Like many of my peers, Ash Wednesday 2018 found me immersed in the quietness of my study. I didn’t watch the news, and I wasn’t really all that active in social media. I was preparing for worship at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights – one that centered on the age-old practices of the imposition of ashes (indicating repentance) and the sharing the Lord’s Supper (celebrating the community we’ve been given). So when folks gathered for worship and I learned of the horror that was the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, I was caught off-guard. In the aftermath of that horror, I have seen “thoughts and prayers” receive the derision that inaction deserves. However, I thought that it might be important for me to go ahead and publish this message anyway – in spite of the fact that its very title might get it dismissed – because I firmly believe that people of faith ARE called to think and pray – and that if we do those things right – we’ll be led to action. Our text for the evening was Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Religious Studies 356, taught by Professor Justin McDaniel, is so popular that students who are interested in taking the course can only be admitted to it after passing an interview with the instructor. One recent seminar attracted 200 applicants, but only 26 students made the cut. The experiential learning course is subtitled, “Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life”, and there are no requirements for papers or exams.
There are some who would hear that and scoff, “Seriously? People are taking out student loans for classes like that? Come on, get real. If you’re going to college, you better be learning something.” Some of you, however, might be thinking, “Wow, why don’t they offer that at Duquesne or CCAC?
Students who have taken the class are quick to point out that they’ve learned a lot. Although there are no mid-terms or essays, the requirements are very stringent. Students agree to spend $50 or less each week; they are required to write in a journal every half hour while they are awake; they must go to bed at 10:30 each night and wake up at 5:30 each morning. In addition, students must practice celibacy, eat only raw vegetables or meat cooked without oil and give up all technology – including cell phones and computers – for a month. During that month, they are not allowed to speak to anyone unless it’s an extreme emergency; instead, they’ve got to write everything down by hand.
Can you imagine living that way? Can you imagine living that way on a college campus, while you are enrolled in other classes? Yet students who have completed the course say that it was an amazing experience. “A majority of the course’s former students noticed a dramatic improvement in their academic performance during the semester that they took the class. Although balancing other courses may seem impossible given the course’s restrictions, students have had surprisingly few problems. ‘I have a 100% success rate in the four times I’ve taught the course, not one student has ever gotten lower grades. And almost every student’s grades have shot up,’ Professor McDaniel shares.”
One student said it “was a good way to take a step back from life and just view it from the outside and get a clarity that you don’t get when you’re actively involved with everything all the time.”
Not only does this class and its apparent impact on college students fly in the face of many of our preconceived notions about young adults, it also seems to be the precise opposite of much of our prevailing culture. Think about it: an entire course based on the wisdom and practice of, well, “thoughts and prayers.”
Are there three words in use today that are more vacuous than “thoughts and prayers”? According to the Wikipedia entry on that topic, this phrase, often used when expressing condolences after a natural disaster or violent episode, has received criticism because it “may be offered as a substitute for taking potentially materially corrective actions.” For example, after the Las Vegas shootings in 2017 the local hospitals released a statement saying that while “thoughts and prayers” are appreciated, it’d be more helpful if people gave blood.
In fact, if you visit the website called thoughtsandprayersthegame.com, you’ll be directed to a web-based video game that seeks to demonstrate the impact that “thoughts and prayers” have had on eliminating deaths due to mass shootings in the USA. Here’s a hint: it’s not an optimistic site…
So on the one hand, we have empirical evidence from a small group of motivated, committed people that seeking to be intentionally contemplative and centered does in fact change us. And on the other hand, a survey of current events would seem to indicate that most people’s expressions of “thoughts and prayers” are vacant and irrelevant.
Which kind of Lent will you observe?
At first glance, Jesus seems to play into the hands of most 21st century Americans – those who see “thoughts and prayers” as empty platitudes. It is entirely possible to hear his words in the Sermon on the Mount as “Whatever you do, make sure that you don’t let anyone else know that you are praying, or fasting, or giving. That stuff is between you and God and nobody else needs to know about it.” In other words – it probably won’t make a difference in the “real world”.
Of course, that’s not actually Jesus’ point. What he says is “don’t pray, fast, or give in such a way so that other people will be pretty darned impressed by the fact that you pray, give, and fast.” If we seek to engage in any act of piety or devotion because, first and foremost, we want to be seen as pious people – well, we’re doing it wrong. The purpose of these or any acts of spiritual discipline is not to raise anyone’s estimation of ourselves. How dare we claim to be praising or worshiping God when in fact we are merely seeking to draw attention to ourselves and our kind-heartedness or faithfulness.
The great tradition of the church – and that in which Jesus himself rested – is the opposite: our acts of prayer and fasting and giving are effective and useful only insofar as they activate us on behalf of the world.
In fasting, praying, and giving, we seek to be in touch with the creative power that formed the universe so that we can do everything within our power to align our world with the Creator’s intent.
“Thoughts and prayers” is not some vague sentiment that we hold out to others when we feel guilty because we were not stricken by an earthquake or victimized in a mass shooting; it is not a political slogan which is a handy substitute for substantive action; and it is not a greeting card sentiment that we jot down when we’re not sure what else to say.
Instead, thoughts and prayers are the best tools for reshaping our own lives to the end that we are able to join with God and one another so that the love, justice, hope, and peace of Jesus Christ is more fully, more tangibly, and more palpably demonstrated in the world. Thoughts and prayers are not a hollow box you give to someone else: they are the hammers and chisels with which we fight selfishness, indifference, and feelings of irrelevance in our own lives.
My hope and prayer this Lent is that you will join me in seeking to gain experience in using these tools. Like the course at Penn, there are no exams and no one will be checking your work. But I can assure you that if you seek to be deliberate in this area, your life, and our world, will be changed. Thanks be to God for thoughts and prayers that bear fruit. Amen.
 Quotations from “The Sound of Silence”, http://www.34st.com/article/2016/03/the-sound-of-silence