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The prayers of a nation

An on-field tragedy reveals still strong spiritual inclinations

Bills fans and community members gather outside Highmark Stadium for a prayer circle for Damar Hamlin on Jan. 3 in Orchard Park, N.Y. Associated Press/Photo by Joshua Bessex

The prayers of a nation
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The nation stopped in stunned disbelief at what unfolded on a football field in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Monday evening. What appeared to be a routine tackle and hit turned into a scene most have never witnessed in a sporting event. Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills stood up after making a tackle on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins and immediately collapsed on the field.

The cameras turned away from the ordeal, but the broadcasters, also stunned, reported that medical personnel were conducting CPR on Hamlin. It was an unthinkably surreal and scary moment no one will soon forget. 

ESPN cut back and forth from the stadium broadcast crew to their studio crew and to commercials. Finally, an ambulance drove onto the field to retrieve Hamlin and rushed him to UC Medical Center near the stadium. Nobody knew what to do or what to say. Players on the field were sobbing. Both teams returned to their locker rooms, and eventually, the NFL suspended the game. The one repeated comment mentioned by everyone addressing audiences tuned into the game, and joining the broadcast as the news spread, was to pray. 

“Pray for Damar Hamlin” became a national exhortation. It was everywhere. The universal urge and call to prayer keenly revealed how embedded man’s spiritual nature is within him, despite what our culture says and does to try to remove the divine from our horizon. We cannot evade or outrun the need to understand tragedy and existence apart from transcendence.

No one turns to an atheist’s screed-filled manifesto in moments like Monday night. Monday’s national response paralleled the nation’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It showed that at the core, every human being knows there is a Maker who is over all things, is personal and accessible, and is our only true hope and help amid tragedy and pain. 

As the week has unfolded, many things we have grown accustomed to denying have become unleashed. People’s spiritual inclinations were no longer suppressed or disguised through the busyness of life and pursuits. Players prayed on the field. Broadcasters pleaded for prayers. Social media exploded with people urging prayers for Hamlin. Viral videos online showed fans reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison. 

The injury, and the gravity of it, stripped away pretensions and smokescreens often raised against the knowledge of God.

Nobody debated God’s existence at that moment. Why? Because the injury, and the gravity of it, stripped away pretensions and smokescreens often raised against the knowledge of God. Raw humanity, in need of God, was on full display. Nobody could ignore it. Television personalities who would never otherwise discuss prayer or God on-air did both. When fear and uncertainty gripped the watching nation, the charade that we are in control vanished. What emerged are the signs of a deeply spiritual people. 

This is a vital reminder for Christians. Never forget what unfolded on Jan. 2, 2023, on a football field in Cincinnati. Paul’s words to the church in Rome came to life as we saw everyone’s belief that there is a God who rules over the world with power. They may attempt to suppress it at every turn (Romans 1:18), but in the end, they are without excuse in their knowledge (Romans 1:20). This God is personal and knowable. He cares for His creation and each image bearer. The human heart knows He is there and that He is to be sought. The Christian faith, as Francis Schaeffer once observed, insists that the God who is longed for is also the God who is not silent. 

Our world seeks hope and looks for answers, and the church of Jesus possesses them. The gospel is not only the message that Jesus saves us from our sins, but it contains the promise that He is the sustainer of lives, comforter to the hurting, and supplier of grace in our times of need. Christ is the world’s hope. Christians must never let the spiritual malaise of the world convince us of its reality. Every person is deeply spiritual. Sometimes, in the providence of God, events unfold that reveal these undeniable truths: We know He is, and we know we need Him. It’s nothing less than a matter of life and death.

Erik Reed

Erik Reed is the lead pastor of The Journey Church in Lebanon, Tenn. He also founded Knowing Jesus Ministries, a non-profit organization that exists to proclaim timeless truth for everyday life. Erik is the author of Uncommon Trust: Learning to Trust God When Life Doesn’t Make Sense and the upcoming book, Hold the Line: A Call for Christian Conviction in a Culture of Conformity. He is married to Katrina and has three children: Kaleb (who went to be with the Lord in 2019), Kaleigh Grace, and Kyra Piper.


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