Prayer, Pain, and Power on the Gridiron
By Joy Lucius
It’s a Friday in September, and in small-town Mississippi, that means only one thing – high school football.
Tomorrow, the big boys in the SEC play, and we will be equally as serious about that. But tonight, our sons and grandsons will meet and play their hearts out for their hometown alma maters. And I, along with thousands of others across our state, will be right there, cheering on my team, decked out in school colors and yelling for my team.
Evidently, Friday night football is not just a Mississippi thing. It is one of the few events taking place at the same time in the same way all across our country. And sadly, it used to be a common American practice for schools to have pre-game prayers, followed by a community-wide recitation of the Pledge and a heartfelt rendition of the national anthem.
Now, we rarely hear a prayer, and it is not guaranteed that we hear the Pledge or the anthem. And despite the assurances that we are now more inclusive, more diverse, and less intolerant, it simply feels like we are not commonly bound together by anything at all. But I have noticed at some schools a fairly new tradition, and it gives me hope.
Since schools are told that modern interpretations of our constitutional rights prohibit school-sanctioned prayer, Christian kids have become quite savvy. Sometimes, a group of them, from both teams, gather at will in the middle of the field and have their own, student-led prayer. Some coaches bravely join, hat in hand, without ever saying a word. Others wait quietly on their respective sidelines. And now and then, a parent will wander out to join the huddle.
It is a moving sight to behold when kids initiate prayer, realizing that no one has the right to keep them from praying – not in America. Right?
Well, maybe not. I read about a school in Lake City, Michigan, where the Trojan football team has after-game “Family Circle” that is student led. They gather together with parents, community, and coaches to pray after they play, win or lose. And recently, they felt the urgent need to show their love for their coach whose young daughter Harper Smith was very, very sick.
Just imagine for a moment the compassion and concern that would prompt a team and a community to spontaneously pray for someone in their own team family. And keep in mind that no one coerced anyone else to join, and no one excluded any other persons or religions. It was just a community voluntarily gathering to love and care for one of its own. Beautiful, right?
Not exactly. Via a video, someone saw that outpouring of spontaneous love as an evil violation of the ever-erroneous separation of church and state. A formal complaint was voiced, and the school district acquiesced, fearing the financial burden of defending possible litigation. So, no more Family Circle after Lake City Trojan football games.
I cannot imagine how that town feels, or even worse, how that coach feels, knowing that people simply wanted to pray for and love his precious little, four-year-old girl.
But after researching the school and the community response, I was amazed. It seems as though the entire incident has become a rallying cry for more prayer for little Harper. All over town, #harperstrong signs went up in yards and on business billboards, while towns (and teams) across the state joined the call to pray for Harper.
We experienced something similar to Harper’s family last year during my son’s very first year of assistant coaching when he was diagnosed with leukemia. It was quite a shock to him, to us, to his friends, and possibly most of all, to his young football players and the other coaches.
I am so grateful I was not there to witness the scene when school leaders explained the situation to his small football team. I heard it was a gut-wrenching moment for kids and adults alike. Prayer was a spontaneous part of that moment. No adult had to lead them; they instinctively joined together in prayer immediately.
From that moment on, his players and fellow coaches rallied to his side. They (and their parents) called, texted, and Facetimed him. They raised money through selling #LININGUPWITHLUCIUS bracelets in school colors of brown and gold and declaring Proverbs 18:16, one of his favorite verses. They sent him a team helmet signed by each of the players and coaches. And most of all, they prayed for him over and over again.
It was those prayers and countless others that saw us through. And when the final diagnosis was made, it was only a chronic form of leukemia, with a very good prognosis for health and long life.
So, tonight, when we head to the football field, it is not the final score that will matter most to me. I love watching my healthy son interact with all those kids who loved on him and prayed for him through it all.
My heart literally aches to think that a human being could have or would have truly resented those prayers for our son — or similar prayers for little Harper Smith in Lake City, Michigan.
I truly believe God will sustain Harper’s family, just like he did ours. He will sustain the coaches, the players, and the parents there in Lake City, Michigan. And He will answer their Family Circle prayer. So, let’s pray with them for little Harper.
But even more than that, can we join with the Lake City Trojans to pray that God will save and heal the heart of those who filed a formal complaint against their after-game Family Circle? Can we pray that this complaint against a football field prayer will become the prayer-laced path that leads each of them straight to our Savior?
Let us pray!