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What Damar Hamlin, Sean McDermott, and the Buffalo Bills Can Teach the Church About Faith



When I saw Damar Hamlin collapse during the Bills vs. Bengals game on January 2, 2023, I thought for sure he was dead. Watching the hardened, grid-iron boys on both sides of the contest break down in tears, seeing the 6'6" Mitch Morse consolingly embrace cornerback Tre'Davious White, and observing the feverish pitch at which the emergency medical personnel were performing their "work" fostered an instinctive pessimism that led me to assume the worst. As the ambulance left the stadium, I had no doubt we would awake on January 3rd to news of Hamlin's passing.


Fortunately, that did not happen, and as I write this blog, Hamlin has been released from the hospital and is expected to make a full recovery from what doctors believe was a rare commotio cordis heart attack caused by the blunt-force trauma of his tackle only seconds prior. What looked to be an incredible tragedy has turned into cause for celebration and will no doubt serve as fodder for many sports journalists, motivational speakers, and social-media commentators in the weeks ahead. But I believe "The Hamlin Incident" should also be a subject for people of faith because what we witnessed in Cincinnati that Monday evening harbors spiritual object lessons every churchgoer should consider--lessons in faith that every believer needs to recognize and practice. If you will indulge me, I would like to discuss a few of these.


First, when Hamlin fell recumbent and it became apparent he was seriously injured, and as his life hung in the proverbial balance, the Bills players demonstrated genuine, heartfelt concern for their brother, some with tears, others through various hand and arm gestures and body positions, and still others through empathetic affect. Every member of the Bills' roster was intently and reverently focused on the plight of their teammate. No one was ambivalent. Unfortunately, in so many churches today, wounded brothers and sisters suffer in silence and isolation. Their names are read in prayer lists and pseudo-compassionate conversations are held in their absence lamenting some current condition or prognosis; nevertheless, these sufferers and their suffering are too often quickly forgotten, thereby leaving them feeling abandoned and lonely. What the Bills taught us is to turn toward our hurting brothers and sisters; to kneel and cry; to reach out, up, and over our heads; to embrace; and to soak in the pain of another, not out of some selfish motive or perceived obligation, but simply because we care and are God's instruments of charity.


Furthermore, when faced with the potential loss of their friend, the Bills players sought the Lord in individual and communal prayer. They knew they could not save Hamlin, but they knew of the One who could. When faced with similar exigencies in life, God's people too often try to problem-solve without Him. In arrogance and ignorance, we erroneously believe that we possess some innate power or wisdom to fix what has been broken, thus kneeling before the altar of self. What the Bills taught us is that the only altar worthy of bended knee is the one occupied by He whose knees were broken, whose hands were pierced, and whose back was scourged. They taught us that to save, we must cry out to the Savior.


I was also impressed by the leadership of Bill's coach Sean McDermott. When the NFL executives decided the players would take a short break after Hamlin was removed from the field and then resume play, McDermott and the Bengal's coach objected. They realized the suffering of their brother-in-sport was worthy of pause and respect, thus they recommended (indeed, demanded) a cessation of play to allow the team to pray, mourn, and reflect. In today's fast-paced, corporate-like, entertainment-driven church, we rarely take time to step back, consider our priorities, and simply contemplate God, the future, and the existential-spiritual meaning of life. The Bills (and Bengals) and Sean McDermott taught us that there is a season for everything: "a time to mourn and a time to dance" (Ecclesiastes 3:4, NIV).


Finally, Hamlin's unfortunate tragedy taught us that even superstars can experience pain and injury. Prior to the game and incident itself, no one on the Bills thought for an instant that one of their own would experience such a devastating accident, but when he did, no one expected him to continue playing. No one criticized his collapse or his having to be administered CPR. Not one person said, "Damar, this is all your fault. Bone up, and take it like a man. Forget about your pain and move on. We've got to win this game!" To have done anything of this sort would have seemed senseless and insensitive. Yet every day in America, churchgoers encounter pastors, church leaders, and fellow ministry workers in pain (physical, emotional, and spiritual agony consequent to the endless demands of faith-based service) and instead of rallying around them in support and encouragement, they criticize and ignore, expecting the sufferer to simply and supernaturally recover, all the while playing the game of ministry at or beyond the level of superstardom. This, my friends, is a plague on the church that leaves many called men and women of God feeling abandoned, friendless, and disembodied from the Body of Christ. What a shame; what a travesty!


In their song "Grace," Irish rock band U2 describes God's grace as "a thought that changed the world" and as something that finds beauty and goodness in everything. On January 2nd, we saw grace in the most unsuspecting place. We typically associate the grid-iron with sweat, fast-twitch athleticism, raw grit, and superhuman feats of strength and agility. But for a few minutes in early 2023, we saw something that changed our world...something of beauty and of goodness. We saw charity, prayer, right priorities, and empathy played out before us. We saw a model for the church encompassed not by stained glass and superficial stereotypes but by the most quintessential elements of faith. We saw Christ at work, as Bono sings, "remov[ing] the stain . . . [and] cover[ing] the shame," all in the name of love, mercy, and grace. Ah, that the church could take an ordinary lesson from some rather extraordinary footballers!

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