By Anna Woofenden
I know that I am not alone in eye-rolling to outrage when something terrible happens and politicians and celebrities respond with proclamations of their “thoughts and prayers.” It’s not that I have anything against people thinking of and praying for whatever hard thing is happening in the world. It’s just that it seems that the subtext under these phrases is often “and we’re not going to do a darn thing about it.”
Offering “thoughts and prayers” seems to have become the thing to say when you want to express some kind of acknowledgment of what has happened, but you don’t want anyone to expect that you’re going to make a shift in policy or invest in creating a world where tangible action for change is taken as a response to tragedy. Along with this response, it seems there is, understandably, a growing cynicism toward both prayer itself and people’s expressions of prayer. I understand this cynicism and often share the root of the reaction, yet I’m not willing to throw out prayer with this murky bathwater and so limit its definition to all that comes with the expression “thoughts and prayers.”
According to Emanuel Swedenborg, “prayer, regarded in itself, is speech with God” (Secrets of Heaven §2535). Prayer, in itself, is a conversation with our Creator, a dynamic back and forth—speaking and listening, giving and receiving. And then, may I add, prayer leads us to take action. It’s often said that prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us; I believe Swedenborgian theology would agree. It gets back to who we think God is and how God operates.
When I was a hospital chaplain, I spent a fair amount of time praying with people, and most of the time it was in intense situations—life and death for the individuals or their families. I would usually start by asking, “What do you want us to pray for?” and the conversations would unfold. And most often, people would have a pretty specific ask. “Pray that my mom’s cancer will go away.” “Pray that I will not die from this tumor.” “Pray that my baby’s lung will heal.” All of these prayers made perfect sense. Of course these were the things to pray for. Of course this was what they desperately and fervently wanted, and it was what I wanted for them. But how to pray?
I stood in those hospital rooms, and I would have these moments where the scenario would play out in my head: Yes, I could pray for the loved one to be cured, and it could happen; but it also was just as likely that the patient would die, and then what? Then God doesn’t answer prayers. So was this prayer not just setting people up to sever their relationship with God alongside their experience of heartbreak and loss?
I wrestled with how to pray with hope and with the wholehearted belief in the power of a healing God. At the same time, I prayed with the deep knowledge that God needed to be big enough, close enough, and loving enough—that even if the worst thing happened, that there was space in the prayer, in the theological constructs that we weave with our words of prayer—to still be there and to still be the force of love in the universe and in the lives of the people we love.
And so, I found myself praying for the words to pray; and then I prayed the grief and the worry, the assurance of the presence of love in the room, the sobs and the hopes. I found myself exploring prayers for healing versus prayers for cures, as healing comes in so many forms, including the peace that comes with trusting and loving through even the most impossible situations.
I found prayers becoming times to squeeze the hands of family gathered round the bedside of the patient on the ventilator; they were times to let the tears flow, to breathe, to sigh deeply, and to feel God’s presence there with us. It was about bringing down the decision-making God—the force that can wave a finger to heal or not, immediately changing the course of events—from that high place in the sky to be the God whose presence of love and comfort are immediately felt there in the hospital room, as we walk the halls. Prayer is a conversation and a connection with the God who is with us in our grief and in our joy, the God who holds all of it and encompasses the breadth of our lives.
The people I spent time with in these rooms taught me how to pray. Flowery, lofty prayers don’t go very far in the linoleum-floored hospital room, with the green heartbeat monitor going up and down by the bedside and the IV fluids dripping through the tubes. What happens in these rooms is about as “real life” as you can get; and God was certainly present, teaching us how to pray. Our prayers didn’t just end with some vague hope for some far-off force to do something but to not involve us in the process. Instead, our prayers were woven in with hands on shoulders offering comfort, with tears being cried and Kleenex being given, with donated bone marrow and the deep wisdom and experience of a surgeon’s lifetime of work. These thoughts and prayers have flesh on them, and they change us and move us to acting for good so that we can change for the better the world around us.
Rev. Anna Woofenden is the founder of the Garden Church in San Pedro, California, and the co-host of the Food and Faith Podcast.