Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony… And be thankful. (Colossians 3.14-15)
Hassles and Anxieties
Last Sunday, our pastor showed us a scene from Meet the Parents, in which Ben Stiller, hoping to impress his future in-laws, offers to say grace at the dinner table. The results are less than sterling.
She followed the clip with a few questions about why we often feel so awkward when praying aloud in the presence of others—why the desire to sound sincere tends to backfire, and our words quickly become stilted and grandiose. Her observations about prayer “performance anxiety” got me thinking about how the Stiller clip will replay itself at Thanksgiving tables around the country. For many, this will be one of very few times that families will fellowship around their tables. For many more, it may be the only day of 365 that they pause to express gratitude for goodness they’ve received. And while I know of no hard data to support this suspicion, I’m thoroughly convinced the erosion of both traditions—family dinner and saying grace—significantly contributes to social decay we currently wrestle with. Conceding the “inconvenience” of spending time around the table subjects us to more inconveniences than we realize. How much harder our lives have become now that orchestrating family dinner is too hard and taking 30 seconds each day to give thanks demands too much! The hassle of family dinner and performance anxiety associated with saying grace are nothing compared to hassles and anxieties that have grown up in their absence.
So I wondered, where do the customs of eating together and saying grace come from? While other species gather for meals, by and large, proximity to one another and ready availability of food shape their communal dining habits. Humans are rare—if not unique—in their concept of “breaking bread” as a social necessity. Until very recently, the family table was indispensible. It was where family conflicts were resolved, milestones were celebrated, cohesion as a household and membership within the larger community were secured, the lore of identity and kinship passed from one generation to the next, moral character was established, and futures were assessed. In other words, humans have always approached the family meal expecting more than nourishment. We bring big questions to the table, which get answered indirectly through the behaviors and conversations that transpire during our eating rituals. (The first Christians certainly recognized the power of sharing a common meal, which is why they placed a table—rather than an altar or idol—at the center of their worship.)
Thus it seems our compulsion to break bread together is hard-wired and can only be overridden by conscious neglect. But pairing times of nourishment with expressions of gratitude also appears to be a universal human compulsion. Virtually every world religion endorses the practice of giving thanks at mealtime. In all of its forms, “saying grace” boils down to what it sounds like: taking a moment to rehearse examples of unmerited grace and undeserved favor. No prayer more clearly captures the purity of this impulse than one we learn as children: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank God for our food.” To say grace is to invite God’s goodness to our table—to lay the gifts of life-giving food under the canopy of God’s supreme love and care for us. Saying grace isn’t a religious obligation. It’s an intentional act that makes God’s abundant presence felt in our lives—a sacred opportunity to confess faith in our Maker and Provider.
As Christians, we inherit grace-saying from our Jewish forebears. In Judaism, Birkat Hamazon (“Blessing on Nourishment”) is comprised of four thanksgivings: for the food; for the land of Israel; for the holy city of Jerusalem; and finally, for God’s goodness. We typically collapse this structure into a single statement that focuses on the first and last parts. (“Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty.”) Yet, whether preparing our hearts for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving feast or simply reaching for words before a daily meal, the Jewish blessing can be very useful in easing anxieties about giving thanks to God aloud. We do this by expanding on the Jewish prayer’s basic principles.
Let us thank God not only for our food, but also for being alive and healthy and able to digest it; for the gift of labor that supplies our tables; for senses that relish what we eat; for fellowship occasioned by gathering at the table.
Let us thank God not only for where we live, but also for freedom to make that land our home; for the security of having a place in the world; for the wealth that grows out of belonging to families and communities that strive to live and prosper in peace; for the traditions and heritages that enrich our lives together.
Let us thank God not only for our holy places, but also for the promises they house; for hope that will not surrender to pessimism; for spiritual sanctuary in a world governed by greed and injustice; for beacons of righteousness that shine forth from the citadels and steeples of God’s dwelling places.
Let us be thankful, not only for God’s goodness, but also for the unmerited love and mercy it contains; for relentless blessings we enjoy and too often overlook; for daily guidance and protection given to us; for awareness that if it were not for God’s grace, we would be lost.
I pray a meaningful and rich Thanksgiving Day for all who celebrate the holiday in the US and an equally abundant blessing for those outside the States—reminding all of us of the wisdom imparted in Colossians 3:14-15:
Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.