Thoughts and prayers. These simple words are meant to encourage. But it seems they have been corrupted by misuse. They are no longer trusted and no longer appreciated.

It used to be that, when someone said they had you in their thoughts and prayers, it meant that they were thinking about you, that they held you close to their heart. Even more, prayer suggests that they are holding you up to their own deepest sense of comfort and support, the Divine. Whatever they understand the greatest and most powerful force in the world to be, that’s where they want to place you. But now the phrase has been cheapened.

To be fair, people say “thoughts and prayers” when they don’t know what else to say. It is a part of the fragile character of existence that there are often circumstances for which there are no words and no actions that can make things better. In the current cultural moment, these unspeakable events happen so regularly that, well, there’s nothing left to say.

In the Church, we have done a poor job of teaching people about prayer. Though we caution against it, we tend to think of prayer as God’s request line. It’s not a very good one; we rarely get what we want. However, prayer certainly stands as the articulation of our hopes. But, in the words of Christian theologian Miroslav Volf, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.”

My niece is a target shooter. She’s very good. Like, serious talk of Olympics good. There is no doubt that she has talent, but she also gets to school early every day to get in an hour of practice and stays late for another hour. She has been known to set up an air rifle target in a long hallway in her house when she can’t get to the range. She knows how good she wants to be and could be, but she doesn’t just offer thoughts and prayers and hope for the best. She shows up and does the work to bridge the gap between what is and what might be.

Prayer is the same way. Yes, it is the articulation of our hopes, but it is also a practice that forms us into the sort of people who will make those hopes real. In prayer, we train ourselves to see the world differently. The thing we wish for is foremost in our hearts and minds so that we never miss an opportunity to step closer to that new reality. 

But when it comes to the seemingly intractable problems of our day – increasingly intense natural disasters caused by climate change; the crushing causes and effects of income inequality; and the perpetually current problem of gun violence – thoughts and prayers are offered as a substitute for action. As the governor of Ohio recently discovered, we see you. 

So keep praying. And keep thinking. Think about whom your prayers are forming you into and what actions follow from that. If arming yourself or others is your response to gun violence, then your prayer is for violence and death. That is what you are practicing. That is what you become. Or, if you call yourself a Christian, you can do as Jesus calls us to do and take up your cross daily and die for the sake of the Gospel. While you discern your path, I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers.