Let’s Say Grace

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

on November 12, 2017

The Washington Post article that David read this morning said that half of all Americans take a minute to say grace over their food at least a few times a week.

Truth be told, my family was in that other half of Americans. Except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, when I was growing up, saying a blessing over our meal was not on the menu.

I don’t think this means that we were ungrateful for the food on our table. I think we just didn’t think about being grateful for it. As a child, I assumed breakfast, lunch and dinner would be served, day after day, without end. The possibility that we might go hungry never entered my mind.

My parents may have had to make their grocery dollars stretch at times, but our middle-class family always had something to eat.

Hamburger was a staple, and we ate our share of meatloaf, hamburgers and chili. But we ate. And, if my parents quietly gave thanks for the food we could afford or secretly prayed that there would be enough, I wasn’t aware of it.

Only during the holidays, when a big, fat turkey sat fragrant in the center of our dining room table, surrounded by a sea of side dishes, did I become aware of how much food we had – and, in these instances, too much really for one day. And, so we would bow our heads and give thanks.

My sister Nicki is the exception in our family to the saying-grace-at-the-holidays-only practice we learned as kids. She and her family say grace before dinner every evening, using the traditional Catholic prayer that Anne-Marie Dole referred to in our reading. She would make a few tweaks, however, to encourage her young children to join in.

I recall visiting Nicki and her family one Thanksgiving. Nicki, my brother-in-law, their three boys and I were seated around their dining room table. My youngest nephew Jack was about 2 or 3 years old at the time. We held hands and they began saying grace in their usual way:

Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts
which we are about to receive
from Thy bounty,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Then, as if on cue, Nicki and her entire family threw their hands up in the air and, to little Jack’s delight, exclaimed “So big!”

Little Jack is a sophomore in high school now, but the “So big!” ending to their nightly dinner grace has stuck. Not particularly reverent, but it adds a little fun to what is otherwise a solemn prayer of thanks.

Except for the “So big!” part, the language used in that Catholic blessing doesn’t work so well for me. But as, Harvard University Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein suggests, that doesn’t need to be a barrier to saying grace. Grace, he suggests, doesn’t have involve traditional religious language at all.

Epstein rhetorically asks, “Why do we have to give up the good parts of being religious – including the mindfulness, the reflection that comes from a ritual like grace – just because we don’t believe in the traditional words of the poem that people recite when they sit down to a meal?

“Can we come up with new words that reflect our contemporary needs and values?”1) Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Julie Zauzmer, and Emily Guskin, “When it comes to saying grace, Americans are still united,” The Washington Post, June 17, 2017.

This should be a piece of cake for Unitarian Universalists, right (no pun intended)? After all, we seem to be the masters at adapting traditional religious lyrics and words with ones that we feel are “more inclusive.” Just flip through our gray hymnal and those of you who were raised in the Protestant Christian tradition will find hymns and prayers whose melodies and words you might vaguely recognize.

A friend of mine raised in the Congregational tradition noticed this the first time I invited him to join me at a Unitarian Universalist worship service.

“The tune’s familiar, but the words are definitely not,” he observed, after we sang “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

There has been some pushback on that practice of ours in recent years, as we are now beginning to see that when we change the original words to a religious song or prayer, we may actually be minimizing the religion or tradition it serves.

And so, as we think about this topic of saying grace before meals, perhaps we might think of it more broadly.

Perhaps we might think of it not as an opportunity to retrofit a childhood prayer or practice but, rather, as an opportunity to simply pause . . . to simply take in the profound reality that the earth’s profound abundance – as well as profound human and animal sacrifices – have once again brought us life in the form of a protein and two sides on a round plate.

As someone who once struggled with anorexia and bulimia, I can’t tell you how many times that incredible miracle escaped my consciousness. Food was something either to be avoided or to be consumed in vast quantities until I couldn’t eat another bite.

These acts of starving and stuffing were about pushing myself into a state of oblivion . . . certainly not about mindfulness and reflection, as Chaplain Epstein suggested.

