I woke up this morning to a news alert on my phone: there had been an act of terrorism in New Zealand. As always, the report was filled with numbers. 49 dead. More than 20 wounded. Two mosques attacked during worship. One shooter in custody.
What can we say or do? How can we feel? Faced with tragedy, particularly evil and deliberate tragedy, we so often feel that we must say or do something, anything, but what? We sort of instinctively know what to do when tragedy strikes close to home: hold the hug a few extra seconds, bring a casserole and a plate of cookies, send flowers to brighten a gloomy day.
But what do we do when the tragedy is a headline and the numbers race past? When we feel sad for victims and loved ones, angry that so many lives were cut short, confused by how a person could do such a thing, overwhelmed at the scale of the tragedy, guiltily relieved that it was no one we knew, determined that this should not happen, helpless that it has happened: all these and more? What do you say? What do you do?
“Thoughts and prayers” has become something of a controversial cliche. After almost any tragedy, large or small, an outpouring of “thoughts and prayers” comes. To some people, “thoughts and prayers” seems like a convenient way to avoid doing anything. To others, it’s the most sincere way they know to express their concern.
Here’s what I can tell you about thoughts and prayers: as a Christian, I take prayers seriously. I hope you do, too. I recognize that whenever I pray, I am asking God– you know, the one who created and formed each thing, the one with power to save the lost and raise the dead, the one who knows us each by name, that God– to act. When I ask for comfort for the grieving, mercy for the dead, and strength for the living, I truly believe God is working to do those things.
I also take those thoughts seriously. As I think about a man with a gun entering a mosque, a place of worship, on the day Muslims gathered there in worship, I think about the holy places where I have been in worship, the sense of betrayal that a temple should become a tomb. I think about what difference I might be able to make on the people around me, so they never become the person who would murder others because of a difference in faith. I think about what I can do, on a day struck by tragedy, to bring a little extra hope into the world.
Those “thoughts and prayers,” you see, are not a casual add-on to a condolence. It is work to think and pray for those who suffer, work to which God has called us as God’s children.
Above all, I think and I pray about love. I thank God that each of us is God’s beloved, and that each person killed today was God’s beloved, and that the man who planned and carried out these attacks is God’s beloved. I ask God to teach me to love my neighbors across the street and across the world. I beg God to fill the world so overwhelmingly full of love that there is no more room for hate.
God of love, we pray for victims of this and every act of violence. Give us endurance for the thoughts and prayers ahead of us, that we might show the world your love. Amen.