“In the same way the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because he intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
My church is enjoying the blessing of little ones right now. We have hit one of those seasons where we have several of our younger couples all having kids at about the same time. The result is the sheer delight of a number of little ones running around underfoot. This is especially true on Wednesday nights when we all gather for dinner together before our various Bible study groups. There are always at least two or three under the age of four in the room including one sweetheart who just goes around giving everybody hugs. That’s all just to make you smile. Where I’m getting to here is this: With all of these kids running around the church, I have been reminded what one of the most natural and instinctive gestures is for a little one to make. Any guesses as to what it is? Reaching up. Both arms go up over their heads as they reach out to a tall person they know and trust. It may be that they have a need they can’t meet on their own, but it may also be that they simply want to be held. Either way, reaching up is normal. As adults, we don’t make that gesture very often. At least we don’t physically. But as the nation collectively watched a potential tragedy unfold a couple of weeks ago, it seems that we haven’t forgotten how to make that gesture spiritually. Let’s talk for a minute this morning about Damar Hamlin and prayer.
I’ll start by confessing that I’m the kind of sports fan who enjoys watching the teams I support, but I’m not likely to tune into another game just because it’s on TV. What this means is that while the Bengals-Bills Monday Night Football game last week had some powerful implications for my Kansas City Chiefs depending on its outcome, I wasn’t glued to the TV to keep up with it. Still, though, I was genuinely interested in its outcome, so before I turned in for the night, I tuned back in for a few minutes. I happened to do this just moments after Bills’ safety, Damar Hamlin had collapsed on the field. I was later able to watch replays of the moment itself. It was pretty unnerving.
After taking a big hit – although not one that was at all outside the norm for a game – Hamlin hopped up to play again, wavered for a moment, and then collapsed back onto the field. His fall very obviously caught everyone around him by surprise. The referee just a few feet away looked at him for a second in utter confusion. So did the other players. It is not uncommon for a player to go down and not get back up right away because of an injury of some kind, but to get up and go back down again is a signal that something more significant has happened. It very quickly became apparent that Hamlin was not okay. The medical staff rushed out onto the field and then signaled for more help to come. They were not just trying to bring a dazed man back into focus, they were desperately trying to bring a dead man back to life.
Every NFL player goes into each game knowing that a grievous injury is a live possibility. It’s simply part of the game. When you take enormous men, outfit them with pads, and tell them to do whatever it takes to keep the other team from moving the ball forward, they are going to clash, and those clashes are going to be considerable. When you knock two heads together with as much force as they can generate, even with a helmet, concussions and other traumatic brain injuries are a likely result. The quarterback for the Dolphins will not play in the playoffs this weekend because of two concussions he received earlier in the season. When you stop and start and turn very quickly, even the healthiest and most well-exercised joints sometimes cry uncle and give way. That’s all just part of the game. But even if a player has to ride the cart of shame off the field with a towel draped over his head to avoid the embarrassment of it, the one thing every one of those players does expect is to come off the field alive.
When it became clear that this was not at all the likely outcome for Hamlin, the players of both teams, but especially his teammates were unsettled. Actually, that doesn’t cover it. These men were terrified. As much as Hamlin was experiencing the awful results of a physical trauma, the rest of the players and coaches were experiencing the shock of an emotional trauma. Grown men were walking around the field in a daze with tears streaming down their faces. The on-field reporter, the broadcast guys upstairs, and the ESPN guys in the studio didn’t know how to handle it either. They quickly realized that they might be having to keep the conversation going on live TV as a man died. This wasn’t special effects. This was real. And it was scary.
Suddenly, the entire nation was faced with a crisis we didn’t know how to handle. The irony of all of this is rich. We collectively consume a mind-blowing amount of staggeringly violent content. In 2021, the most popular streaming series in the world was Netflix’s Squid Games. That show was fantastically violent and gory. A slasher-horror film called The Terrifier, whose descriptions alone make my stomach churn is about to get a third installment in what has become a franchise. We consume violence and death like we eat cereal for breakfast. You would think we would be so desensitized to it that seeing it in front of us wouldn’t even phase us. But when Hamlin dropped to the ground that Monday night, something was different. This wasn’t some act of senseless violence. It really wasn’t a commentary on how violent football is as a sport because this had never happened before in thousands and thousands of games over the history of the sport. And we can completely reject the ludicrous suggestion that this had anything to do with a Covid vaccine. This was a tragic accident that honestly could have happened in just about any other sport. More than that, though, it was a tragic accident that reminded all of us of our mortality. And that scared us. A lot.
Let me put all of this in another way: Last Monday, we were all faced with a need we didn’t know how to handle and couldn’t satisfy on our own. So, what did we do? Well, a whole lot of people reached up. I suspect we’ve already forgotten the lesson by now, but a nation that has been trending hard in a secular direction – especially in our public spaces – for years suddenly turned en masse to prayer. Many of the players including the entire Bills team gathered in a big circle on the field to pray while the medical personnel were working on Hamlin. Over and over again the various broadcast team members said the only thing we could do for Hamlin was to pray for him. Calls for prayer went up all over social media. Mainstream media personalities noted the importance of prayer in this situation. On Tuesday morning after the game, ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky gave the nation this incredible moment:
As a nation we didn’t know what to do, and we didn’t know how to handle our emotions at this unexpected and frightening brush with our mortality and the finitude of our lives, so we did the only thing we could think of: we prayed. We reached not just out, but up to someone who was above us and could meet us in this moment of need. We cried out to God. Perhaps we are not quite so self-sufficient as we believed ourselves to be. Perhaps there are things in this world that we simply don’t know how to handle. Perhaps there really is a God above us who loves us enough to take up our requests and do something about them. Perhaps He really is worthy of our time and attention.
Now, I don’t know how this story might have turned had Hamlin not survived this experience. I don’t particularly want to think about that. And perhaps his miraculous recovery (in which he still has a long way to go) is what allowed us to move on so quickly to the next big story. But let’s not miss the fact that a man experienced a traumatic tragedy, was covered by the passionate and fervent prayers of an entire nation, and came through it what looks right now to be remarkably unscathed. It’s almost like God answered all those prayers with a resounding, “Yes, I’ll heal him.” And if He listened to those prayers, it just may be that He’ll listen to other prayers we pray. Perhaps we should do this whole praying thing a bit more often. Who knows what might come of it.