17th Sunday in Ordinary Time Relfection by Father Ken Simpson

Father Ken Simpson
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”
 
How many times have we heard that from civic and religious leaders in response to the recent outbreaks of incredible violence, the death of countless innocents, and unspeakable horror? “Our thoughts and prayers go out” to the slain police officers and their families and to those tragically killed in confrontations with police. Our thoughts and prayers go out. (Occasionally, as in the press conference following the ambush of police in Baton Rouge, the leaders also ask for prayers.) 
 
It is not my place to judge the sincerity of these promises to pray. But repeated so often, it can simply sound like a required line to begin a statement that has no new words to express the depth of feeling and searching for answers. I do not know the private prayer life of these civic leaders. We can assume that religious leaders pray; and we expect them to call us to prayer. 
 
The sentiment “our thoughts and prayers” has reminded some to pray, some to dismiss it as simply a required ingredient in public statements, and some to react against it. The negative reactions range from blaming religion for the problem in the first place to questioning the effectiveness of prayer as a solution. An article in The Atlantic called this “prayer shaming.” (For more depth on this, I highly recommend a recent homily posted by Father Jim Chern.)
 
Scripturally, this echoes some of the more worn out interpretations of last week’s Martha and Mary story as a conflict between action and contemplation. On the contrary, prayer and action are both essential and must feed each other. Our deepest connection with God connects us with all of humanity and moves us to see and act counter intuitively and counter culturally with radical love—or at least to aspire to such.
  
But I get it. Daily there are good reasons to be tempted to be “anxious and worried” like Martha. I cannot keep track of the incidents pushing each other out of the “breaking news” category that I should be #PrayingFor. I am grateful for the reminder to pray, no matter who it comes from.
 
Appropriately, in today’s Gospel from Luke we hear several discreet sayings of Jesus on prayer. It begins with a detail that might be overlooked, “Jesus was praying in a certain place.” 
 
This in itself is instructional. Having a place to pray helps our prayer. Sure, God is everywhere and anywhere is appropriate for prayer. But going to a certain place—a particular chair, a corner of a room, a place in the park, church—that we connect with prayer is helpful. And we pray “in a certain place” in time and space and history and in personal experience. Sort of #PrayFor… And we pray from “a certain place” in our hearts and souls, being certain of the gospel promise that those who seek will find and those who knock are answered.
  
In response to the request “teach us to pray,” we get a more compact version of the Lord’s prayer than the version that comes from Matthew that we use liturgically. We are instructed to pray for the coming of the kingdom, for our daily sustenance of bread, and spirit. We are to pray for forgiveness and the ability to forgive and for perseverance in the face of trials. Sounds like very appropriate guidance for prayer in this certain place and time of societal uncertainty.
 
Persistence is also advised. This is not because we are to badger God until it goes our way. That is the opposite of prayer, but repetition and consistency maintains the relationship. We do not need to persuade God to help us. It is God’s greatest joy. But as I often say, “God doesn’t always get His way, we get in the way.” 
 
Our prayer helps us to be one with God and others in our certain place. Perhaps that is what I am looking for as “our thoughts and prayers go out.” That it not only be in response to the unspeakable but, in certainty, that there is One we can always speak with.