“You really got a lot of ashes!” I was sitting at the bridge table on Ash Wednesday and the older lady (let’s call her Nancy) I was about to play against seemed unduly concerned about my forehead. I smiled at her but didn’t say anything, not quite sure how to respond. After we were done playing our round she said again, “They really gave you a lot of ashes!” followed quickly by, “You know, I’m lapsed.” I smiled at her and mumbled, again not sure of the proper response. (“Congratulations” might have come off as flippant, don’t you think?)
Then Nancy dropped the big one. “I think when we die we are just dead. There is nothing more.” I looked into her eyes and my words came unbidden. “That makes me so sad.” She seemed surprised at my response so she upped the ante, ranting about pedophiles and the Inquisition. Not only was it time for the next round, but I really didn’t want to get into apologetics with an angry elderly woman on Ash Wednesday of all days. So I simply said with a smile, “I’m so sorry you are wounded. But you never know how God might work in your life!” I got a glare as she left the table, tossing a quick, “And I don’t believe Noah built an Ark, either!” over her shoulder. (Denying life after death is one thing, but dissing Noah? That’s low.)
As I walked out to my car after the game, her sadness and anger held onto my heart. Then I turned on my phone and saw the awful headlines from Florida and my heart sank further. My phone began pinging with Facebook messages—one of our sorority sisters has kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They were fine, but they knew at least one of the dead. Our group message thread filled with offers of thoughts and prayers for our friend and her community. But, just a few hours later, my social media feeds filled with memes and comments angrily deriding such “thoughts and prayers” as empty and worse than useless.
My thoughts returned to Nancy and her hostility towards religion. While the online comments mocking “thoughts and prayers” were couched in the natural frustration over a preventable tragedy, I also think there was a lot of that same anger towards religion in the prayer-shaming. Too many people apparently think we believers check our brains at the church door, that we turn to prayer as a panacea, not actually thinking about concrete steps to difficult problems.
But not only can people of faith can walk and chew gum at the same time, we also have a font of wisdom to draw on, the wisdom of scripture and tradition. In a culture that is obsessed with facile, sound-bite answers and then moves onto the next shiny object, to merely mention wisdom, much less to seek it, is to be counter-cultural.
I fear the nihilism that was in Nancy’s heart, her belief that nothing really matters in this life, is shared by many in modern America. Whether we resent faith because we think it ”tells us what to do” or because it seems too abstract or simply because we are distracted by the siren song of a culture that values personal pleasure over anything higher, I think we do a disservice, especially to the young. When we don’t teach our children that there are transcendent truths that they can hold onto, when we ignore two millennia of Judeo-Christian wisdom in exchange for a “fast-easy-fun” culture with no spiritual nourishment, we leave our children, and ourselves, empty. And into that void rushes the ills of modern life—addictions, gun violence, family breakdown and all manner of societal misery.
Of course the violence and division in our world are not simply a values problem, but we so often ignore the values side of the equation entirely. Until we balance policy debate with a hard look at our culture, and an appreciation of the very real ways good religion can play a beneficial role, we won’t have an accurate view of any of the issues confronting us.
So yes, I will pray for the dead and the physically and emotionally wounded in Florida. I will pray for the woman I met over the bridge table. I will also prayerfully consider the issues that confront our society through the lens of 2000 years of intellectual and moral tradition, not just espousing what feels good in the moment. Because thoughts and prayers alone might not be sufficient, but neither is “do something” without an underpinning of wisdom and truth.