Monday, October 30, 2017

Why it is actually OK to pray in the face of tragedy

So it has been an awfully long time since I have posted a blog entry.  What can I say, being the father of an 8-month old has challenged my schedule, and sadly some things have had to go by the wayside.

In the time since my last post, I have been appointed to a new church in the city of Ottawa, and I am currently learning the ropes of this community which I am blessed to be a part of.

Although I have preached and recorded a few sermons at the new place which I will eventually get around to posting, I wanted to address something that has been on my mind for quite some time, and that is the reaction we have to tragedy, whether that be a human-made tragedy or a natural disaster.

One of the blessings/curses of social media is that we know almost instantly when tragedy strikes, and we can broadcast our reactions almost instantly.  Like most people of faith, I turn, at least in part, to prayer as a coping strategy.  Some people chose to post on Facebook or Twitter than they are praying about the event in question.

Here is the thing: nobody actually knows what prayer accomplishes exactly.  There are those who would (and often do) say that prayer accomplishes absolutely nothing.  There are those at the other end of the spectrum who believe that prayer can and will accomplish all things.

Both extremes (as extremes so often are) are simply not helpful.  One is obstructively cynical, the other hopelessly naive.

So where does that leave prayer?  The best I can do is offer what prayer accomplishes for me.

Like everyone else, I react to things.  When I am struck, my automatic reaction is to strike back.  When I am wounded, my automatic reaction is to deal a wound in return.

When I see a tragedy in the world, I am filled with anger, rage, even hatred for the person/people who perpetrated it, or in the case of natural disaster I am filled with an overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness because I simply feel powerless to do anything about it.

While I think these are all common and natural reactions, I think you would agree when I say these are simply not useful or productive emotions to feel.  This is where prayer comes in for me.

For people who do not pray or meditate (the two terms are synonymous for me), I think the assumption is that folks who do pray say something like this: "Please dear (insert deity here), let the dead get into heaven and please kill all the bad people, feed all the hungry people and clothe all the naked people", and then they dust off their hands and feel that they have done their good deed for the day.

Sadly, there are probably people whose prayers and meditations go no deeper than this, and perhaps it is right to chastise them.

But few non-praying people ever bother to ask us praying people what it is we are praying about, and so snide memes which replace actual thought and reflection abound.

So here is why I pray and what I pray for:

- I pray so that I do not fall victim to the same feelings of hatred, anger, rage, fear and sadness that motivate so much human-made tragedy, because I so often feel them automatically well up within me when I hear about tragedy.

- I pray so that I do not give myself over to the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that threaten to paralyze me in the face of tragedy.

- I pray to reflect on how I can best go out and actually do something to alleviate the suffering brought on by tragedy.

- And finally sometimes I pray because there is really nothing I can do about because the tragedy is on the other side of the world, or it is happening to someone I love, and grief and anger are the only things on my soul, and prayer is the only thing I've got.

In short, I don't think that prayer affects anything outside me.  I don't think it brings rain or sunshine, I don't think it affects the outcome of hockey games, or how well I do on a test.  By prayer has a profound effect within me.  Prayer prevents me from going off half-cocked, from reacting from the baser elements of my nature, from doing or saying something I might regret.  The best secular prayer there is is simply counting to ten when you are upset.  That's what prayer does: force me to pause so that I can respond to tragedy thoughtfully and deliberately, rather than in a reactive manner.

The whole point about prayer is that you are supposed to pray THEN go out and do something about it if you can and the fact is that many people do just that.  I know that some people hate seeing "Praying for..." on their feed because they think it is cheap.  They think it is a form of slacktivism, and that the posters are not actually doing anything useful, and so they post acerbic memes in response like "Or you could actually do something useful".

Newsflash: those memes are equally useless, and unless you are actually going out and doing something more useful than praying, you should probably think twice before posting them.

Here is the thing: when tragedy occurs, we are all affected.  We are all impacted in some way, and we all react in different ways.  Some people post "Praying for...".  Some people decorate their profile pic with a flag, slogan, or what have you in order to express solidarity with those who are suffering.  Some people hug their children a little tighter before going to bed, or tell their spouse they love them a little more seriously.  Some people give money, donate relief items, get on a plane and go to the affected areas.

Bottom line, these are all valid responses, including posting "Praying for..." on your Facebook feed.  I would much rather see FB light up with "Praying for..." instead of "Kill all...", because it means that other people out there are reaching out from a place of sympathy, empathy and solidarity, rather than a place of indifference, animosity and divisiveness.  They are trying to act or react from a better place that the people who perpetrate tragedy.

Who am I to take that away?

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