In Our Thoughts and Prayers?
How often have you heard someone say, “You’re in our thoughts and prayers”? How often have you said that yourself?
This week the President, Secretary of Defense, and Chair of the Joint Chiefs made that promise to the people most painfully impacted by the end our war in Afghanistan. We’ve heard it said about people whose communities were wiped off the map by hurricane Ida, a massive earthquake in Haiti, and Hell-on-earth fires in California.
So, does saying that someone is “in our thoughts and prayers” make any real difference?
Call it “Intercession”
For Christians, the word is intercession defined as “the action of intervening on behalf of another.”
Long before he became a martyr because of his opposition to Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a 21-year-old university student who included words about intercessory prayer in his doctoral dissertation.
“In intercessory prayer I step into the other’s place and my prayer, even though it remains my own, is nonetheless prayed out of the other’s affliction and need. I really enter into the other … In our intercession we can become a Christ to our neighbor.”
Am I really up for that?
When I tell someone that they are in my thoughts and prayers, am I willing to step into their place, to listen deeply to their experience, to feel their pain or frustration, and to take seriously the history that has shaped their lives?
- Can I enter into the struggle of a teenager who wrestled with the decision to end a pregnancy when, in a moment of passion, pressure, or fear she was impregnated by a boyfriend who took advantage of her, walked away and couldn’t care less?
- Will I listen, really listen, to the story of persistent, systemic and generational racism that continues to infect our communities? Am I open to the history of those who continue to be afflicted because of my inherited white privilege?
- Will I attempt to enter into the exhaustion and frustration of doctors, nurses, and medical specialists who continue to labor to save lives that could have been protected by vaccination?
- Can I feel the frustration of followers of Christ who feel excluded from the church because they happen to be LGBTQ?
In my book, Extraordinary Ministry in Ordinary Time, I described Elizabeth Storey, whose husband, Peter, led the Methodists in South Africa during the struggle with Apartheid. After her death, Peter described her life of prayer.
“Prayer for others is more than tossing some names at God. Real prayer is to carry somebody’s need intimately, patiently and painfully in one’s heart, holding them in love and lifting them tenderly and consistently into the light of God’s grace. Real prayer costs and Elizabeth was willing to pay its price.”
From Intercession to Action
Am I willing to “become a Christ to my neighbor”? Will I dig deeply into the gospels to see who Jesus is, watch what Jesus does, and listen to what Jesus says so that I have some idea of what he might be calling me to do?
What if “thoughts and prayers” are useless, even hypocritical, unless they lead to work and action? When we pray, “God, why don’t you do something about this?”, we may hear God reply, “That’s the question I wanted to ask you.”
Bonhoeffer went on to describe intercession as the way “individuals organize themselves to realize the divine will for others … In it the church-community recognizes itself as an instrument of God’s will and accordingly organizes itself in active obedience.”
That word “organize” caught my attention. One history of American Methodism is titled, Organizing to Beat the Devil. If getting organized could beat the devil, we would have won that game a long time ago!
Bonhoeffer was not a Methodist, but if praying had been the only thing he did about the rise of Nazism, he never would have become enough of a threat to Hitler to pay for it with his life. He and a few other faithful folks organized their prayers and their lives in the Confessing Church so that they could become “an instrument of God’s will in active obedience.”
One of the consistent themes of Bonhoeffer’s life was that “one does not stand alone before God alone, but in the community of saints … Nobody is saved alone.”
Of course, we need our times of private, intimate prayer, but for prayer to make a real difference in this world, it leads us to a “community of saints” in which we maintain our life of prayer and find direction for the way we can become “an instrument of God’s will.”
Only God Knows
Finally, Bonhoeffer acknowledged that “we will never know how much our own prayer accompished, and what we gained through the fervent intercession of people unknown to us.” It’s all a mystery of God’s love and grace. Only God really knows, but that’s enough.
Grace and peace,