Praying through Lent

40 days is a long time. Anyone who has given up something they really like for Lent knows this. Chocolate, french fries, caffeine, coffee … it’s not always easy to live without them for a few weeks, and the sacrifice doesn’t always stick with us when Lent ends.

I’ve never been really faithful about giving up things for Lent, and frankly I’m not 100 percent sure why or if I should. But this year, I wanted to acknowledge the season in some way, so Phil and I talked about praying together daily.

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We’ve been looking for ways to grow spiritually, and the disciplines of the Christian life — Bible study, quiet time, prayer — have not come easy for us in our married life. If they were done at all, they were done more out of a sense of duty than of a desire to become more like Christ. In the months leading up to Lent, we had both established regular times of Bible reading and personal devotions, but our prayer life still lacked. So, we decided to commit ourselves to praying together once a day for the duration of Lent.

We prepared a prayer calendar listing the names of family and friends for whom we wanted to pray. (We actually created the list months before but hadn’t made the commitment to pray.) We hung it in a place where we could see it. And we sent Facebook messages (mostly; we did make a couple of phone calls) asking for prayer requests from the people who were coming up on the list for the week. (If we didn’t contact you, it doesn’t mean we aren’t praying for you. Sometimes, we got too busy to send the messages before the day arrived.)

This became one of my favorite parts of the day. It took both of us, sometimes, to remember that we had to pray. Sometimes it was afternoon; sometimes it was almost midnight. Sometimes we were really alert; other times we fell asleep during prayer time. We did miss a day or two toward the end, but for us, this was a major step in our daily practice of our faith.

Besides growing us closer to God and each other, this commitment opened the way for closer relationships with friends and family members. At times, Phil and I are horrible at keeping in touch with people. We post pictures of our kids months after we took them. We don’t respond to voicemails or e-mails or letters or Facebook message, mostly because we forget and are lazy, not because we don’t care. Living 700 miles from family is a greater distance than it first seemed, and technology doesn’t always close that distance for us.

Praying for people made us make an effort to keep in touch, and we learned new things about those closest to us and were able to feel their needs more deeply because we’d heard from them.

The calendar is set up for four weeks, so if we’re faithful to our commitment, we’re praying for the people on it about once a month. The second time through the calendar, we haven’t been asking for requests because it almost seemed too soon, like the requests may not have changed in a month. We’re still praying for people, but we’re evaluating how we gather prayer requests, and if we should ask every time we’re praying for a particular person.

I’m considering setting up a Facebook group for those on our prayer calendar to create a place where people could leave their requests if they have something they want us to pray for. That almost seems too passive, impersonal and public — not at all what I want our prayer life to be about.

Asking for prayer requests is kind of a tricky matter. I think the question, “How can I pray for you?” is too often seen as a spiritual substitute for “What juicy thing is going on in your life that I want to know about?” I’ve certainly felt like that, both when asked and when doing the asking, but when I’m actually praying for the person, I don’t feel guilty asking how I can pray.

The Bible says that even if I don’t know what to pray, the Holy Spirit does. Talk about mind-blowing: I can’t begin to imagine how that works. So, I also know that I don’t need to know what to pray for in order to pray. We certainly didn’t get a response from everyone, yet we prayed for those people.

So, I’m curious about your approach to prayer. Do you ask people what to pray for or trust that the Spirit will give you the words and needs? Do you intentionally pray for people on certain days or as the needs arise? Have you used a prayer calendar to organize your prayer life?

I know, for me, having a calendar has helped lessen the burden of prayer. Because, let’s face it, we can’t pray for everyone and everything everywhere all the time, but sometimes we feel like we should. The calendar has helped us focus our times of prayer but also gives us leeway to pray for other, timely needs when they happen.

Lent may be over, but the Easter season is just beginning. If you’re looking to add to your spiritual growth, take the 50 days of Easter (from this past Sunday to the Day of Pentecost, June 12) to try daily prayer or intentional prayer for those you love. Or pick some other area of spiritual growth where you feel you may be lacking. My husband the seminarian recommends Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” and Ruth Haley Barton’s “Sacred Rhythms” as helpful resources for the Christian disciplines and spiritual growth.

If you make any kind of commitment for the Easter season, leave a comment and I’ll be glad to pray for you and encourage you on your journey. To prayer, my husband and I added a devotional reading for the Easter season.

Just as physical growth doesn’t happen all at once, neither does spiritual growth. Take one step today and see where it leads you.

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