I have to admit that Jim’s concern echoes one I’ve heard since I was a child. I remember my father complaining that we were old enough to say real prayers after my brother said the “God is great, God is good…” table grace. My mom tells me that I immediately bowed my head and prayed word-for-word the rote prayer my dad prayed at the table for years
So, what can be done to keep our table grace fresh?
A look through the Bible, unfortunately, doesn’t really help. There are a couple of examples of Jesus praying before meals (Matthew 14.19; 26.26-17) and in Acts we read that Paul offered thanks before he ate (27.33), but there is little beyond these examples, and certainly no specific examples in the scriptures of “appropriate” table graces. Indeed, the only instance of specific prayer in the New Testament about eating is from the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6.11). And that’s hardly a prayer of thanks.
As we look back through history, it seems that rote prayers have been the rule rather than the exception. Some of the earliest prayers are recorded in the book of Psalms. There we read a number of prayers that offer thanks for food. In Psalm 145 the writer extols God’s goodness saying, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (15-16). Similar words of thanks are found throughout the Psalms (cf., Psalms 104, 107).
Another fairly well-known and rather ancient prayer is the Great Berakah, which is Hebrew for blessing. This prayer is found in the Passover rites of the Jewish people and is recited over the matzoth during the meal: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
The fact is, any prayer or example of prayer we find in the scriptures or otherwise, is likely to become rote over time. To keep table graces fresh, we’ll have to turn to principles rather than examples.
The first principle is about attitude. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes that when we eat, we ought to give thanks and both honor and glorify God in our eating: “For whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10.30-31). To foster a right attitude, it may be helpful to spend a few moments to get centered on the task at hand. I enjoy spending a few moments in silence as I contemplate the good things set before me. It may be helpful to think on the work that has gone into the preparation of the meal—from the agriculturist who planted, raised, and harvested, to the processors and to the one who prepared the meal. Much has taken place to bring even the humble lentils to your plate.
The second principle concerns the prayer itself. It is true that every prayer we offer may become rote and seemingly lose its meaning. There are two ways of looking at this: (1) Rote prayers must be avoided lest they become trivial; or (2) Rote prayers feed the unconscious mind so that, even if we don’t pay much attention to the words, our heart hears and responds appropriately. Some people pray the same prayer at every meal. Others pray using a prayer book. Some read through a portion of the Psalms at each meal. And some pray their hearts and avoid formulas. In our household we rotate who says the prayers. Sometimes the prayers are rote; other times they are carefully constructed and offered with sincere thankfulness.
The third principle is probably the most important and can be found between the lines of when the disciples asked Jesus about prayer: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11.11). Note that the disciples didn’t ask Jesus to teach them how to pray—they asked that he teach them to pray. Praying is important. I find it tragic that so many Christians simply dismiss the habit of offering a word of thanks before the eat—or at any other time, for that matter. Prayers at meals offers the opportunity not only to say, “Thanks, God!” but a chance to become fully present to the meal and to those gathered around the meal. It teaches our children, by implication, of our dependence on God. And it opens the door to praying at other times as well.
So, how can we keep our table graces fresh? Perhaps
the best way of all is to humbly acknowledge that
what we have before us is ultimately from God, produced
by those who have worked faithfully, and prepared
by those who have invested in us. Then, rote
or not, our prayers will have meaning.