When Life Turns on a Dime

All it takes to remind us of our vulnerability is for one pro football player’s heart to stop on the field.  A couple of weeks ago Damar Hamlin, defensive back for the Buffalo Bills, made a seemingly routine tackle.  He stood up after the play, then dropped to the field like a ragdoll, his heart stopping apparently as a result of the impact of the tackle.

But it was what followed that was both moving and insightful.  Grown men, who just seconds before were cursing at each other, trash-talking and no doubt taking the Lord’s name in vain in doing so, were now openly weeping, kneeling together, hugging, holding hands … and praying!  Dan Orlovsky, a former player and commentator for ESPN, actually led a prayer on live television, something I haven’t seen in a long time (except for the sanitized, canned prayers offered at inaugurations, NASCAR races and other scripted events).

Joe Buck said afterward, “This went from a … sporting event to a matter of life and death, like that” (snapping his fingers).  One minute we are in our own little world where sports competitions impact our emotional well-being, where petty disputes poison our peace and where trifling matters rob us of sleep.  And then literally a minute later – when doctors are frantically doing CPR, when the stadium is deathly silent, when seasoned sports-casters who make a living by talking don’t know what to say –  the prospect of death instantly clarifies what really matters in life.  The phrase was repeated over and over again:  “This football game is not what matters; this is about a young man’s life.”

Independence from God is an illusion.  It is a spiritual opiate.  As drugs alter one’s sense of reality and create a false impression of freedom and pleasure, so does the unbridled exercise of free will, the fixation on irrelevant amusements and the lust for self-serving pleasures.  The roots of such things – a sport, hobby, movie, travel, etc. – may not in essence be sinful, but too much emphasis obscures God, reduces Him to an afterthought and fills our minds so full of junk food that we have no appetite for the holy.

The collapse of Damar Hamlin is a teachable moment.  What can we learn from this near-tragic episode?

1. We need God every moment of every day.  We all say things like, “There are no guarantees in life” or, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And while we mean them, they can become a cliché.  For while we intellectually know that life is fragile (how can we not know it when death is a daily occurrence?), such is juxtaposed with the normalcy of health, food, shelter, safety, etc.   Even though they worshiped idols, Paul informed the Lystrans that it was God “who did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Ac 14:17).  It is God who “makes lightning for the rain; He brings the wind out of His treasuries” (Ps 135:7).  “The eyes of all look expectantly to You, and You give them their food in due season.  You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Ps 145:15-16). 

But we often don’t sense the connectedness between God’s daily providence and our existence.  Only when the crisis hits are we shocked back into the reality that life is fragile and how much we depend on God.  It was as a fugitive from Saul that David said, “There is but a step between me and death” (1 Sam 20:3).  But this is true every day.  One step.  One heartbeat.  One accident.  While death should not be a morbid obsession, we should be calmly conscious of the tenuousness of life and appreciate each day as a gift from God and be preparing for the time of our departure.

2. We need to pray in times of peace.  As evidenced on MNF, even those who don’t think much about God on a daily basis are quick to drop to their knees, fervently and in tears, in a time of crisis.  While this is admirable, it is also situational.  Our fellowship with God must grow beyond a felt need or a moment of helplessness or fear.  Did Jesus pray to His Father in a time of crisis?  Yes, He did:  He prayed before choosing the apostles; He prayed before raising Lazarus; He prayed in great agony in Gethsemane; and He prayed from the cross as His life ebbed away.  But Jesus also habitually communed with God in the normal course of life:  “In the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place, and there He prayed” (Mk 1:35); “So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Lk 5:16). 

It may seem awkward to spend 30 minutes in prayer to God when life seems to be in rhythm.  What should we pray about?  Pray for others; surely we all know of those facing ill health, job uncertainty, family turmoil, church strife, child worries, marital stresses.  Pray for elders to shepherd wisely; deacons to serve conscientiously;  teachers to teach truth in love; the church to be at peace.  Pray for civil leaders; for the decaying moral fabric of our country; for the heartless slaughter of the unborn; for those suffering natural calamities … surely, there is plenty to pray for even when our own personal lives are stable.   

3. We need to remember our common humanity.  As Damar Hamlin was lying nearly lifeless on the field, players from both teams were mingling, talking, praying.  It was a stark reminder that though the two teams represented different cities, had different fan bases and were vying for playoff spots, etc., there were real human beings under all those helmets and pads.  It is easy to lose sight of this because of petty, superficial distinctions.  Skin color, socio-economic barriers, educational disparity – and undue emphasis upon them – obscure the fact that we all bear the image  of God.  With the tongue “we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God” (Jas 3:9).

There are many factors in our ailing society that dehumanize our fellow man, from the callousness of others to their deliberate attacks upon the common good to the fear of random violence inflicted upon the innocent every day.  But we can’t afford to build walls that obscure the majestic truth that all men and women are God’s creation and deserve at the very least respect, and beyond this humble and compassionate effort to show them a better way.  The players, pundits and public displayed admirable qualities in the aftermath of Damar Hamlin’s moment of greatest need.  But we can do better, and who else to set the bar higher but God’s people, those who understand that this life “is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (Jas 4:14)?