As most of you know, I am a Professor at a State University. Unfortunately, last week one of our students died. A freshman, he had been hiking alone and apparently slipped and fell off a nearby bluff. What a terrible tragedy for this young man and his family.
The University sent an email to all students and faculty. I have omitted the name of the young man, but one of the paragraphs in the officially-written email was worded as follows:
“In these first weeks of fall semester, our entire community is beginning a new academic year. Unfortunately at this time we must also unite to mourn the loss of a valued member, and we ask the entire WSU community to hold ‘his’ family and friends in your thoughts.” It went on to tell students where they could go for grief counseling, etc.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of the person who wrote that email, but I can only imagine the intensity of the grief that the young man’s family must be feeling. I can also imagine that they would feel just a bit better if the communiqué had ended with the words “thoughts and prayers” instead of mere “thoughts.” In fact, I have a bone to pick with almost everyone who expresses sympathy by saying “you’re in my thoughts.”
Why are people hesitant to use the “prayer” word when consoling someone who grieves or is ill? A recent Gallop pole indicated that 92% of Americans believe in God. Furthermore, 47% of Americans pray daily and only 18% say they pray rarely or never. This means that a sizeable majority of the people you meet every day offer prayers to God at some time or another.
If you’re an avowed atheist who does not pray, you might offer your “thoughts” to someone who is going through the death of a relative. To an avowed atheist I can cut some slack. But if you’re one of the 92% who believe in the existence of God, shame on you for omitting the “prayer” word. If you’re a believer, there can be only two reasons for omitting the prayer word: (1) you’re so weak in your belief that you’re ashamed to use the “P” word, or (2) you don’t want to offend that occasional atheist out there. Both reasons are shameful in my opinion. If you believe in God, use the “P” word. And don’t worry about the occasional atheist. Most atheists are either extremely tolerant of religious people or are tough skinned enough not to have an occasional “P” word ruin their day. To my Christian friends, I’ll offer an observation; my Hindu friends never omit the “P” word, unfortunately I cannot say the same for many of the Christians I know.
One final point needs to be made. Prayers on the behalf of others are uttered to a Divine Creator who presumably has the power to heal and comfort the mind and body. Mere humans can’t do this to the extent that the Almighty can, so why not bring out the heavy artillery if you really care about a friend? While one might feel a bit of comfort from the “thoughts” of a friend, why would anyone in real trouble settle for the relatively impotent “thoughts” of a fellow human being if they could receive a blessing that originates from the petition of a person kneeling in prayer?