The football world was shocked on Saturday evening after the on-field heart attack of Bolton Wanderers’ Fabrice Muamba during his side’s FA Cup tie at Tottenham Hotspur. The heroic actions of medical staff resuscitated the player, yet he remains in a critical condition in a north London hospital.
Much has been written about the collective goodwill shown over the weekend towards Muamba throughout the footballing community, and central to this was a phenomenon somewhat out of sync with this world that we live in – everyone is praying for him. This was typified by Spurs’ Christian player Rafael Van der Vaart praying on the pitch, but it goes far beyond a faithful few.
People who wouldn’t call themselves Christians, from players to journalists to football bloggers, urged followers to ‘Pray for Muamba’. In a desperate search for hope, the thoughts of the entire nation turned heavenwards.
Former Bolton teammate Gary Cahill, a player with no professed faith, celebrated his goal for Chelsea by displaying a ‘Pray for Muamba’ T-shirt. In an extraordinary gesture, the Real Madrid team warmed up for Sunday evening’s game in similar tops. This morning’s newspapers feature tweets from Muamba’s fiancée stating that ‘God is in control,’ while Bolton’s manager Owen Coyle, himself a Christian, hailed the power of prayer, saying it has been ‘A real source of strength for the family’.
It would be insensitive and inaccurate for us to proclaim this weekend as a ‘victory’ for Christianity. Muamba’s life remains in danger and he still might die. Many of the pleas for prayer were not directed at a Judeo-Christian power, but rather at some unnamed deity.
But it does tell us something about prayer and its place in wider society. Perhaps all we learn is that in moments of desperation people are willing to cling on to whatever form of hope they can find. That people see prayer as a last resort, the final roll of the dice when the odds are stacked against you.
But I’m not sure this is what was going on here. Much talk this weekend has focused on the community within football, that the game ties fans of all teams together – in this case, to support Muamba. And when we cry out to God, when we pray together, we become part of a wider community, one that ties all of humanity and creation together. In the same way that Muamba’s name on the back of Bolton shirts shows that fans are with him, humanity’s call for prayer in these times cries out that we are not alone in this.
We continue to pray for the recovery of Muamba, we thank God for the skills and quick response of the medical staff and the support of those around them, and believe we have a God who performs miracles. But this weekend showed the other side of prayer.
The real power of prayer here was of support, of community, of knowing that Fabrice Muamba and those close to him are not alone, that they have a world of people around them, loving them – and a God who remains in control, remains loving, and who ties all of those together, even when he feels most absent.
Jamie Cutteridge is editorial assistant at Christianity magazine