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 Two Coaches Went Up to Pray

Prayer is communication in the divine realm. When we pray, we share openly with God and listen attentively to the internal whispers of the Spirit in communion with our own. Whether audible or silent, our voice to God should be candid, honest and transparent.  

When we pray, we are wise to talk to God about the daily struggles of life, share our emotions and articulate our concerns, frustrations and questions. The Lord hears our cries. We are also wise to use pregnant pauses to listen to the tender nudges of God that offer us clarity, comfort and guidance for our day.  

Prayer, perhaps the greatest gift of our union with God, invites us to walk in the present reality of our world but with the Creator of the universe by our side.  

Yet prayer sometimes can be used, and even misused, in a variety of ways. Take the example of Joe Kennedy.  

Kennedy was the high school assistant football coach in Bremerton, Wash., who was put on leave in 2015 for holding gatherings at the 50-yard line where he led audible prayers at the conclusion of several high school football games. As explained in Mark Wingfield’s excellent article, Kennedy was paid the remainder of his contract, but he did not reapply to work the 2016 season. Kennedy went on to file a lawsuit against the Bremerton School District. Although the lower courts ruled in favor of the school district, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 opinion (splitting along the court’s political/philosophical lines), voted in favor of Kennedy, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated.  

Contrast this prayer with that of players, coaches, staff and fans when Damar Hamlin fell to the ground after suffering cardiac arrest during a Monday Night Football game on Jan. 2.  

In an unprecedented turn of events, Hamlin, safety for the Buffalo Bills, needed CPR after making a tackle on Cincinnati Bengal Tee Higgins. He was resuscitated by medical staff and trainers before being transported to the local hospital for further treatment. Thankfully, Hamlin was discharged and continues in his recovery.  

The response of players, coaches and fans of both teams was unplanned, unrehearsed and moving as they gathered to pray for their fallen friend on the field, went to the hospital after the game was postponed (and later cancelled) and subsequently contributed the millions of dollars collected for Hamlin’s charity.  

Since then, players and teams all across the NFL have demonstrated acts of support and solidarity for Hamlin and his family both on and off the football field.  

These two events signify dramatically different approaches to prayer and capture the divide over how and when prayer is an appropriate response. On the one hand, Kennedy’s prayer was initiated by a coach who had power over who and how much players participated on the team. Knowingly or unknowingly, Kennedy used his position and the capture of media cameras to gain attention. His decision to pray at the end of each game was planned and premeditated, causing continued expectation and pressure for others to join in, especially those who played for him.    

Kennedy prayed audibly, expressing his personal faith in the public arena at the local high school game. Hence, there was further influence to align and comply with his views on what God to pray to, how one should pray, and what a person should pray about. Additionally, Kennedy used his fame since the court case to socialize with political leaders and delay his return to his position on the coaching staff at Bremerton.  

Conversely, the prayer that occurred after Hamlin’s injury was initiated by individual players who were overwhelmed by the event of the unexpected cardiac arrest of the player on the field. Observers to what transpired quickly noticed the genuine concern of both teams as coaches met to discuss the need to look beyond the game to the life of one of their own. Players hugged each other with tears streaming down their cheeks, and even commentators were beyond words regarding what to say.  

These events were unplanned and unscripted. The players did what many throughout the country did — they prayed to their God in their own personal and unique way. This was not for show; they were moved by the circumstances that were beyond their control, and they pleaded for divine intervention on behalf of someone they cared about.  

Then, many of them and others all across the sports world and beyond put action to their prayers by speaking out for Hamlin, raising money for charity, and uniting in solidarity amid playoff implications that resulted from the cancelled football game.  

Buffalo Bills Head Coach Sean McDermott recounted the response from the Bengal players and staff: “It was amazing how compassionate Zac (Taylor) was, and his players. Their captains came down to our locker room and met with our team and captains and just an amazing show of compassion, empathy, love. It’s just so amazing because minutes before that, we were going at each other, and so my hat goes off to Zac and the Bengals.”  

The contrast is undeniable. Which of these two events is legal is something the courts decide. Which of them is moral is something for God to judge. Which of them is appropriate is a personal, subjective evaluation.  

In my estimation, one of the two more clearly aligns with my understanding of Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 and the priestly prayer of Christ in John 17: “I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  

The Kennedy story causes me to shun a form of Christianity that does not reflect the nature of the Jesus I read about in the Gospels. The Hamlin story beckons me to join at the foot of the Cross and plead for the wellness of a man I’ve never met.  

On one occasion, Jesus told another story — about two people who prayed. One, a religiously trained Pharisee, thanked God he was not like the more wretched sinners (such as robbers, evildoers and adulterers, and especially like the man standing next to him). The other, a tax collector, beat his breast and cried out to God for mercy.  

At times I am both of these men. When my attitude is like the Pharisee, my prayer is far from what Jesus modeled for us and minimizes the true gift of being able to come humbly before the God of the universe. When I come as the tax collector, I find my prayer life is more substantive and impactful, drawing me to the throne of grace, and clarifying who God is and who I am. Jesus says the path to being right with God is to follow the example of the tax collector, who humbled himself rather than the Pharisee who exalted himself.  

Watching what happened at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati between two opposing teams vying for playoff position was nothing short of the humility of the tax collector in Jesus’ parable. As the teams and coaches united on the field as one, setting aside their differences and coming together, I cannot help but wonder if this is a modern parable of the kingdom of God for our generation.  

I will take the authentic prayer of people broken for their hurting teammate over ritualistic and showy prayers before or after the game. Our country does not need more prayers over the intercoms of schoolhouses; rather, we need more people praying for and with hurting students. Our country does not need more prayers in the halls of Congress; rather, we need more congressional leaders praying for divine guidance in the privacy of their offices. Our country does not need more rote prayers in church services or at meal times; rather, we need more Christians who live in communion with God throughout the week. Our country does not need more expressions of God in our pledge or on our currency; rather, we need more people who live like God in their lives each day.    

As followers of Jesus, we need to take a long, hard look at why and how we pray. It is time to cancel the games we play and be real, authentic and genuine in our faith. It is time for us to be truly concerned about the welfare of others and to recognize our common humanity. It is time for us to cry out to God in our desperation for ourselves and each other.  

It is time for us to hear the words of Damar Hamlin who recently tweeted, “When you put real love out into the world it comes back to you 3x’s as much. …. We brung the world back together behind this.”  

Maybe for a brief moment, the world has come together with a glimpse of what Jesus taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Maybe for a brief moment the stopping heart of one will bring us to the heart of God for all.  

Let us pray!  

Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo., where he currently is starting a new community of faith, CrossRoads. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.