A recent book titled American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam examines the role of religion in the public life of our country. The book has many powerful observations about the state of religion in America these days. It uses detailed and comprehensive collections of survey data about religious belief and practice to come up with some surprising conclusions. One I would like to share with you is the role that simple mealtime grace has in the life of faith of contemporary Christians.
According to Putnam and his team, the one faith practice that has the strongest correlation with religious participation and belief is saying grace before meals. The correlation is stronger than Bible reading, financial giving, small group participation, volunteerism and the like. Those who say grace more often are more likely to be actively involved in a faith community. Please understand me I am not advocating that mealtime prayer has more or less value than any other Christian practice. A committed life of Christian discipleship will have multiple practices that help keep it alive. However, there seems to be something powerful in the ordinary act of giving thanks to God for the food that is set before us.
If you are concerned about the state of your faith life, a reasonable recommendation for action is therefore simple and direct. If you don’t pray before meals, start now. If you only pray at home, try praying at the diner next time you are out. I do it often and nobody seems to stare or care. Quite the opposite, servers tend to be respectful. If you don’t have family prayer before meals I encourage you to do so.
If you want to pass on the faith to your children grace is an easy starting point. If you already say a simple standardized grace like “Come Lord Jesus be our guest and let these gifts to us be blest. Amen”, try a spontaneous grace. A common and fruitful practice that encourages dialog at the dinner table is to ask people around the table to give thanks for one thing that happened that day. The prayer leader of the family then prays for each of them and gives thanks to a Gracious God for providing good food to eat. Please come see me if you need some practical suggestions for encouraging mealtime grace.
Grace for Faith
Despite being one of the simplest faith practices, saying mealtime grace rests on the firmest theological foundation. The name itself gives away the key “grace”. Grace comes from the Latin word gratis or gift. So the daily bread that sits at your dinner table is a gift from a loving and providing God. When we are saying grace at a meal we are doing two things, we are first giving thanks to God while simultaneously saying something about God. The act of saying grace before meals reminds us of the true nature of the God who sent Jesus Christ. As Jesus speaks Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:26 NRSV)
The saying to mealtime prayer is not some magical incantation to keep a distant god happy, but a simple witness to the loving Father who provides our daily bread. Often used by Christians as a basis for mealtime grace Psalm 145 states: The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings (Verses 15-17 NRSV).
In verse 15 The word translated as “look” is shavar, which more is commonly translated as wait or hope. So when you pray before meals you are also expressing your hope in the actions of the God who sent Jesus to bring salvation to all. In verse 17, the word translated “kind” is one of the most important words of the Hebrew Scriptures. The word hesed can mean steadfast love, faithfulness, kindness or mercy, and is often used to speak about how God acts. Most importantly for our discussion can be at times faithfully translated into the word “grace,” meaning that God is gracious.
Bread for the World
As Holy Week and Easter approach, I am reminded of the grace I speak each Sunday at the altar before we celebrate the meal of Jesus. The prayer is technically called the Eucharistic Prayer,which just means a prayer of thanksgiving. I would argue however that it is also “Grace.” For we give thanks to God and we are witnessing how gracious God is for sending Jesus to be the hope of all the world.
I am encouraging you therefore to take the gifts of Jesus’ meal into your homes. The life-giving Word of Jesus, that we have a gracious Father who loves us, and a Holy Spirit that abides with us, can be used before each simple meal to create community in your home. Mealtime grace creates a bond between you and God and those who share their bread with you. No wonder it is so central to faith formation. I wish you all a blessed Lent and Easter so that we may all know the God of grace.
Keep the Faith,