Thoughts and prayers

A lot of how we express ourselves as people of faith can be summed up in that simple phrase “thoughts and prayers.” Lord knows how many times in my pastoral life have I said those words. In the hospital room before surgery, after a visit and a prayer, I’ve paused in the doorway before leaving and said, “You will be in our thoughts and prayers tomorrow.” At the grave, after all has been said and the loved one has been buried, there with my car door open I have said one last farewell to the grieving family: “Y’all are in our thoughts and prayers in these days ahead.” And those words have often been spoken to me, in some moment of particular challenge: “Ted, I know this is a hard time, and you are in my thoughts and prayers.” I have never doubted the sincerity of such a promise. I have often depended – we all have – upon the active thoughts and prayers of others.

Thoughts and prayers, after all, are much of what we do in our vocation as disciples. I keep a written list of people and concerns occupying my thoughts and prayers in my daily devotions. They are acts of faithful imagination as they conjure up the litany of a host of needs and hurts. They are hardly incidental, our thoughts and prayers; indeed they form the basic ingredient of all subsequent Christian behavior.

Nonetheless, if the term “thoughts and prayers” is simply a garnish with no substance in the wake of gun-related violence in America – offered, for example, by politicians as a shibboleth implying no further action or response – then it is an unthinkable obscenity. This obscenity is repeated in America almost daily, in the wake of one mass shooting after another. What in God’s name does it take – after Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after Charleston, after Orlando, after Las Vegas, after Sutherland Springs, after Parkland, after every mass shooting our recent history has chronicled – 

to see a substantive change of behavior with respect to our country’s idolatry of guns? I’m speaking here of a change of behavior more substantive than the calculated change some politicians have made in the wake of Parkland from expressing “thoughts and prayers” to expressing something a bit different, such as “prayers and condolences.”

Time will tell whether the courageous resistance expressed by those brave students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and their teenaged surrogates all over this country, will finally result in meaningful gun control. In the meantime, though, they have inspired me – indeed they have taken my breath away – by raising their voices almost immediately after 17 persons in their high school community were killed in a shooting spree by a lone teenager who had legally purchased a military-style assault rifle at a Florida gun shop. Through their activism, these students are calling their elected representatives, and ours, to a new level of responsibility. They are up against almost overwhelming odds in the demands they make, but I am rooting for them and for their righteous cause.

In fact, I am so supportive of them that (are you ready for this?) I have added them to my thoughts and prayers. I accept that many of them have railed against the hypocrisy they sense in that term, especially when it just rolls off the lips and leads to no profound change of behavior. But I believe, and I bet you do too, that our faithful thoughts and prayers are the beacons that point us in new directions and illumine the possibilities that come when, with God’s help, we think of a different way of being… and pray ourselves toward it.

After all, the life of discipleship, in all of its utter tangibility, is first beheld and articulated in our thoughts and prayers.

Ted WardlawTheodore J. Wardlaw is president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas.