There’s value in praying to effect change—but if our prayers don’t affect our actions, something might be amiss, some Canadian Anglicans say.
Since the mass shooting February 14 at a high school in Parkland, Fla., a number of news articles have reported a backlash on social media against the practice of pledging prayer. A story on CNN six days after the shooting, for example, reported a mushrooming of Internet memes mocking promises of “thoughts and prayers.” The story attributed the barrage of ridicule partly to the fact that many pledges of prayer for the victims of the shooting had been made by prominent opponents of stricter gun-control laws.
The Rev. Lizette Larson-Miller, a professor of theology at Huron University College at Western University in London, Ont., and the keynote speaker at an upcoming Anglican-Lutheran conference on responding to disaster through worship, says the trend speaks to “exhaustion and, I think, a sort of righteous anger” with the way prayers are sometimes pledged. To many people, “it almost seems rote and a very empty promise—‘Well, we’ll hold you in our prayers,’—which then becomes a substitute for actually doing something,” she says.
‘You can’t separate prayer from action’
Br. James Koester, a Canadian monk who is brother superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), an Anglican monastic community based in Cambridge, Mass., shares some of these feelings.
“I get really miffed at—after all these shootings here in the States— politicians who say, ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with you,’ but they refuse to do anything about gun control,” he says. “I don’t think you can separate prayer from action. I think prayer ultimately calls forth from us a response.”
The Rev. Laura Marie Piotrowicz, a member of the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer (Canada)’s executive committee, says the pledging of prayers as “almost political currency” reminds her of Jesus’ condemnation of showy prayer, and exhortation to pray in private, in Matthew 6:5–6:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others,” the passage reads. “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
But prayer, says Piotrowicz, has to do with more than just our inner life.
“I believe that ‘thoughts and prayers’ are not a completed response—they are the start of a response,” she says. Our prayers show we have a “commitment to carefully and purposefully discern how our lives might align with the will of God,” she says, and they should inspire us to action.
For Christians, Larson-Miller says, the current reaction against these pledges opens up a complex question, because although Christians may be opposed to promises of prayer without other action, they’re also taught that real prayer does work—that prayer by itself is action.
“There’s sort of two sides, aren’t there? There’s the fundamental Christian understanding and belief, that I would certainly hold also, that prayer does do something, it’s efficacious,” she says. “But it can’t be just sort of a pro forma response that then says, ‘Well, now I’m off the hook.’ ”
If prayer works, how does it work?
Koester says that, because God is unchangeable, prayer is really about changing the person praying, not trying to sway God to make things other than they are. SSJE founder the Rev. Richard Benson, he says, was fond of the scriptural passage describing the Magi returning home from Bethlehem a different way than they had come, and drawing from it a conclusion about prayer and its effects on us.
“They literally went home another way, but they also figuratively went home another way because their encounter with Jesus changed them,” Koester says. It’s the same with prayer, he adds. “We can’t come into the presence of God, or share in the divine life of God, without somehow or other being changed by it. And that change is manifested by becoming a person of peace, or a person of love, or a person of reconciliation or whatever it is that you are praying for.”
Similarly, for Piotrowicz, prayer is about learning the will of God, and being inspired to act on it.
“We know that thoughts and prayers on their own will not stop bullets or prevent floods or provide safe drinking water,” she says. However, she adds, prayer can still make a difference by motivating us to advocacy or other forms of concrete action.
For her part, Larson-Miller sees the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21–28) as a “fascinating” suggestion that God might be swayed by human entreaty. Initially reluctant to heal the woman’s daughter, on the grounds that he was sent only to help the people of Israel, Jesus eventually grants the woman’s request when she persists.
Larson-Miller also says she sees individual and communal prayer—and even secular rituals that are prayer-like—as a way for people to continue a kind of conversation initiated by God. Prayer, she says, is really a response to God, and by showing their concerns about justice or peace by lighting candles, protesting or building memorials, people are “bringing about the fullness of the reign of God.”