It’s safe to say “our thoughts and prayers are with you” is a familiar refrain after a tragedy like the one that unfolded last week in Las Vegas.
In many ways, it is as natural a response as “thank you” when receiving gifts and other kindnesses or “God bless you” after a hardy sneeze.
And quite frankly often just as empty.
But should there be a response after we pray?
Well, it depends. There are times when we’re called “to be still,” times when we should wait and other times when action should surely follow our petitions.
And so in this instance, at least, it’s hard not to stand with the senator from Connecticut, Chris Murphy, who called on fellow members of Congress on Oct. 2 to pass legislation on gun control.
“Your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers,” Murphy tweeted. “None of this ends unless we do something to stop it.”
In case you somehow missed it, 58 people were killed in what authorities say was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. And we’ve learned since then that the shooter, Stephen Paddock, had 23 weapons in his Mandalay Bay hotel suite, 50 pounds of explosives, and 1,600 rounds of ammunition in his car in the hotel parking lot.
If this doesn’t drive us to our knees, I don’t know what will.
Religion, even in today’s secular world, still helps us make sense of things that are unexplained by science or when things are unfathomable such as last week’s shooting, said Stefan Krause, an assistant professor of anthropology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla.
“Humans need answers and we need to have confidence that we are somewhat in control — or at least we need to buy into the illusion of control,” Krause said, “So prayer in times like these is therapeutic in that it helps us cope with situations that are unexplainable and out of our control.”
Because we live in a 24-hour news cycle, we’re no longer simply reading or hearing about these horrible events after the fact, we’re experiencing them with unprecedented intimacy, said Katie Grimes, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.
“Smartphones provide us images of events unfolding live, but this intimacy does not bring true closeness,” Grimes said. “At our best, we send prayers in the wake of violent events in an attempt to become more than spectators of people’s suffering. We want to bridge the spatial gap between them and us.”
Which gets me back to the senator from Connecticut. How heartfelt are these prayers? Do we actually pray? Does it matter?
Louis Manza, professor and department chair of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., is sure that at least some of us who say “my prayers are with the victims, families, etc.” sentiments truly pray and hope that a higher power answers them.
“I’m not talking about those true believers,” Manza said. “It’s the rest — who state that same idea but have no intention of actually praying and/or do not believe in a higher power — that are interesting.”
Part of their reaction, he said, stems from wanting to do something in response to such a horrific event, but there’s nothing they can do to have a direct impact on those who are affected.
“They’re well-intentioned, and they use ‘prayer’ as a substitute for action,” Manza said. “This also provides them with some emotional comfort, as they can then feel as if they’ve actually done something to help the situation.
“Further, it’s probably not too far of a stretch to think that at least some people may post their ‘prayers for the victims’ sentiment on social media solely to look good in front of friends, peers, etc. They’ll be perceived as a caring person, yet if they’re not truly praying, it’s a hollow gesture.”
Either way, Krause said, none of us should discount the power of faith and the true belief that a greater power can intervene and make things better, especially when it seems that is the only perspective that actually helps.
For me, that higher power is Jesus Christ. Of course, that’s not politically correct. That’s just my truth, not just in times of crisis but always.
Too often we pray for others only during troubled times, but Scripture tells us that we should pray without ceasing.
Long before the Las Vegas shooting, I’d been particularly burdened by these words in 2 Chronicles 7:14 — “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
Not just the land of Vegas but the United States and the world.