Following Jesus's lead to pray without ceasing can take us from simple dialogue to deep intercession on behalf of others. Here's what four women have been learning about the importance of taking time to pray for each other and ourselves.
Following God's Lead in Our Prayers
Bowing my head in frustration I cried out to God, "Lord, I have no words to intercede on behalf of Mantombi. Your Holy Spirit gives me suggestions of what to pray for, but today, as I listen to you, I feel barren. I have no words."
I admired the small, delicately crafted cross serving as a bookmark in my Bible. Mantombi, a beautiful, lyrical name was written on a card attached to the cross by a gauzy gold ribbon. Mantombi. The heavyset woman's dark, wrinkled, weathered face flashed across my mind.
"What do I pray for you?" I whispered.
Sitting in church the day before, I was moved as I listened to our women's ministry leaders describe their experiences visiting and ministering to the people in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. I saw photos of grandmothers beading at a small church. They were making crosses and angels that, along with monetary donations, would help support the countless children who had lost everything—including their moms and dads to AIDS. As I watched and listened I felt God move me to get involved. But how? What could I do—a suburban, midwestern American woman—to make any difference in the lives of people on the other side of the world?
My answer had come at the end of the service. The women's ministry group passed out small crosses and asked us to pray for the Phakamisa ministry, and for the grandmother who made our cross and worked with AIDS orphans.
I can pray, I realized. And so I added Mantombi to my prayer list. What I didn't realize was that through my prayers, God would teach me something about my own life.
"What Do You Need?"
Now I gently held the cross in my hand. What do I pray for you? I wondered afresh. "Lord, please teach me how to intercede for someone I don't know or understand. Our lives seem so different," I pleaded. "I haven't met her and I haven't visited the Phakamisa ministry in South Africa, but I know these AIDS orphans are some of your 'least.'" I thought of Jesus' words in Matthew 25:40: "I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!"
"I know they need the usual prayers for money, product sales, supplies, and personnel issues. Is this what you want me to pray for Mantombi, so she can continue to care for these orphans?"
I waited to hear from God, sure he wanted more from me than just a list. "Holy Spirit, I feel a gentle tug of love and compassion for her that can only be coming from you," I pressed on, not willing to give up until I felt direction.
Finally, I got up and moved to my computer. Searching for understanding, I visited that ministry's website (www.phakamisa.org). Sitting atop an old, mud-caked, flatbed tractor, I saw children playing with the steering wheel, or sitting with their legs dangling over the sides, laughter on their faces. The photographer did a great job to show prospering children. These faces could have been me or my children. How could they be AIDS orphans? They looked too well cared for and happy.
There were also photos of women at a table, in a lush garden stooped over plants harvesting and weeding, and of a woman holding a cherished child on her hips. It could have been me in those photographs, I realized as I thought back to my own upbringing. I grew up on a farm. I gardened; I weeded; I milked cows, and helped my brothers care for chickens. I babysat my youngest brother, holding him the same way on my hip. I did many of these same chores on a daily basis.
The photos were lovely, but they gave me no inspiration for intercessory prayer—everything seemed fine. What did they need? I felt only more confused.
"Holy Spirit, I felt your burden placed on my heart in church to intercede for Mantombi and the other grandmothers as they work caring for your least."
Still no great revelations came to mind.
Maybe contemplation of the cross would give me the understanding I needed. I stared at the beaded cross now laying on my index finger, the symbol of Jesus' resurrection. Lord, am I even saying her name correctly? was all I could think.
"How many hours a day do you work at your beading, Mantombi?" I wished for her to sit and chat with me. She could express her concerns, and I would understand what she needed as a woman of God. "I'm amazed you and other grandmothers like you are able to support your ministry selling beaded creations," I said aloud, through my thoughts.
The more I tried to glean facts about Mantombi, to understand what her day was like, the more she eluded me. No thoughts for intercession came about her personally, only for the ministry she served. But I could not deny this call I felt to pray for Mantombi in particular. I guess that's what intercession is about—continuing until a clear message from the Holy Spirit makes an imprint on my mind.
Digging deeper into this mystery, I asked myself, "How would I find emotional strength to care for children who were soon to die because of AIDS? Orphaned children who had lost their parents to AIDS, who had no medicines or good health care, but still had me, a grandmother, to love them?"
I shuddered and whispered, "The mere thought of what you do scares me, Mantombi. How can you get up each day to meet their needs, knowing you will say goodbye to your grandchildren soon? You've already said goodbye to their parents, desperately praying they are in heaven so you will see them again someday."
Soon a Scripture I prayed when I struggled floated into my thoughts: You know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing (James 1:3-4).
"That's it, Lord!" I shouted. I had an answer to my question. "Without perseverance, Mantombi, you'd be crushed by grief. So much death surrounds you with no end in sight. I will pray for perseverance for you and your fellow grandmothers."
Today's intercessory prayer was as much a lesson for me as a prayer for Mantombi.
"Thank you, Lord. You've led me to understand some of her needs, while reminding me of Scripture hidden in my heart. You've also given me perseverance to wait upon you."
I felt relieved, but wondered if I was done with my prayer for this African woman. Looking at my lap, the Bible was still open to where Mantombi's cross had been. These words jumped out from the page. "The only letter of recommendation we need is you yourselves. Your lives are a letter written in our hearts; everyone can read it and recognize our good work among you. Clearly, you are a letter from Christ showing the result of our ministry among you. This 'letter' is written not with pen and ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. It is carved not on tablets of stone, but on human hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
Mantombi's letter to my heart spoke of her tender care for AIDS children. The small seed beaded cross showed how she lived daily. The fruits of her labor were smiles of joy on the faces of happy children.
God patiently waited for me to patiently wait on him. And he answered my prayer using Scripture and pearly white seed beads.
If I had rushed through my prayer time with a simple, "God bless Mantombi and her work with AIDS orphans. You know the needs," I would have missed out on the blessing of persisting in prayer and really learning to listen to God's concerns. I knew my wrestling in prayer made me a stronger pray-er and my prayers more powerful and useful to God's kingdom.
I will continue to pray for Mantombi's efforts and her spiritual welfare as well as the children placed into her care. Through Mantombi, God taught me to continue praying until I clearly understand what he wishes for me to pray. Intercession is a challenge and hard work—but something God desires and delights in when we follow his lead.
Jan Lazo-Davis is a freelance writer from Leawood, Kansas. She's been praying for Mantombi and the Phakamisa ministry for three years and counting.