Lent always seems to catch me off guard. My husband and I have always understood Lent as a time to do more prayer and more sacrifice in order to draw closer to God.
But often, Ash Wednesday arrives and we default to “giving something up” even though we would like to “do” something instead. We have gone meatless, kept the television off, and given up sweets—all fine ideas, but all too familiar when taken up year after year.
A new inspiration came to me in 2016, however. It started shortly before Lent, when I picked up the brightly colored phonebook for a prayer group that Bill and I belong to. My heart was stirred to pray for our group in a special way. So I talked to my husband, and asked him to help come up with a process for interceding for our friends every week during Lent.
The Phonebook Prayer Project. My husband was just the right person to take this on. A retired military man, he was used to organizing events of all sizes and shapes. Within a few days, we were ready to kick off the “Phonebook Prayer Project.” Fortunately, the phonebook didn’t just contain numbers—it also listed email addresses. Each week, we would choose a random page from the book, and send an email to the six or seven families listed. We would invite them to email us back with their special prayer intentions, which we would lift up to God every day for a week. We told them these intentions would remain confidential. We never could have guessed how positively people would respond.
From the start, people were astounded and grateful that someone would focus on their prayer needs for a week. In return, they entrusted us with intense, and highly personal intentions.
There were requests for healing: physical, emotional, and spiritual. People shared about struggles with sin, job-related troubles, loneliness, and wanting to get married. Some people prayed for their children or parents, others prayed for family members to grow in their faith. As the emails poured in, we felt the gravity of the needs, and our daily commitment to pray grew stronger.
When we received a prayer request, we entered it into a small journal. Usually, we read through the journal together before going to bed, and then again in the morning. We asked God to be present in each situation; to answer people’s prayers; to bring healing, reconciliation, and faith where it was needed. We prayed with openness, and tried not to let our personal ideas about the best outcome supersede what God might be doing.
Silent Accompaniment, Side by Side. The weeks of Lent continued, and Bill and I continued to receive prayer requests that struck at the heart of people’s daily struggles. It surprised us that these were our friends, but we didn’t always know what was going on with them. Their faces might appear carefree at church or at prayer group, but many people were privately carrying heavy burdens. When we saw those burdens in black and white, our compassion and love for our friends increased.
The prayer project began to impress something on me: that this was pretty serious. We were in a battle—against evil, against our own fallen nature, and sometimes against random misfortunes that happened to people. The blessing, however, was that we felt more connected to our friends because we were standing on the spiritual battlefield with them. And those receiving the benefits of prayer expressed time and again their gratitude that they were not alone on the battlefield.
Several times, one of the people we chose from our “random page” told us it might not be so random after all. “How did you know we needed prayers this week?” they asked. We assured them that we didn’t know—but God did! Some people followed up to tell us about answered prayers. We prayed for one friend to get a job, and he notified us shortly thereafter that he had found temporary work. Many others emailed us their prayer needs but never brought them up to us in person, and that was fine with us. It was less about the outcome and more about accompanying people in prayer. They knew, and we knew, that God was at work.
Tap into Heaven This Lent. Bill and I discovered that by interceding, we were part of a “bigger picture.” We were tapping into the exchange of hoping, asking, and praying that is part of each person’s relationship with God. By taking part in the exchange, it was as if we became spiritual “battle buddies” with our friends. Our connection went deeper than sharing a coffee or even doing a service project together. We were entering the heavenly throne room with them!
The size of our prayer group meant that our intercession commitment could stretch well beyond Easter Sunday. But we didn’t want to end this particular Lenten practice—not in the way we had enjoyed returning to eating meat or listening to sports radio in the past. It didn’t seem like a burden to continue our prayers until we had turned the final page of the phonebook, which had now become our “prayer book.”
The joy and closeness we shared with our friends through answered prayer and ongoing intercession made Lent 2016 a truly memorable experience. As the first Sunday arrived with our project completed and no one to email, we felt a certain sadness. In fact, we immediately started looking forward to Lent 2017 so that we could do it all over!
This Lent, maybe God is calling you to “do something” rather than to “give up something.” Serve at your church; take up a new prayer practice or devotion; find a way to grow closer to a family member or a friend. Ask the Holy Spirit for inspiration. If our experience is any example, God may have a special task for you!
Deb Sjoberg lives in Virginia with her husband Bill.