet about something until all momentum and interest are lost.
On the other hand, sometimes our impulse is for a few of us to do it all ourselves. No one else is as interested as we are, or as capable as we are, or whatever. So we take on too much and forget that somebody needs to be praying.
The church exists in a world in which there are innumerable tragedies, injustices, and needs to fill. Sometimes we feel the pressure to show the world that the gospel is relevant in those circumstances. It’s good and right for us to serve, to comfort, to meet needs, to stand against injustices. But there are others who can do those things, too. The one thing the church can do that no one else can is pray in the name of Jesus and proclaim the gospel.
Prayer doesn’t excuse us from any other service or action. But let’s be sure that nothing else crowds out the place of prayer and the ministry of the word. Let’s feed the hungry. Let’s meet the needs of those who are suffering. Let’s show compassion, and let’s stand with the mistreated, and let’s give generously. First, though, let’s remember the gospel that gives us good news to tell the world. And let’s remember to pray for God’s power and blessing, for his heart to care and his eyes to see and his comfort to give.
Prayer is doing something. And it’s foundational in helping us to do more.