Are Thoughts and Prayers Enough?

By Anna Woofenden
July 2018
First published on swedenborg.com

I know that I am not alone in eye-rolling to outrage when something terrible happens and politicians and celebrities respond with proclamations of their “thoughts and prayers.” It’s not that I have anything against people thinking of and praying for whatever hard thing is happening in the world. It’s just that it seems that the subtext under these phrases is often “and we’re not going to do a darn thing about it.”

According to Emanuel Swedenborg, “prayer, regarded in itself, is speech with God” (Secrets of Heaven §2535). Prayer, in itself, is a conversation with our Creator, a dynamic back and forth—speaking and listening, giving and receiving. And then, may I add, prayer leads us to take action. It’s often said that prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us; I believe Swedenborgian theology would agree. It gets back to who we think God is and how God operates. Offering “thoughts and prayers” seems to have become the thing to say when you want to express some kind of acknowledgment of what has happened, but you don’t want anyone to expect that you’re going to make a shift in policy or invest in creating a world where tangible action for change is taken as a response to tragedy. Along with this response, it seems there is, understandably, a growing cynicism toward both prayer itself and people’s expressions of prayer. I understand this cynicism and often share the root of the reaction, yet I’m not willing to throw out prayer with this murky bathwater and so limit its definition to all that comes with the expression “thoughts and prayers.”

When I was a hospital chaplain, I spent a fair amount of time praying with people, and most of the time it was in intense situations—life and death for the individuals or their families. I would usually start by asking, “What do you want us to pray for?” and the conversations would unfold. And most often, people would have a pretty specific ask. “Pray that my mom’s cancer will go away.” “Pray that I will not die from this tumor.” “Pray that my baby’s lung will heal.” All of these prayers made perfect sense. Of course, these were the things to pray for. Of course, this was what they desperately and fervently wanted, and it was what I wanted for them. But how to pray?

I stood in those hospital rooms, and I would have these moments where the scenario would play out in my head: Yes, I could pray for the loved one to be cured, and it could happen; but it also was just as likely that the patient would die, and then what? Then God doesn’t answer prayers. So was this prayer not just setting people up to sever their relationship with God alongside their experience of heartbreak and loss?

I wrestled with how to pray with hope and with the wholehearted belief in the power of a healing God. At the same time, I prayed with the deep knowledge that God needed to be big enough, close enough, and loving enough—that even if the worst thing happened, that there was space in the prayer, in the theological constructs that we weave with our words of prayer—to still be there and to still be the force of love in the universe and in the lives of the people we love.

And so, I found myself praying for the words to pray; and then I prayed the grief and the worry, the assurance of the presence of love in the room, the sobs and the hopes. I found myself exploring prayers for healing versus prayers for cures, as healing comes in so many forms, including the peace that comes with trusting and loving through even the most impossible situations.

I found prayers becoming times to squeeze the hands of family gathered round the bedside of the patient on the ventilator; they were times to let the tears flow, to breathe, to sigh deeply, and to feel God’s presence there with us. It was about bringing down the decision-making God—the force that can wave a finger to heal or not, immediately changing the course of events—from that high place in the sky to be the God whose presence of love and comfort are immediately felt there in the hospital room, as we walk the halls. Prayer is a conversation and a connection with the God who is with us in our grief and in our joy, the God who holds all of it and encompasses the breadth of our lives.

The people I spent time with in these rooms taught me how to pray. Flowery, lofty prayers don’t go very far in the linoleum-floored hospital room, with the green heartbeat monitor going up and down by the bedside and the IV fluids dripping through the tubes. What happens in these rooms is about as “real life” as you can get; and God was certainly present, teaching us how to pray. Our prayers didn’t just end with some vague hope for some far-off force to do something but to not involve us in the process. Instead, our prayers were woven in with hands on shoulders offering comfort, with tears being cried and Kleenex being given, with donated bone marrow and the deep wisdom and experience of a surgeon’s lifetime of work. These thoughts and prayers have flesh on them, and they change us and move us to acting for good so that we can change for the better the world around us.

 

Come Join the Conversation!

Each year, Wake Forest University School of Divinity’s Food, Health, and Ecological Well-being Program hosts a Summer Institute on food, faith, and ecology in western North Carolina. Here, on holy ground, faith leaders gather for four days to participate in God’s active renewal of the face of the earth and explore ways they are called to join God in that good work.
This year it will be held from June 11th-15th in Asheville, NC. I have the honor of being part of the gathering and invite you to join us as well!
https://divinity.wfu.edu/continuing-education-and-programs/food-health-ecological-well-being/education/summer-intensive/2018-gathering/

Food Justice, Faith, and the Ecological Imagination

Each year, Wake Forest University School of Divinity’s Food, Health, and Ecological Well-being Program hosts a Summer Institute on food, faith, and ecology in western North Carolina. Here, on holy ground, faith leaders gather for four days to participate in God’s active renewal of the face of the earth and explore ways they are called to join God in that good work.
This year it will be held from June 11th-15th in Asheville, NC.  I have the honor of being part of the gathering and invite you to join us as well!

