Absolutely nothing. Or so the swift backlash says after the initial outpouring of thoughts and prayers after any tragedy as many become cynical about the motivation behind, and the efficacy of, all those people praying.
Instead of “just” praying, “just” sending your thoughts (and posting about it on your social media), why not do something, anything? Volunteer. Donate money. March with signs in the streets. Even the Dalai Lama came out with a critique of those who stop with prayer: “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”
Behind this backlash appears to be a misconception about what prayer is and what prayer does for the one praying and the world for which one is praying. Is it that those of us who are sending our thoughts and prayers either across the world or down the street expect a deus ex machina to suddenly appear out of the clouds and magically make everything better in an instant? Divine intervention is much more subtle — a connection, a relationship, finding one’s self in the right place at the right time, the right words from the right person that promote healing and flood the spirit with the love of God.
Our Christian tradition tends to experience God’s presence in the ordinary — bread and wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands. So when we send our thoughts and prayers, many of us are praying for peace, for the knowledge of God’s love and presence in the midst of difficult times, and in time, for healing and wholeness.
Prayer of intercession, the type of prayer we engage in when we pray “for” people, is not the only kind of prayer. Prayer is individual and communal, said silently and aloud, engaged in stillness or in movement, with our own words or the words of Scripture or a prayer book. There is not just one way to pray, to connect with God. Ultimately, prayer should lead us to action; but without prayer, we do not know what action to take. We act out of our own ego or pride. Action that is born from prayer is of God.
We live in an impatient world, a world that demands that we act and react immediately. Prayer is counter-cultural; it invites and demands us to slow down. But the God we find in prayer does not leave us where God finds us. We change. We are compelled to act for justice and peace, to play the long game, not simply respond with our gut.
As Jesus hung on the cross, the bystanders and chief priests and scribes taunted him for his inaction. “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Jesus’ response is from the Psalms, the Jewish prayer book, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those who criticize Jesus want him to DO something, and he responds with prayer first. At the time, Jesus seemed ineffectual and weak, only to take the ultimate action on the third day when he is resurrected from the dead.
Prayer is not inaction; rather it leads us to right, contemplative action, the action that God wants us to take in the moment in which God wants us to take it. Our prayer lives might be counter-cultural, but they are the only thing that can lead us as faithful people to change the world.