I had, of course, seen reports about Israeli and Palestinian civilian casualties during the intense fighting last year in Gaza. But the human side of the conflict suddenly came into sharper focus when a college classmate of mine lost two brothers there – gunned down and denied medical aid as they attempted to return home with their father during a lull in the fighting.
I joined hundreds from my school who expressed their sympathy and support for this fellow student and his family. Many of these heartfelt wishes, posted on Facebook and expressed in personal messages, were echoes of the oft-repeated sentiment, "Our thoughts and prayers are with you." Such an offer of prayer is often the loving first response in the face of personal and global tragedy. But next to such intense human suffering, in some cases a genuinely compassionate statement like that can sound like little more than a perfunctory sound bite. To the humanitarian worker dodging shellfire to bring needed food and supplies to trapped Gazan civilians, or to the Israeli mother wondering if her children are safe at school, the words "Our thoughts and prayers are with you" could sound hollow.
This is a far cry from the biblical portrayal of prayer as an effective way to bring peace to the world and to heal sorrow and sickness. Both the Old and New Testament are full of accounts describing the tremendous accomplishments of those who turned to God throughout Israel's history – a truly remarkable heritage for the inhabitants of that region today.
The recognition that prayer can actually do something should be the foundation of the statement "Our thoughts and prayers are with you." When hearing tragic news, I've found it important to focus on the impossibility of any separation between anyone and God – that is, to get directly to the root of sorrow and pain with that truth.
I've found that real comfort and healing come from recognizing a basic fact: God, as divine Love, does not send us tragedy and loss of life as part of His plan. Gaining a sense of God's love genuinely heals. We only have to open a copy of The Christian Science Journal or the Christian Science Sentinel to find fresh examples of this fact.
One useful metaphor for effective prayer is the method by which firefighters put out a forest fire. They don't only fight a burning forest with buckets of water, expecting that enough bucketfuls – or one big bucket – will somehow quench the fire. The firefighter fights by establishing a barrier line to stop the fire in its path. The fire is prevented from crossing the barrier, and any stray sparks can quickly be put out. Likewise, prayer in Christian Science involves establishing a barrier line, so to speak. It's what Mary Baker Eddy referred to as "the line of demarcation" in thought, which she said was understanding, and is essential to healing ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," p. 505).
I've sometimes wondered, "How can I do my part in healing the many challenges in the world?" It's not enough simply to expect the answer that we're praying for. When praying about a situation, such as the conflict in Gaza, I continually find it necessary to experience the truth of what I claim. If I cannot comprehend and spiritually see the peace and harmony for which I'm praying, then I'm still praying without understanding. Faced with the unavoidable image of human suffering, I'm learning to stick with the truth that what I'm praying to discern is all that is real, now and forever – that harmony and peace are much more natural than the opposite claims of discord and war. I've been acknowledging this more consistently in my own prayers.
When we're moved by the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world, it becomes clear that prayer is more than philanthropy. It's urgent necessity.
Adapted from The Christian Science Journal.