I’m going to the Summer Institute because I believe God is at work bringing together people and conversations that are rising out of our collective hunger for a world that is nurturing and whole.

I have had the gift of being at a number of gatherings and events convened by the Food, Health, and Ecological Wellbeing program at Wake Div and every time, this is what I’ve found:

  • A diverse group of voices from various backgrounds, faith perspectives, areas of expertise, and ways of life.
  • Conversations curated with wisdom, curiosity, respect
  • powerful opportunities for participants to hear, speak, listen, and change.
  • A group of people who care: about the past, present, and future, about the church, about the planet, about the dignity and care of all people, and about the wellbeing of the interconnected web in which we all live.

I, like many of you, find myself walking between worlds. I walk in the world of church, where questions of “what does it mean to be church in this generation?” and “how do we respond to the changes in the world around us?” and “what does church have to do with food and farming and the environment?” are in the air. I also walk in the world of my peers, urban farmers, people striving to figure out how to be more environmentally sustainable, people fighting for a more just and generous world, and many who have left church and faith altogether because they feel that it’s become irrelevant to the deep needs of the “real world.”

At gatherings like the Summer Institute, I find others who are walking between these two worlds, and a multitude of others. And together we find words and images, connections, and distinctions that leave all of us more whole and informed and able to nurture our communities.

This February I had the honor, along with Rev. Dr. Heber Brown, of being a Practitioner in Residence at Wake Forest University Divinity. One of the things we did in our time there was to teach a course called Enlivening the Church, Repairing the World: Religious Leadership, Food Justice, and Entrepreneurial Ministry

As we worked with the students, we found a beautiful weaving together of our two stories. Dr. Brown shared about the Black Church Food Security Network and the work he is doing in Baltimore to mobilize farmers and churches, side-yard gardens, and youth camps in the church. This work has had radical implications for Christian leadership as it intersects with urban food sovereignty. His stories blended with mine as I shared about the work of founding a church literally as, and in, an urban garden in the streets of Los Angeles. I talked about how the liturgy—“the work of the people”—held and leads to communal transformation as people are not only reconnecting to the earth and their food, but also to each other and to God.

We are looking forward to expanding these conversations with the community at the Summer Institute in June, and exploring how each of your stories and areas of expertise weave together and answer questions such as: How does a renewed attunement to ecology and to food justice movements reframe ministry leadership? In this time of social upheaval and ecological crisis, what does it mean to be the church? And how can religious leaders help others join in God’s restorative work in the world?

These are some of the questions that drive me to continue to get up each morning and work in the corners of the earth where I am. And these are the questions that bring me hope when I see others gathering around to explore and act on them together.

More from Wake Forest about the gathering:

How does a renewed attunement to food justice movements reframe ministry leadership? In this time of social upheaval and ecological crisis, what does it mean to be the church? And how can religious leaders help others join in God’s restorative work in the world?

Each year, Wake Forest University School of Divinity’s Food, Health, and Ecological Well-being Program hosts a Summer Institute on food, faith, and ecology in western North Carolina. Here, on holy ground, faith leaders gather for four days to participate in God’s active renewal of the face of the earth and explore ways they are called to join God in that good work.

We live in an age when we can no longer ignore the ecological contexts in which all our personal and social actions play out. This age calls for the church to embrace the marriage of our religious and ecological imaginations. With this renewing of our minds, we are called to the hopeful and joyful and difficult work of food justice and social equity, so that all may experience God’s abundance.

The annual Summer Institute offers knowledge, tools, and practices that can help us all “seek the peace” of the places in which we dwell. Through workshops, lectures, shared meals, small group conversations–even wild foraging and bread baking–we will explore these questions and more. This year participants will be joined by our 2018 cohort of Re:Generate Fellows, making this an intergenerational learning experience for all.

We invite you to join us.

From June 11 – 15 we will gather on the lovely campus of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC, just ten minutes from downtown Asheville. For lodging, participants can either choose their own lodging nearby [select the “Commuter Rate”] or you can choose to stay on campus in the EcoDorm, in either a shared or single dorm room.

 

Earth Day as High-Holy Day


For the past few years, I held Earth Day as a holiday—a high-holy day. While pastoring the Garden Church, we raised Earth Day up in our church calendar and took it on as our own. It made sense, seeing that we were a church in what had been a barren lot in the middle of Los Angeles and was now an urban farm. Our mission: to reconnect people with each other, God, their food and, wait for it, the earth. It is no surprise that Earth Day was a big deal for us.

On Earth Day we’d do it up big. It would start with the Expo that filled up our lot with beekeepers and environmental activists and samples from the raw foods restaurant and everyone’s favorite: chickens to hold. This led into an interfaith worship service where we invited our Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Baha’i, Unitarian Universalist, and various Christian neighbors to share from their traditions as we looked to the earth, to our faith, and to the earth again. After worship, we’d gather around the big picnic tables and share food from our various backgrounds and cultures and gardens and share in community together.

