I wasn’t watching the Bills-Bengals football game when Damar Hamlin almost died on the field. But, like anyone who glanced at their phones or TVs last Monday night, I knew quickly. And I prayed, quickly.
Something interesting unfolded that evening. TV commentators were not just delivering the cursory “thoughts and prayers” line. In very Christian language, they were urging viewers to “lift up Damar Hamlin and his family in prayer.” In one beautiful moment, ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky actually prayed on the air. If you haven’t seen that video, take a minute.
Which got me thinking: In urgent matters of life and death, we lose all hesitancy to publicly cry out to God. Devoted believers. Marginal believers. People of other faiths. We all pray. And not just the social media “thoughts and prayers” line that gets rightly skewered as shallow. This is earnest, drop everything, get on your knees and cry out to God for mercy because he is all we have. Like the prayers in the Psalms. Like the desperate people who came to Jesus. Like the prayers Jesus himself breathed.
And do you know what else? When we pray that way, we get a pass from a skeptical culture. A lot of the familiar criticism about publicly displaying our faith disappears. To a world searching for authenticity, desperate, heartfelt prayer for someone’s life feels pretty authentic.
A familiar scenario
We’ve done this before. 9-11 saw lots of public prayer. So does every war, every natural disaster, every mass shooting, every famous person who gets sick or dies. There’s the initial outpouring, and then we quickly return to normal. Which figures, considering that fewer than half of American adults pray daily (Pew Research). I’m guessing that even for those of us who do pray daily (79 percent of evangelical Protestants), it’s mostly about safety and comfort for ourselves and our families.
And not all public prayer is good. Sometimes it becomes a passive-aggressive sermon that we want others to hear. Sometimes it’s theologically weak. TV cameras always find sports fans praying near the end of a close game, as if God had a stake in the outcome. Sometimes prayer is a mask for a political message that’s more about power than about Jesus. People who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 prayed publicly.
None of which is to say we shouldn’t pray publicly. It’s just a good idea to apply wisdom and discernment and truly seek God — before we open our mouths.
Prayer in action
“Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.” – Oswald Chambers
I already mentioned some national statistics on prayer. Here’s one more: Only 11 percent of married couples ever pray together. Even among Christian couples, the number who pray together daily is less than 10 percent. What if 2023 were the year we busted those stats and deepened our prayer lives – as individuals, as couples and as a church? What if we actually backed up our Christian sentiments about prayer with — prayer?
And what if that prayer were about more than ourselves, our families and other “safe” topics? Our church has always been good at praying for God’s work overseas. What if we became even better at praying for Rockford? For our city’s churches and their collective impact on this community? For our neighborhoods? For solutions to our crime crisis? For our schools?
Those are life-and-death matters, too.
Damar Hamlin is alive today thanks to fast response by medical teams and thanks, I believe, to a huge outpouring of prayer. My friend Jo Johnson lives in England and serves the Wycliffe Global Alliance as consultant for prayer advocacy. She said recently:
“I do not understand why, but God seems to respond in greater power to groups of Christians praying in unity than a single Christian praying on their own. That is a mystery to me. I don’t have the theology of that sorted out, but what I do know is that I have seen that to be the case.”
Not every prayed-for medical situation ends well, and that’s a whole other question I have for God someday. But what if he uses one man’s crisis in a surprising way? What if an injury to an athlete we’ll never meet could teach us all to pray more boldly and earnestly?
What if we prayed for Rockford like we prayed for Damar Hamlin?
Next week: A longer conversation with global prayer leader Jo Johnson, who offers advice on praying with others.