Today, while daily prayer is a part of my life, I admittedly still don’t say grace before my meals. That spiritual practice is one that is perhaps yet to come. If and when it does, perhaps it will reflect a deeper recognition that, despite my attempts at giving back to the world, I am still living my life mostly as a taker . . . as the beneficiary of our planet’s limited resources and on the backs of some of world’s most vulnerable people.

In today’s reading, Rev. Tim Keller, a Presbyterian minister, suggests that saying grace is an opportunity to essentially be reminded that life is not all about you.

“It’s a powerful way of reminding yourself that you’re not self-sufficient,” he says. “It’s a reminder that you are living by somebody’s grace, that plenty of other people who work just as hard as you don’t have anything to eat.”2)Ibid. In other words, many of us could use the dose of humility that saying grace dispenses.

A few years ago, Northwest invited the Executive Director of the Community Assistance Center to speak during one of our Second Hour programs. The Community Assistance Center is a nonprofit organization that serves the Sandy Springs and Dunwoody areas and with whom Northwest has had a long-time partnership.

She told us that hunger is a daily struggle for many families in our community and impacts the ability of adults to function effectively in the workplace and their children’s performance at school.

Eighty percent of the individuals coming to Community Assistance Center for the first time state they skip at least one meal a day and routinely do not have enough food to feed their families. CAC feeds between 50 and 80 families each day. Of the 5,600 individuals that CAC touches annually, nearly half are children aged newborn to 19 years.

Those are sobering statistics to keep in mind as we enjoy our food. Yet, my hope is that rather than feeling guilty about them, we might do something about it.

And, it’s my understanding that Northwest plans to do just that. Food was overwhelming selected by your ministry team leaders as the focus of its congregation-wide justice efforts in 2018. While there are other issues that the congregation plans to examine in the months ahead, what we eat, how it is produced and distributed and whether these practices are sustainable will be the topic of discussions and programs in the months ahead.

This commitment strikes me certainly as an opportunity to pause . . . and perhaps, eventually, an opportunity to pray.

****

This act of saying grace didn’t just show up at the family dinner table in last several centuries. English essayist Charles Lamb believes it may have emerged in much earlier. He wrote:

The custom of saying grace at meals had, probably, its origin in the early times of the world, and the hunter-state of man, when dinners were precarious things, and a full meal was something more than a common blessing: when a bellyful was a windfall, and looked like a special providence.3)Saying Grace: Blessings for a Family Table, Sarah McElwain, editor (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA: 2003), 56.

In other words, when the food supply is unsteady, perhaps a solid prayer of gratitude is in order.

In a book of collected meal blessings that I own, it seems that these expressions of gratitude for the meal, the harvest, the finally-full belly can be found from the farmers and fishers and subsistence-centered cultures found around the world.

Such as in this Vietnamese farmers’ prayer that goes:

Heaven,

Please make the rain fall,
So I have water to drink;
So I may plow my field;
So I may have my bowl of rice;
And my fish in great slices.4) Ibid, 35.

Or this Pueblo blessing:

So I may raise corn.
So I may raise beans.
So I may raise wheat.
So I may raise squash.
So that with all good fortune I may be blessed.5)Ibid, 60.

Or this Scottish prayer, which dates back to the 17th century:

No ordinary meal – a sacrament awaits us.
Our tables daily spread,
For men are risking their lives on sea and land,
That we may dwell in safety and be fed.6) Ibid.

And so, as we head into Thanksgiving . . . or even head into the Lobby after today’s service . . . my hope for you and for me is that we can join the other half of the Americans out there who say a blessing or words of gratitude before we eat the food that comes so easily to many of us.

And, if you and I find it challenging to do that, perhaps we can simply pause before digging in, recognizing that the abundance of the world and some of life’s most precious gifts are sitting right in front of us, three times a day, on a round plate.

May it be so. Amen.

 

References   [ + ]

1. Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Julie Zauzmer, and Emily Guskin, “When it comes to saying grace, Americans are still united,” The Washington Post, June 17, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. Saying Grace: Blessings for a Family Table, Sarah McElwain, editor (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA: 2003), 56.
4. Ibid, 35.
5. Ibid, 60.
6. Ibid.