I know that we weren’t ending global climate change or coal plants with these gatherings, but I felt clear we were doing something. And we were doing it throughout the year too. When we paused to celebrate Earth Day, it was in keeping with the work we were doing the other 364 days of the year, the education, the growing of food, the composting of waste, the daily nurture and care of this little plot of land in our care.

This Earth Day I woke up a little out of sorts. As I saw the posts from my former church encouraging people to attend Earth Day at the Garden Church, I felt acutely the 3,000 miles between us and that I was no longer the pastor there. My husband and I got up and went to the lovely church we’ve been attending in New York. There was a table set up after worship and a few mentions of Earth Day in the program. We left right after the service and headed out to take a hike in the Adirondacks.

It was beautiful. What an appropriate way to celebrate Earth Day, right? Out enjoying Mother Nature?

Yet a part of me still felt agitated. Am I really doing my part to curb this environmental free-fall we’re in right now? Should I be enjoying this pristine mountain trail when the chances of it still being here for our great-great-grandchildren look bleak?

As I stopped to catch my breath in the crisp mountain air I thought about how most of the people on the planet are breathing polluted air. As I climbed over a stretch of boulders in the midst of the last of the snowpack, I kept seeing that haunting image of the bedraggled polar bear with skin and fur hanging on its malnourished body as it struggled for survival with its ecosystem melting around it.

And I knew, as you do, that just lamenting it all isn’t going to change it.

I do what I can, I think. As we move from apartment to apartment, with no soil to grow our food in and not enough time to root for change in the local community. We drive our gas-efficient car and walk as much as we can, use energy-saving light bulbs and turn off the overheads. And then I get on another airplane for work and we use another plastic garbage bag. And I feel caught in the insidious cycle of it all.

Maybe it’s why I am now verging on compulsive about composting wherever we are. Even risking marital peace when my spouse becomes annoyed at the freezer full of bags of food scraps that are waiting for me to take them to our friend’s farm or to the neighbor’s worm bin down the street.

“It’s one of the few things I feel like a can do for our grandchildren,” I tell my husband when he, understandably, grumbles while trying to find the ice cream.

I keep paying attention to the despair, to the beautiful warm sun on my feet, to the banana peels and slimy spinach. Earth Day is indeed a high-holy day, one that, wherever I am, I want to honor all year long.

End of Year Letter 2017

Dear Friends,

As the days grow darker and Advent approaches, I find myself pondering the light and the dark, that which grows quietly under the soil and that which springs forth, that which gestates in a cozy womb, and that which is born. As we are anticipating the celebration of the birth of Christ, I am reflecting back on the process of birthing a church and how each one of you has been integral to that journey. You have come alongside the Garden Church at various stops along the way, and have helped us to become the beautiful and alive place that we are today. Four years ago this was just an idea, a wondering, a hope, and now each week we welcome all sorts of people from all walks of life through our gates to be fed and to feed together.

A couple of Sundays ago I was making the rounds around the dinner tables at our weekly community meal—saying hello, meeting new people, commenting on the delicious nature of the polenta that Linda had made—and I met Victoria. Victoria had come in with a friend during worship earlier and had sat intently throughout the sermon and prayers and singing. When I had shared communion with her, she looked deeply into my eyes and I watched tears form as I leaned in and said, “Beloved child of God, the bread of life, given for you.” When I introduced myself and learned her name over dinner, she looked up again and said, “I knew I was hungry, really hungry. Hungry for this…” as she pointed down at her plate loaded with food, “but what I didn’t know was that I was hungry for more. Thank you for worship Pastor, I didn’t know how much I needed to know that I was loved.”

Stories like this happen most every time we open the gates of our urban farm and outdoor sanctuary. Our motto, and the name of our newly formed non-profit, Feed and Be Fed, comes to life as people work and worship and eat together, as people see God’s light in each other’s faces, as people cultivate more peace and justice and goodness together. People are hungry and people want to feed each other. We are honored to continue to provide an opportunity for all to do both.

As my time on the pastoral staff is coming to a close, I want to personally thank you for believing in and supporting this vision in these early years. There were certainly times when I wondered and doubted along the way. Your prayers, your generosity, and your participation never waivered to keep us believing and moving forward. It is a great privilege now to invite you to continue your support of this growing and serving community under its next generation of leadership. I can think of no team I would rather hand the baton to than Rev. Jonathan, Rev. Amanda, and Rev. Asher. And I have every confidence that they, with this beautiful and vibrant congregation, will continue to feed in body, mind, and spirit.

As you consider both your end-of-year giving and look forward to your 2018 giving, we would be honored and grateful if you would continue to join us in cultivating a more just and generous world through this little plot of earth.

May the grace, the peace, and the love of God be with you all,

Rev. Anna Woofenden and the Garden Church team

Give at www.gardenchurchsp.org/donate