Teach Us to Pray
Reviewed by Paul Buckley
By Gordon T. Smith. IVP Books, 2018. 112 pages. $15/paperback; $14.99/eBook.
The first question is “Why?” Why do we need to pray? For many Friends, prayer seems outdated and unnecessary. Their experience of prayer was rote recitation of someone else’s prayer or asking God for health and wealth. They don’t believe in the efficacy of such prayers. I suspect that Gordon Smith doesn’t either, but he clearly believes that praying—even if it doesn’t change God’s mind—changes the person who is praying.
And why do we need to be taught to pray anyway? Isn’t it just saying whatever is on our minds? The answer, of course, is that is one way to pray, but in this book, Smith is advocating prayer as a personal spiritual discipline. He believes regular prayer can improve our spiritual lives and that we can get better at it with practice and by engaging in it with intention.
Although this is a book written for Christians by the president of an Evangelical Protestant university, I feel it can also speak to those who would not describe themselves as such—even to those who might describe themselves as nontheistic. The title, of course, refers to a request made in chapter 11 in the Gospel According to Luke and its parallel in chapter 6 of the Gospel According to Matthew. Jesus has been off by himself, praying. When he returns to the apostles, they ask him to teach them to pray, and, in his reply, he recites the Lord’s Prayer. The book takes the contents of this prayer as foundational. In particular, it depends on the petition, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10 King James Version).
This verse was central to the beliefs of the earliest Quakers. They felt called to build the kingdom of heaven on earth by living in a state of harmony with each other and all of creation. This is not an exclusively Quaker, Christian, or religious aspiration. Even those who don’t believe in the existence of a divine being can endorse this goal: to build communities where all live together in simple, loving, peaceful, supportive friendship.
So what does this have to do with prayer? Smith’s answer is that the act of praying fundamentally realigns the person praying with this desire for harmony. To achieve it, he outlines an order of prayer that guides the reader along a three-fold path. It starts with giving thanks, recognizing that we are limited beings and that much of what we have or have achieved in this life is undeserved. Smith then advises moving on to contrition, acknowledging that we have all fallen short in our lives. Once we have embraced these limitations, it is a short step to pray for discernment, seeking to determine what we might do to further the breaking forth of that loving community.
The model Smith outlines gives us perspective on our lives and our place in the universe. It leads to a deep sense of humility and prepares us to seek out how we each might best act in the world. While some Friends might find the particular wording unfamiliar or uncomfortable, the practice is one that can strengthen us to lives of faithfulness.
This is a short book, well-written and easy to read. If you pray regularly, it may provide you with new impetus. If you do not have a prayer practice, this book offers an easy way to try it out.