"Thoughts and Prayers": Sincere Sentiments Or Just "Meaningless Platitudes"?

Those who take their faith life seriously understand that prayer is not magic; it is mystery and should be practiced with care. Let's not abandon keeping departed loved ones and victims of violence in our thoughts and prayers. But let's also follow them up with action and demand that our politicians do likewise.
12/07/2015 07:01 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2016

If you didn't see the front page of the December 3, 2015 edition of the Daily News, you might have been able to hear it. In the middle of the page was the all-capital-lettered message that yelled, "God Isn't Fixing This," surrounded by photos of two of the Republican presidential candidates -- Ted Cruz and Dr. Rand Paul -- and two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Paul Ryan. Beneath each man's photo were the words they had extended via their respective Twitter accounts in sympathy for the fourteen victims of the San Bernardino, California massacre that had occurred the day before. With only slight variation, each message was along the lines of "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims"; or: "My thoughts and prayers are with the victims...,"; or: "Please keep the victims in your prayers." The Daily News wasn't done yet, and went on to add what I can only call a stinging rebuke in response to the Twittered words of comfort offered by the four Republican gentlemen: "As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes." Take that.

Then this tweet from Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut: "Your 'thoughts' should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your 'prayers' should be for forgiveness if you do nothing - again." Kapow!

Not surprisingly, these opening salvos inspired a barrage of indignant tweets that not even Angry Birds could match, attacking religion, prayer, atheists, Republicans, and the list goes on. More surprising to me was the Daily News front page's message, this coming from a paper that has historically adopted a more conservative stance, especially concerning religion. This was not our grandfather's Daily News cover. Was the Daily News, defender of America, Mom, apple pie, and religion, attacking prayer?

Wherever there is belief in the continued existence of human personality through and after death, faith traditions are naturally concerned with the relations between the living and the dead, and prayers are thereby offered on behalf of the dead to God (or however one calls a higher power). Many faith traditions have and practice prayer for the dead, such as in the Anglo-Catholic tradition that offers the Sunday liturgy for the peace of named departed Christians and keeping All Souls' Day. It is common practice for many of us to express to those who have experienced a loss that we will keep that departed person in our thoughts and prayers as a way to hold them in loving memory and in hope that the departed is in peace.

But after so many violent deaths, such as those that have occurred throughout this year, the phrase "thoughts and prayers," however well meaning, can sound hollow, especially when some of the politicians uttering these well-meaning words are either unable or unwilling to end the "gun scourge," as the Daily News has described what this country has been experiencing. Therefore, no, the Daily News is not attacking thoughts and prayers, per se; rather it is an attack on what it perceives as the trivialization of and the hypocrisy behind these sentiments. It is an attack on inaction after those thoughts and prayers have been expressed.

I was also struck with the words "God Isn't Fixing This" and wondered what the newspaper might have meant by them. Do they imply that God isn't fixing this because He (or She -- I prefer to use "He," as I am more comfortable with that) doesn't care, like Rhett Butler in his famous last words to Scarlett, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn"? Is He not fixing this because He has so many other problems making demands on His time? Or does He really want to fix this but is powerless to do so?

My hunch is that it is none of these. If God "isn't fixing this," perhaps it is because God wants us to fix this. Or wants to help us fix this. Many people of faith (and I am no different) want God to "fix" the broken things in their life, be they small or overwhelming. We want God to reach down, like a celestial repairman, and get the bugs out of our lives, making us whole again. While it has taken me a long time to understand that God does not fix broken things in that way, I still believe that God does give a damn. Perhaps it is our understanding of "fix" that needs to change.

Those who take their faith life seriously understand that prayer is not magic; it is mystery and should be practiced with care. Let's not abandon keeping departed loved ones and victims of violence in our thoughts and prayers. But let's also follow them up with action and demand that our politicians do likewise.