What I’m about to share may be news to no one but me. But I’m going to share it anyhow, because for me it was a revelation.
Are you ready? Here it is: You don’t have to do intercession on your knees. You don’t have to be quiet and still in order to pray for others. In fact, concentrating on the prayer needs of loved ones may actually happen better—at least it does for me—when you’re not trying to sit silently and contemplatively.
Like I said, that probably is not an epiphany for many people. But it has been a wonderful discovery for me. Here’s why.
For many years, the only kinds of prayer I knew were petition and intercession—that is, praying for my needs and the needs of others. Usually that need-based prayer generated from a prayer list. I have used a lot of different kinds of prayer lists over the years (loose-leaf “prayer organizers”; index cards with people’s needs written on them; prayer lists compiled by my church; 31-day prayer cards; special-interest daily prayer guides, and so on).
When, in more recent years, I learned about prayer as conversation and relationship with God, my prayer times changed radically. Talking with God was like talking with a friend. We talked about all kinds of things, and sometimes we had entire long conversations in which I didn’t ask Him for anything at all. So after experiencing prayer like that, bringing the equivalent of a grocery list to this intimate conversation no longer seemed natural or appropriate. So I stopped praying from lists. For a while.
But before long, I realized something was missing. Although I was enjoying conversations with God and my prayer life was more meaningful than it had been before, I felt as if I was leaving out something important. Friends and situations still needed my prayer—but I didn’t know how to work it into this new, more contemplative way of interacting with God. I wondered if I’d thrown out the baby with the bath.
So I started experimenting with ways to bring intercession back into my prayer life. I have had varying degrees of success with that. But something God has shown me recently holds a lot of promise. And so here is my discovery: intercession mixes very well with exercise.
I joined a gym in January at God’s invitation (long story—maybe I’ll share it sometime). And to my astonishment, I’m enjoying it and can actually seeing myself continuing for the long haul. My favorite activity is swimming. I now swim for 30 minutes every other day.
There is nothing to look at in a swimming pool but the black line at the bottom. And there is nothing to listen to since water and iPods don’t go together. But one day, halfway through my work out, God stirred my thoughts out of idle. He brought someone to mind just as I was finishing a lap. I decided to pray for that person as I swam the next lap. When I came to the end of that lap, another person came to mind. The same thing happened for the rest of my laps that day. When I got out of the pool, I counted: I’d prayed for 10 people. And it had felt very different from praying a list. Somehow my prayers for people that day went deeper—I prayed for the obvious needs, but I also prayed for other less-immediate (but perhaps even more important) things for them. I prayed Scripture for them. I prayed from my heart, not just a list. It was good—and I was hooked.
The next time I swam, I planned ahead for how many laps I was going to do. I asked God to help me identify a person to pray for during each lap. Then, instead of counting laps, I prayed for people. When I had finished praying for all the people, my workout was done.
Another day, the Holy Spirit brought to mind some situations and people with complex and serious needs, so each need got six laps. Another day close friends and family got two laps apiece, while people I didn’t know as well each got one. Each day it’s different, depending on how the Holy Spirit directs me to pray.
This new-found structure for intercession has worked well for me. It allows enough time to actually talk to God about the situation (rather than just recite the need as it appears on my list). But it’s not so still-and-silent that I lose focus. Somehow the rhythm of the laps and the sameness of the black line keep me from distraction so I can engage with God more fully about the needs He invites me to pray about.
Has anyone else out there discovered a way to make extended times of intercession meaningful and engaging? I’d love to hear your stories and ideas!