Friday, June 17, 2016

Thoughts and Prayers: Meditations on the Need for Faith and Works in the Wake of Tragedy

In the wake of last week's mass shooting in Orlando, we were treated to the same sad spectacle we have become all too familiar with in the aftermath of tragedy: the long parade of elected officials, desperate to record some reaction to the latest news cycle offering their "thoughts and prayers" on behalf of the victims and their families.  As is inevitable in our politically polarized republic, these expressions of grief (however sincere they may or may not have been) were swiftly responded to with condemnation and wrath by gun-control advocates, who observed (in language ranging from the merely exasperated to the quasi-blasphemous) that, in the case of many of these officials, "thoughts and prayers" seemed to be all they had to offer.

In a particularly cutting commentary, comedienne Samantha Bee cited the Epistle of James in the New Testament, which states "Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone." (James 2:17)

Is this truly the case?  Are prayers for the welfare of the bereaved and survivors truly exercises in futility, the throwaway gestures of a cynical political class that knows that they're expected to do something in situations like this, and therefore have chosen prayer as a sort of safe "bare minimum" of action that provides a patina of piety, without the risk of actual commitment?  According to Ms. Bee, and an earlier (and, if possible less diplomatic) argument from the New York Daily News this might seem to be the case.

In honesty, I get their frustration.  In the three and a half years since the Sandy Hook massacre, there has been no constructive action toward preventing mass shootings (either through gun control or any other form of legislation) while the awful drumbeat of slaughter has continued unabated and, in the awful case of Orlando, reached new heights of infamy and atrocity.  We the people expect our elected officials to do something, and it would appear that other than offer prayers that seem to go unanswered, that is precisely what they have failed to do.

I am a firm believer in the power and virtues of prayer.  Prayer is a vital communion between us and divinity, a key link between us and our Heavenly Father by which we express gratitude, ask for blessings and seek divine guidance and wisdom.  Some of the most sacred and important experiences in my life have been initiated through prayer and I try not to make any serious, life-changing decision without prayer and meditation beforehand.

That said, I will also admit that, despite my testimony as to the sacred power of prayer, my prayers are not always as sincere, or as reflective as they ought to be.  The Savior taught his disciples to avoid "vain repetitions" in their prayers, giving "lip-service" as it were to God by going through the motions of prayer without engaging in any actual communication with Him.  Such empty recitations fail to bring us closer to divinity, and God, in turn, rarely responds with the sacred and precious gift of revelation to those who approach him thoughtlessly with no intention to act upon what he might reveal to them.

Now, I cannot speak for the sincerity of each and every elected official who expresses their sympathies after a tragedy with an expression of "thoughts and prayers."  Doubtless there are a fair number that do indeed sincerely seek the blessings of solace and comfort upon the bereaved and injured while imploring guidance on how to avoid the repetition of such horrors.  However, the ongoing lack of constructive legislative action, in any form, on this topic, while heedlessly eroding whatever paltry safeguards remain to prevent these tragedies leads me to suspect that a great number of these officials may be drawing near to the Lord with their lips, while their hearts are far from him.  That their prayers, if engaged in at all, are directed no further than the ceilings of their offices, with neither desire, nor intention, of acting upon any guidance that God might potentially give to them.  Such prayers seem to take the format of "If God doesn't want this to happen, he'll personally prevent it from happening, and if not, then there's clearly nothing we can do about it, so we will do nothing."

As one who has read the Scriptures, I cannot agree with this interpretation of divine will.  As a Latter-day Saint, I can actually point to examples that directly contradict this argument.  I think back to the example of Nephi, who entered Jerusalem and allowed himself to be guided by the Spirit when promised that the Lord would deliver Laban "into his hands."  Nephi didn't wait outside the city walls for the Lord to deliver his enemy to him on a silver platter, he was willing to act on the promises he had received.

I also think of Captain Moroni who, despite having witnessed the miraculous deliverance of his armies in battles with the Lamanites nevertheless engaged in fortification of Nephite cities and the preparation of his armies with armor and provisions.  He possessed an unshakable belief that God would deliver his people and grant them victory, but he understood and respected the fact that God still expected them to the things that were within their power to do.

In this sense, I wonder if the Almighty's response to many of these "thoughts and prayers" expressed via social media wouldn't sound something like this:

"Senator so-and-so, you are a United States Senator, you wield great influence in one of the greatest lawmaking bodies on Earth.  You have access to the learning and knowledge of literally millions of experts who can be called up to testify and provide you and your peers with the information you need to help solve this problem.  I am more than happy to guide you and grant you the wisdom you need to defend the lives of your countrymen, but I will not do for you what you are unwilling to do for yourselves."

President Thomas S. Monson gave a talk some years ago in General Conference in which he detailed the lives of fishermen in the South Pacific who had learned to face the risks of their profession by adopting a simple, faithful habit, "...they pray, and then they go." Like them, we don't need to stop praying, indeed I think prayer is as necessary now as it ever has been, but like these fishermen, we need to recognize that after prayer we are required to act, for unless we do so, the slaughter witnessed in Orlando, already all too commonplace in our society, will only get worse.

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