Denison Forum – The latest on Damar Hamlin: Why I agree with religious skeptics

“When you put real love out into the world it comes back to you 3x’s as much. The Love has been overwhelming, but I’m thankful for every single person that prayed for me and reached out. We brung the world back together behind this. If you know me you know this only gone make me stronger. On a long road keep praying for me!”

This was how Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin thanked the world on Instagram for praying for him after he nearly died last Monday night during a game with the Cincinnati Bengals. His progress bolstered his team as they wore a special “3” patch on their uniforms yesterday. In “a play that seemed plucked from a movie,” they returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in front of a packed house and went on to defeat the New England Patriots. Hamlin’s jersey was the most purchased among all athletes across all sports.

In my opinion, Dallas Cowboys chaplain Jonathan Evans, the associate pastor of NextGen Ministry at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, sounded the most enduring note from Hamlin’s near-death crisis. Quarterback Dak Prescott quoted Evans’ message to the team last week: “Your age, you’re not old or young off of your birth date but off your death date.”

An “irrational atavistic impulse”?

Barton Swaim began his Wall Street Journal editorial on Damar Hamlin by referencing “the question of when prayer on public grounds is and isn’t permissible.” He noted that “Americans, especially American liberals, have been obsessed with the question for more than sixty years.”

However, he added, “The idea that prayer is improper at big-time sporting events was forgotten on Monday night.”

After Hamlin collapsed on the field, Swaim writes, “Suddenly prayer was back on the list of things anybody could talk about or do on camera.” Signs and social media posts called for the nation to “pray for Damar.” ESPN commentators actually prayed for him on air. In the days following, NFL players across the league prayed for him and for each other.

Is this unequivocally good news? Swaim sounds a cautionary note: “I’m not entirely comfortable with so many ecumenical pleas for the favor of an undefined deity. Are all these thousands of social-media posters urging their followers to #PrayForDamar actually praying and, if they are, praying to the one true God? I’m not so sure.”

Grieving over calls to prayer

What are critics of religion thinking about this national response? According to Swaim, “They will consider the whole pray-for-Damar episode a mass expression of some irrational atavistic impulse. . . . Let the fans ‘pray’ if that’s what gives them comfort, but it changes nothing.”

In one sense, I agree with them.

I grieved in Israel last week as I heard the Adhan broadcast from minarets calling Muslims to pray to Allah rather than to Christ. I know that Jesus alone is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The power of faith resides not in its act but in its object. We can take the wrong road in faith that it is the right road, but we will still be lost. We can take the wrong medicine in faith that it is the right medicine, but our faith will not make it so.

At the same time, our instinctive response to pray when confronting a crisis we cannot solve with human resources reveals something important about us.

The nation does not pray when a football player sprains an ankle or suffers a concussion since our doctors can treat such injuries. We do not flood sanctuaries for prayer meetings when an airplane crashes. But when terrorists flew airplanes into buildings on 9/11, we packed church buildings for prayer. After we began learning the identity of our enemy and gained confidence in our ability to prevent further attacks, crowds in churches returned to normal.

A “relentless parade of atmospheric rivers”

One of Satan’s most subtle ploys is to focus us on what we can do rather than on what we cannot do.

We do not fear death since medical science can often postpone it, but medical science cannot prevent it. Our technological capacities exceed anything known to human history, as the advent of the iPhone on this day in 2007 demonstrated, but we cannot stop the “relentless parade of atmospheric rivers” pounding California. According to a new survey, 3.3 million US adults were displaced by natural disasters last year. None of us can prevent the disasters sure to come this year.

Here’s my point: every one of us, every moment of every day, is Damar Hamlin.

Jonathan Evans is right: “You’re not old or young off of your birth date but off your death date.”  Each of us is one heartbeat from eternity. Each of us needs help and hope beyond ourselves. We were made to depend on our Maker, not just on Sunday or in a recognized crisis, but every moment of every day.

“When you don’t see the whole staircase”

So begin your day with your Lord as Jesus did (cf. Mark 1:35). (Our ministry’s morning devotional, First15, is designed to help you experience God each day.)

End your day with your Lord. (To this end, I highly recommend my wife’s new resource, Wisdom Matters, a devotional word of biblical encouragement you can read or hear at the end of each day.)

Turn every challenge to God in prayer (for help, see my latest blog, “How to live victoriously in Christ”).

And have faith that the one true God hears you and will always do what is best in response. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

What staircase will you begin to climb today?

Denison Forum

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