Why is it customary to “give thanks” every time followers of Christ sit down and eat? I’ll have to admit that at least subconsciously I have frequently been a little offended or felt a little superior when I have observed that people of faith failed to follow this protocol. This subconscious thought and feeling recently surfaced to my conscious mind. It gave me an opportunity to ask myself why I thought praying before meals was important and why I felt disappointed when it did not happen.
Praying before meals goes by many names. “Who is going to say the blessing?” is a common phrase in Arkansas. Further south an elder might be heard asking in a thick drawl, “Who’s gon’ turn thanks?” Perhaps that particular phrase originated with the idea of everyone around the table taking a “turn” to “give thanks”. Of course, the list would be incomplete without remembering many grew up with the question, “Who will say grace?”
Determining who prays before a meal when more than oneself is present can be accomplished in many ways, some quite entertaining. Some families rotate who prays. Every member of the family participates and no one is expected to pray again until everyone takes a turn. This was the method of praying before meals a freshman in college was familiar with. Consequently, he could not understand why the other students at his table in the cafeteria always proclaimed it was his turn whether he had eaten with them earlier or not. Several days passed before a fellow student was kind enough to share who prayed was determined by the last person to put their index finger on the table. The last person to place their finger on the side of their nose is another observed selection method. It is very entertaining so see a large group of people smiling with one finger on the side of their nose even when you understand why it is placed just so.
Lisa Easterling shares an entertaining story about who offered grace from her childhood experience with southern relatives. The extended family did not take turns; have a pecking order or methodology for who prayed except waiting for someone to volunteer. It seems everyone kept silent and waited for her grandfather to volunteer. “His voice always sounded like a truck going over a bridge. He would take a giant breath and try to get it all in before his lungs collapsed. “Loooooord look down upon us and make us thankful for these and all Thy blessings in Christ’s name Amen!” The kids would giggle and everyone dug in.
John’s gospel talks about “the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” The place was the shore of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus fed the five thousand from five small barley loaves and two small fish with twelve basketfuls of bread left over. A careful reading of the life of Jesus leaves the impression that he never ate until giving thanks. Jesus was never one to do something without a reason. His actions leads one to believe giving thanks before meals is not important just because it was the pattern of Jesus. It is important because it recognizes that everything a person has ultimately is an unearned gift from God. That is grace. Recognizing that grace before eating a meal is table grace. Giving thanks is an important venue for nourishing gratitude. When we turn or return thanks, we remind ourselves, as we give thanks to God for what He has given, we are blessed with what we have been given rather than dwell on what we wanted but did not receive.
John Wesley, in his sermon “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” says, “Nothing can so directly tend to hide our pride from us as a deep, lasting conviction of this grace. For if we are completely aware that we have nothing which we have not received, how can we boast as if it were ours in the first place? “
Table grace is an attitude of gratitude and an action of telling God we both recognize and appreciate the blessing of what is on the table in front of us. It is disappointing to witness others not return thanks when you know the result is they will miss out on the twin blessing of humility and gratitude.