Thoughts and Prayers are not Enough (How to Lead Youth Further)
I am not part of the blessed 2% of the population that doesn’t have a social media account, so every time there is a national crisis, a natural disaster, or a local tragedy, I witness an outpouring of thoughts and prayers across platforms. When the phenomenon started a few years ago, I even shared my own. It felt good to express my sympathy and know that I wasn’t the only one hurting and processing the news.
Sometimes I’ve even asked for those thoughts and prayers from Facebook groups when I’m struggling with my own personal crisis or tragedy and the encouragement I receive from those communities lifts my spirits and gives me the bump I need to keep going.
Prayer is one of the most important spiritual practices. That kind of meditation actually stimulates a part of the brain, the anterior cingulate, that increases our awareness of others and the Divine. John Wesley would spend hours in prayer and encouraged the bands in the fledgling Methodist movement to do the same.
Along with communion, worship, tithing, and personal Scripture study, these acts of piety, or personal holiness, develop an individual’s faith and accomplish the third Simple Rule: Stay in Love with God (or, for you non-Credo people: Attend to the Ordinances of God). Acts of piety are critical to discipleship and faith development.
We Need Faith In Action
It can’t stop there. As we teach about and help our students respond to tragedy, we have to help them see that a “thoughts and prayers” post online is not enough. The book of James is clear, faith without works is dead – and this is pivotal to our identity as Methodists. John Wesley took Jesus’ command to serve the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the imprisoned seriously. Alongside the acts of piety, he also preached acts of mercy.
When he preached, Wesley continuously pointed out that Jesus was more concerned about bringing the kingdom of God to the present day than he was about where we went after we died. More than once, Jesus condemned those who prayed publicly for forgiveness only to turn around and victimize the oppressed. So the early Methodists went to the prisons and prayed together in their homes. They set up orphanages and faithfully tithed.
Faith in Action is Who We Are
In 1869, Mrs. Butler and Mrs. Parker, wives of missionaries, went to India where they witnessed an overwhelming need for women’s medical care and girls education. When they came home, they gathered their friends and told the Indian women’s stories. The 8 women present formed an organization at that meeting and committed themselves to meet the physical and spiritual needs of these Indian women. After just a few months, these women raised enough money to send Isabella Thoburn, a teacher, and Dr. Clara Swain, to India where they opened the first women’s college and women’s hospital in Asia.
In that meeting room, the organization that would become the United Methodist Women was created – a group that continues to put faith, hope, and love in action in the world today. 150 years after its inception, UMW has run safe boarding houses for immigrants, campaigned to improve women’s health care, marched on Capitol Hill, opened schools and clinics in developing countries, provided care for orphans around the world, and so much more. Those 8 women of the United Bretheren Church came together to pray and move, and their legacy has brought millions of disciples of Christ into the fold.
Getting to Work is a Spiritual Practice
This truth is deep in our roots: by serving others, we can more fully encounter and understand God. Our thoughts and prayers are not inherently bad, but they’re useless without action behind them. When Hurricane Harvey hit my hometown, I hit my knees. The texts and posts from my friends and family gripped me in fear and I felt completely helpless. My husband and I opened our home in Dallas and begged friends to drive north and stay with us, out of the danger that was predicted. Being a Houstonian myself, I get it – we’ve lived through bad storms before, what made this one any different?
Then the water rose, and while I prayed, I put out blasts on Facebook searching for boats to rescue my friends and shared every bit of (fact-checked) emergency information. I donated to UMCOR and to the Kingwood Library, drove down to muck out houses, coordinated a flood bucket event at my church, and took a group down to install Sheetrock in a home months later. Did I save the city? Not in the least. But I couldn’t just sit there and pray.
Cynicism and desensitization have gripped our fear-driven, immediate-and-intense culture that can wear on even the strongest faith. Everything is in the right now and we lose sight of the long game, which is really what Christians are about in the first place. Discipleship is a life-long journey that we can begin as early as birth, marked by the waters of baptism. When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replied, “Love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your being. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matthew 22:37-40).
The Way of Discipleship
One of my favorite lessons in Confirmation is on the way of discipleship. I use a Wesleyan cross to give my students a visual understanding. Each part is equal in the Wesleyan cross; no one section is larger or longer than another.
The top quadrants are our personal responsibility and the bottom quadrants are our responsibility as a corporate body of Christ. The left side represents our personal relationship with God, and the right side is our relationship with others in the world. Worship and devotion involves our thoughts and prayers while justice and compassion require action, living as hands and feet of Christ in a broken and hurting world.
Friends, hear this: do not let your hearts be calloused by fear and cynicism. We serve a God who is more powerful than us, and that same God has charged us to care for creation – the broken people included. In John’s gospel, Jesus promises us that “The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Creator will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of everything I told you… Get up. We’re leaving this place” (John 14:26,31). Let’s spend time in prayer, giving our thoughts over to the needs of others, but let us not stop there!
A few years ago, I found myself jaded by the amount of keyboard activism I was witnessing on social media. For my own faith development, I instituted a personal rule: I would not post anything on social media until I had done something about it.
This is What We Teach Youth:
- Upset with Congress’ lack of action on gun violence? Write to my Congressmen before sharing my thoughts online.
- Disgusted at the way our children are being treated on the border? Make a donation to a vetted, boots-on-the-ground organization that is helping before posting an article.
- Broken-hearted by another natural disaster? Begin reducing, reusing, and recycling, research more ways to impact climate change, and share the link to UMCOR after I’ve already donated myself.
- And when a friend asks for prayers for their situation? I stop and type out my prayer in the comments or a private message as I pray those words over them.
As Methodists, we have a legacy of putting faith into action. As Christians, we have a responsibility to actively love and serve others as Christ loved and served others. The Spirit is here and now is the time. Get up. We’re leaving this place.