After the news broke Monday afternoon that two bombs had exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line, prayer flooded my social media feeds. "Thoughts and prayers for folks in Boston," a former colleague posted on Facebook. "Pray for Boston," another friend wrote, echoing a popular Facebook page, Twitter hashtag, and image meme.
It was jarring. There was the weirdness of seeing so many references to the divine in spaces normally reserved for vacation photos and article links and quips about the news. It was tempting to think that all the social-media-fueled "prayers for Boston" somehow degraded the idea of prayer. As one Facebook commenter wrote on the Pray for Boston page: "Do you want me to DEFINE prayer? A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship. Prayer is solemn. Not a 'like' on facebook."
It was also strange to see so many non-religious friends talking about prayer. The majority of my Facebook friends who wrote about praying aren't especially observant. Maybe they go to church or synagogue on holidays, but not regularly—and they certainly don't post about prayer under normal circumstances.
Odd as the deluge of prayer-related status updates seemed to me, many of them were just high-tech versions of an ancient phenomenon: faithful people reminding other faithful to pray. The Bible is obsessed with prayer. From Genesis to Revelation, variations on the word appear more than 300 times. The Hebrew scriptures describe people praying for strength, for babies, for deliverance from slavery, for food. In the Gospels, Jesus tells his followers how to pray (using the simple, straighforward words of the so-called Lord's Prayer) and how not to pray ("you must not be like the hypocrites"). In Paul's letters, we see the closest analogues to this week's "pray for Boston" tweets: constant reminders to pray. "Pray without ceasing," he tells the Thessalonians. "Be constant in prayer," he writes to the Romans. To the Ephesians he says, "Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests."