9-Day Back-to-School Prayer Challenge: A Novena for the Start of the School Year

Ah, back-to-school season. The time of year that most students (teachers?) dread and all parents rejoice. It’s also the time that my control freak tendencies go into overdrive, I read #alltheblogs about which day planner/organizer will change my life, and then proceed to calendar the rest of the year like a maniac.

This year feels different. With my oldest starting kindergarten and echoes of the school shootings in Parkland and Sante Fe still fresh in my mind, I felt the Holy Spirit tugging at my heart to loosen my grip on my need to control everything and to begin by offering up the year to God. This nine-day prayer challenge, inspired by the structure of the traditional novena and the constant reminder to pray unceasingly (1 Thessalonians 5:17), is my answer to that call.

Many would have us believe that “thoughts and prayers” are an empty sentiment, a way for people to say that they care without actually doing anything. I believe that action, inspired and informed by prayer, is what will change the world.

So starting today, I’m inviting anyone who wants to join me to commit to setting aside even just five minutes each day to pray for our children and our schools, for the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the specific ways in which we are being called to take action and be part of the change, and for God to give us the vision that we need to be who God is calling us to be in a broken world.

Tips:

  • You are encouraged to pray at the same time every day, hopefully in the same space whenever possible. Setting an alarm on your phone is helpful. I like to light a candle. Do what you can to set yourself up for success.
  • I’ve found that limiting my time to 15 minutes (at the most!) makes it more likely for me to pray again the next day. Remember that prayer is a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Finally, you are invited to make this prayer your own. There are specific intentions each day followed by some of my own thoughts. Use those to guide you or pray about what’s on your heart that day.

Day 1: Remember who God is

Over the summer, we celebrated John the Baptist’s birth and recalled how his mother Elizabeth, like many women in the Bible, gave birth in impossible circumstances…how new life came about when barrenness should have prevented it.

I couldn’t help but think of where we are today and the seemingly endless news cycle of suffering and injustice. We are living in a time when active shooter drills have become the norm and the list of gun violence victims has grown too long. Immigrant children remain separated from their families. The people of Puerto Rico are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria one year later. Even the Church isn’t immune as the sexual abuse crisis dominates the headlines. Too often, the idea of change seems impossible.

And yet, Scripture reminds us that we worship a God of the impossible. Who, in the beginning, hovered over the waters, brought order to chaos and brought forth light into darkness. Who, as a pillar of fire by night, led the Israelites out of Egypt. Who, through an impossible birth, became human and became a Light to the Nations.

As we begin our prayer together, may all our senses be awakened to the Light of the Impossible God that already burns within us.

Day 2: Learn how to pray

As I’ve grown older, my enthusiasm for the start of a new school year has ebbed and flowed. Likewise, my prayer life has gone through countless seasons of dryness as well as seasons of abundance. When I’m in a dry season, it’s like groping in the dark for a light switch. In times of abundance, prayer feels like spring rain on parched earth.

Over the years, I’ve found God much less demanding and judgmental than I once believed. Now, I recognize that God takes whatever we have to offer, blesses it, and makes it more than enough (John 6:1-15).

And so when we pray, let us not approach God as our ancestors may have, as someone appeasing an angry God or making a wish, as if God were a genie.

Let us ask the Holy Spirit to teach us how to pray. That we might approach God with the attitude of Christ who, with the closeness of a Son with his Father, cries out Abba, Father, and seeks a deeper relationship with God (Luke 11:1-13).

Day 3: Make a fresh start

The first day of school, no matter what season of my life (student, young adult, mother), has always been my very own lightning rod of both eager anticipation and low-key-to-crippling anxiety. On the one hand, it’s a chance to reset my intentions and make a fresh start. On the other hand, the prospect of starting something yet again can feel futile, especially when it always seems like it’s the same thing, just a different day.

Unchecked, this feeling of futility seeps into my worldview and colors my perception of God and my place in the world. It can lull me into believing that God remains distant and aloof, that anything I have to offer has little significance.

Yet Scripture reminds us that our God is all about making things new. Today, ask Christ to open your eyes to the Spirit already transforming the world around you.

RELATED: How to Start a Prayer Journal

Day 4: Have eyes to see

Recently, when reading the story of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52, I kept finding myself irritated by Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?” It felt unnecessary. Why does Jesus insist on making a blind man say what he needs when the answer is obvious?

I became so caught up with dissecting Jesus’ words that I almost lost sight of what the Spirit was showing me: that I am the blind beggar.

Since then, Bartimaeus’ uncomplicated reply has become the prayer that permeates every part of my life: “Master, I want to see.”

Today, we pray for eyes to see that before we can be sent out to bring glad tidings and proclaim liberty in our homes, classrooms, and wider communities, we must each recognize that without Christ, I am poor, I am held captive, I am blind, I am oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). That the wholeness that Jesus offers is not for someone else, it is for me.

Day 5: Focus your eyes where you want to be

My 5-year-old (for a reason still unknown to me), insisted on joining ice hockey camp this summer. One of the first things they learn, before anything else, is how to fall. It was a sight to see her, like a newborn deer, wobble onto the ice and proceed to fall. Over and over again.

What struck me as I watched from behind the glass was the coach’s lesson on how to get back up. You take a knee, and look up, put your hands on your knee and push yourself up from the ground. He emphasized, “Don’t look down. Your eyes need to be where you want to be.”

In that moment, I was reminded of our call to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. To resist the urge to focus on the fact that we’ve fallen. Today, as we face first days, meeting new people, and starting fresh, let us pray for resilience, so that when we fall, we remember to look up and seek the face of Christ.

Day 6: Seek guidance to light your way

My dad, just like his father (and unlike me), has been gifted with the greenest of green thumbs. Watching him garden this past summer has helped me realize how much discipline is involved.

His flourishing garden reminds me of our call to stay alert and pray unceasingly:

  • To pay attention through prayer, so we can distinguish the real wheat from weeds. In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus speaks of a specific weed — the darnel — that looks just like wheat in its first stage of growth.
  • To “beware of false prophets” and wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15-16a), to “test every spirit” (1 John 4:1-6) by looking at their fruit (Matthew 7:15-16a).

Today, may we see as God sees, so we might recognize and uproot from our lives the weeds which sap the life from the real plants and nourish those things that produce good fruit (Galatians 5:19-23). Thus, making space in our lives to be still before God, choosing to be kind (on the internet and in real life), and nurturing life-giving friendships that give us joy and challenge us to be better versions of ourselves.

RELATED: 5 Creative Ways to Prayer for Others

Day 7: Have courage in a time of storm

At times, life has felt like a windstorm, my attention pulled in too many directions, overwhelmed by discordant voices claiming to be Truth (Ephesians 4:14). When I’ve overcommitted myself — said yes to too many things and spent too much time trying to wring out every last drop of advice from the internet—those are the times I’ve wanted to stay in bed, pull my comforter over my head and hide.

Today, let us ask the Holy Spirit:

  • for the wisdom to recognize what we must surrender in order to walk fully in the grace that is being offered to us today.
  • for the courage to let go of the illusion of control, that everything is up to us, that I, alone, can fix this problem.

May we stop placing our trust in ourselves and instead seek the God who is our rock and refuge in the storm.

Day 8: Live the signs of God’s love

When I’m about to embark on something seemingly impossible — the paper that refuses to write itself, a difficult roommate situation, a Church and country that is deeply divided — it’s easy to look around and see what Ezekiel saw: a valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14).

I believe God’s words to Ezekiel are being spoken to each of us now. They are a reminder we are each called to be the prophets that the world desperately needs. Called to speak life into hopeless situations and to shine light into a world that feels shrouded in darkness.

May we be alert and attentive to how God’s Spirit calls us to take action, in our own unique way (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8).

Today, let us remember we are not alone. That when we raise our eyes and look around, we stand in a vast multitude (Ezekiel 37:10). Take heart. Take courage. Trust in God.

Day 9: Remember who we are

Thank you for your YES, for responding to the Spirit’s call to pray in one accord during this back-to-school season. Know that the same Spirit who gathered us in prayer continues to speak to us long after this challenge has ended.

May we all recognize our unique role in God’s kingdom; that we are many parts of one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). So, let us stop criticizing one another or wanting it all done our way. Let us recall that, as children of the light, we are to build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:4-11).

May we obey God’s voice so our hearts will beat as one. Let us recognize the tactics of the enemy, the sowing of division and hatred. Let us instead listen to the voice of Jesus and allow his prayer for us to take root in our hearts: “That they may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).