PRAWN SANDWICH PRAYERS
What stadium sport shows us about intercession
Sports fans: do you expect your team to win or lose as the match starts?
Two factors usually come into play: personality and context. Natural optimists imagine the goals, tries and runs coming freely. Life’s Eeyores expect their team to throw it all away in the dying minutes. This is where context comes into play. Some people have good reason to be hopeful: the All Black fan, perhaps. Others have cause to be gloomy: Forest Green, maybe (chosen because at the time of writing they were at the foot of League Division 2).
The thing about successful teams is the way it can breed complacency in both kinds of fans. Roy Keane, in one of his periodic tirades, lambasted the so-called ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ at Manchester United who could never raise a cheer for a team they demanded win in style each week. This is not unique: some grounds sound more like cemeteries on match day, even though the effect of the crowd as twelfth man is widely accepted.
When a crowd gets behind their team it can help to sway a game by rattling the opposition, cluttering their thinking and tempting them into panicky decision-making. The relationship in a sports stadium between fans and team carries echoes of the far deeper kinship between those who pray and those who work. And we are all on one side or the other at any one time. The letter to the Hebrews alludes to a similar metaphor when it says: ‘since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us’ (12:1). The crowd cheers on the runners, who are inspired by those who look on.
Just as fans lift their team and loosen the opposition, so intercessors create the conditions by which resolute defences are unpicked. The fan can never know how much their singing and shouting undermines the opposition; neither can the intercessor know for sure what their prayers may achieve. But we can be sure those who pray have a bigger impact.
The risk is the Church having its own prawn sandwich brigade. When things are going well, we forget the pivotal role that intercession plays even when it feels like we’re winning. Any sports fan can tell you how quickly a winning position can be lost. Some fans who give up on games stop singing for their team and increasingly walk out of the stadium early in disgust (and to beat the traffic). No intercessor can be so resigned. Perseverance is expected, even when the evidence looks hopeless.
The best fans never give up singing and are at their most impressive when their team is losing. For the Christian, it brings to mind the final words of the prophet Habakkuk: ‘though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines…yet I will rejoice in the Lord’ (3:17-18). This is the sacrifice of praise, offered in adversity as surely as in success.
Most impressive of all fans are those who travel unconscionable distances on a Saturday to support their team away from home, rising before dawn and getting back near midnight and putting themselves in the thick of an intimidating opposition stadium. Intercessory prayer is at its most profound when it is done in the darkest corners, in the places we would rather not go to, and which never lets up until the game is over.
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