I’ve been thinking about the phrase “my thoughts and prayers are with you” a lot recently. It’s something I say a lot. As a person of faith it has meaning to me. When I say it I do pray for the person involved and I definitely wish them well. It is the kind of thing Christians and others of faith say to people who are suffering, and whom we want to know that we love them, care about them, and want things to get better for them. Sometimes we back up the sentiment with other actions to help the situation, but sometimes prayer is the only thing we can do to help someone. And I do believe in the power of prayer. I have felt it in my life and seen its effects on the lives of others. I’ve also seen heartfelt prayers go unanswered, and I do not understand why, but have faith that someday perhaps it will be made clear to me.
Nonetheless, this phrase has now become discredited in many circles. People say, with some conviction, that it is merely an empty platitude, a meaningless sentiment used to appear sympathetic while actually doing nothing concrete to help.
I have to admit that hurts.
This last weekend, I went to the March for Our Lives in Washington, with several hundred thousand others. The rejection of the phrase “my thoughts and prayers are with you” was prominently displayed on many signs, and mentioned by some of the speakers. It was mocked to devastating effect in a video montage of president after president using the exact same words to comfort America after a devastating mass shooting.
It hurt to hear those men mocked, even attacked, for saying the same thing I say with such frequency. It also made me sad that this might turn some people away from God. I found myself growing defensive, found the need to defend the use of the phrase, to point out that, for a Christian, it’s not just a phrase, and that saying it did not mean that nothing else would be done to help.
To my relief, most people knew that, and understood why I felt hurt and defensive. So I listened to them, and began to understand why the phrase angers and frustrates so many people.
They don’t get angry and frustrated when average people say it, people who have limited, if any, power to do more than pray.
They get frustrated and angry when people who do have the power and influence to do something say it. When those people say it over and over again. When those people do nothing else to help, when helping is very much in their power. When they reject, against all statistical evidence, arguments that anything even can be done. When they attack those people who want to do something about it.
I think I am beginning to understand.
The anger is reserved for those in power who use the phrase and never go beyond thoughts and prayers, when they could be doing so much more. In that case, the phrase does indeed ring hollow, and it is natural to question whether the feelings behind it are even authentic.
They very well may be, for many. Not every person who is opposed to gun control is unfeeling, and I am sure some of them, perhaps even most of them, genuinely believe that nothing can be done or that gun control would be counterproductive.
They are wrong.
But that doesn’t make them evil and it doesn’t mean that they are insincere. It means they are human.
But it also got me thinking about assumptions, including the assumption that the rest of us, who are mostly let off the hook because it is assumed we have no power to do anything other than wish people well and pray for them. Thinking deeper about it, I realize that assumption is also wrong.
As Americans we are never truly powerless to change things. It is one of the blessings of living in this country. We have the power to speak up and make ourselves heard, as a bunch of teenagers from Florida have just done. We have the power to write and argue and advance policy proposals.
And we have the power to vote.
That is the most important one. Americans have favored stronger gun control laws for many years, but politicians have actually moved against that trend, loosening them tremendously during my lifetime. And yet they are still re-elected year after year.
There is a reason for that. The power of the pro-gun lobby is actually the prime case study for the ability of a passionate minority to consistently get its way over a more complacent majority. For most gun rights advocates, this is THE issue that determines their vote. In comparison, until now, for most of the people who would prefer stronger gun control laws, this has been one issue among many, and it does not determine their vote.
That needs to change. The kids from Parkland understand that, and they are determined to keep up the energy through the mid-term elections, and beyond if necessary, to make sure that the passion factor of the equation equals out and the majority finally prevails.
I will stand with them. My challenge to all those others, like me, who use the phrase “my thoughts and prayers are with you” is to do the same. To not just stop with thoughts and prayers.
By all means, keep praying, and keep wishing the victims of senseless violence well. But don’t stop at that.