On Saturday I was at a training day with other pioneer ministers and the speaker said something which resonated:
One of the best things you can do for those who aren’t Christians is to teach them how to pray. Most people want to, but aren’t sure how.
On Saturday evening and through Sunday the truth of this statement became evident. People were wanting to pray.
In the forty-first minute of an FA Cup tie with Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday 17th March, 23-year-old Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed to the ground with no-one around him. It was immediately apparent that something serious had happened. The game stopped, later to be abandoned, as emergency medical staff ran onto the pitch. He had suffered cardiac arrest. The other played looked onwards. The Spurs player Rafael van der Vaart fell to his knees and started praying whilst a defibrillator was used to try to restart Muamba’s heart. One cardiologist who was at the game as a fan ran onto the pitch to assist. This doctor accompanied Muamba, Bolton manager Owen Coyle, club captain Kevin Davies and the Bolton and Spurs medical staff to the London Chest Hospital where his treatment continued.
At about the same time the twittersphere heard about the news and quickly a #pray4Muamba hashtag began spreading. People began praying. The family of Fabrice asked people to pray. Owen Coyle, a Christian, requested that people “keep him in their prayers“. The following day the Chelsea player Gary Cahill who is a former team-mate of Muamba at Bolton celebrated his goal after scoring by lifting up his shirt and revealing a t-shirt displaying the words “Pray 4 Muamba”. The twitter trend continued.
On Monday, British newspaper The Sun ran the headline “God is in control” in bold on the front page of both their print and online editions, quoting Muamba’s fiancé. The following day the London free paper Metro ran with “Your prayers are working“. That evening entire Sunderland and Blackburn teams displayed similar messages on t-shirts during their warm-up. Prayer and god was in the headlines in ways not usually seen in the UK.
We later learned that Muamba’s heart had arrested, the defibrillator was used 15 times to get his heart beating again – he had been effectively dead for 78 minutes before his heart started beating again without help. Peter Ould has done a bit of research and determined that the time Muamba’s heart started beating on its own again coincided with the peak usage of the twitter hashtag #pray4Muamba.
Since Saturday, Muamba has begun making a remarkable recovery. The consultant cardiologist, Dr Andrew Deaner who ran onto the pitch and accompanied his treatment said:
“If I was ever going to use the term miraculous it could be used here. He has made a remarkable recovery so far.”
Prayer was being talked about in the public sphere. People who don’t usually pray were praying.
Since Saturday, fans have also been turning up at the Reebok Stadium (Bolton) and White Hart Lane (Spurs) to lay flowers, cards, and shirts bearing messages of support. A minutes applause has also been given for Muamba before each premiership game since. As I watched this it struck me that these were the same rituals that football uses when commemorating the life of a player after his death. Fabrice Muamba was still, and is still alive. Surely we should have different rituals for those who are sick and ill?
People were talking about prayer and people are praying, which is great. But one thing is missing, one thing that I believe would make the rituals of ‘hoping he makes a recovery’ deeper, and that is public prayer. Why not, before each premiership match, lead the crowd in one succinct and to-the-point communal prayer, as they do before many sports events in the US? The prayer of the chaplain could then become the prayers of the people, if they want. He gives the words to use, he helps them to pray. Would this not offer the kind of communal concern that people seem to be after – one that is not indistinguishable from the rituals used in football for commemorating of the dead?
People want to pray, but often they do not know how to pray. Public corporate prayer may help those who struggle to find the word for themselves to resonate with the words of another, and maybe to start to form those prayer for themselves.