In the nondenominational Bible churches of my youth, Lent was considered a "Catholic thing." But as I've attended PCA churches in my adulthood, I've gained appreciation for the church calendar and, in particular, this pre-Easter season of penitence. Observing Lent can include forgoing habits or foods, but it's also a time of adding something, such as a spiritual discipline.
For me, the discipline tied to my richest seasons of spiritual life has been prayer-walking.
I was properly introduced to prayer-walking during a visit to a friend's small California church in a cliff-side community of surfers and artists. For a few years they had walked the entire town every few months, taking a calendar or gift to each house where the owners welcomed them, and praying over every residence. I happened to visit the week of their quarterly prayer walk, and joined them in praying a verse for each house in the few blocks my partner and I were assigned to.
Ours was ordinary work, and it was hard to see how so few words could accomplish much. Yet my friends believed their prayers had gradually increased the community's spiritual receptiveness. And when I thought back to my most scarring stab at "spiritual work," on a summer evangelistic project, I noticed it was marked by a striking absence of prayer.
Once back home in Brooklyn, I started to realize how little compassion I had for my actual neighbors. One day, when I was walking home from praying for my own needs, I started to look at the street around me. I noticed more clues to the neighborhood's health than I expected. After a few days, I committed to pray for one particular block on my route to and from the Subway. Before long, the short prayer became such an entrenched habit that taking an alternative route became unthinkable.
Praying for a street you don't know, whose residents you don't know, is weird. But it can tune you into how many houses are in poor repair or on the market (a signal of change or loss). I got to know the place where homeless people bedded down. When I saw a cart and the mattress on the bitter night of Thanksgiving—as I hurried home to warm blankets and steaming cider, escaping 20-30 mph winds—I started crying. That night I couldn't pray at all; I just wept.
Then one night I saw a moving van. Newcomers! I thought of how my California friends greeted their new neighbors, hesitated, then waited until I saw someone approach the van. I asked the man how I could pray for him. He looked rather surprised, but gave it some thought and a serious answer. So did the three other people I asked over the next week or so. Each time the talks went better, and I learned more about the block—their concerns about rent, and a woman whose son had died of HIV/AIDS.
The months went by, and I kept trying to pray for the block. Gradually I got to know a homeless guy who often parked his cart on the street. One night C. J. asked me to tell him why I was a Christian, since I had told him that it was Jesus who changed me from being someone who hurried past people like him, to the woman who gave him fruit and stopped to talk.
For most of my life as a Christian, I've wanted the chance to see God bring someone to Jesus. But it's never really happened. I hadn't even had a clear invitation to talk about why I followed Jesus until that day, when C. J. had to know why we had become friends. It wasn't exactly how I had envisioned increased spiritual openness on 10th Street, but what else would you call it?
A year or so into my prayers for the block, and a few months before I left Brooklyn for good, I learned that a pastor and his family had moved into my section of 10th Street, after I started praying for it. And I had prayed specifically for God to bring Christians into that area to love the people who lived there. After the pastor moved in, his upstairs neighbors started attending church with them—another answer to prayer.
I still marvel that God let me glimpse how he was answering my prayers, petitions I so often made uncertainly. It takes me back to my earliest childhood memory of prayer, which was a request that God give me a little brother. Not long after, Mom shared the news that she was pregnant with my second brother.
As a single 32-year-old, I've certainly learned that God doesn't always answer as quickly or closely to what we want, but I'm nonetheless convinced that prayer seems to be part of how he invites us into what he's doing and wants to do. What baby steps might you take in your prayer life this Lent?
Anna Broadway is a writer and web editor living in the San Francisco Bay area. She is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity. She has written for Her.meneutics about Eat, Pray, Love, Christian dating, and Mel Gibson.