Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Stop and give thanks

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:4-5

Do you “say grace” before meals? 

When I was converted, fifty years ago now, it was the normal thing among Christians. Every time you sat down to eat - your main meal, anyway - somebody would offer a short prayer of thanks for the food. Often this would be a set formula: “For these and all your mercies we give you thanks, O God”, or “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful”. Other times it would be extempore, though variations on such a limited theme were bound to be equally limited.

Saying grace, or “giving thanks” as perhaps we might call it today, can throw up some interesting situations. 

I remember a young people’s weekend away when, on the last evening, we decided to treat ourselves to a meal at a restaurant in the nearest town. After we had all piled into this unsuspecting place, about twenty scruffy teenagers plus equally scruffy leaders, one of my fellow-leaders (I could have cheerfully strangled her on the spot) brightly suggested “Why don’t we sing grace instead of just saying it?” To my horror and dismay (I am a pretty buttoned-up person!) everybody seemed to think this was a great idea, so a not terribly tuneful “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” rang out loudly across the restaurant.

And you know what? Initial surprise gave way to friendly smiles from the other customers. All right, they probably thought we were a bit loopy, but no one seemed to mind.

I remember too when our children were little and started to insist on saying grace. Mark, our younger son, didn’t like to miss anything out, so off he went: “Thank you, Jesus and God [his grasp of the doctrine of the trinity was somewhat limited at that stage], for the cars and the houses and the trees and the people...” I think he usually got round to the meal in the end, but not before we had been metaphorically drumming our impatient fingers on the table while the food got cold.

Well, my impression is that this custom is dying out, and I think it’s rather a shame. This isn’t just me being a hide-bound traditionalist; I don’t think Paul’s words about “receiving food with thanksgiving” necessarily imply a legalistic habit. But I think there are good reasons for obeying them at certain times.

For one thing, we read that Jesus gave thanks, as was the Jewish custom, before meals (John 6:11, Matthew 14:19, where the detail is added that he  “looked up to heaven”, 1 Corinthians 11:23-24). You might think that fact alone should be good enough for the rest of us.

Still more, isn’t there value in making space, however tiny, for focus on God in the busy-ness of our lives? He is very easily squeezed out, and as long as we don’t reduce “giving thanks” to a mere formula trotted out mechanically, why shouldn’t it be a moment of encounter with God?

Don’t forget that it is possible to be at least a little creative: “grace” doesn’t have to be exclusively about the food. You’ve heard of someone taken into hospital a couple of hours earlier? Well, why not say a prayer for them first? Someone’s starting a new job tomorrow? facing a difficult exam? worried about a child’s health? All right, this isn’t the moment for a full-blown prayer-meeting, but...

It can be a bit tricky, of course, when you have guests, especially if they aren’t Christians. You don’t want to embarrass people. But equally, this is your home, after all. My wife and I have adopted the practice of simply saying something like “We usually say a short prayer before we eat, so we hope you will bear with us for a moment”. If we’re in someone else’s home we’re happy, of course, to respect their customs.

Every prayer offered from the heart is precious to God, however brief. And any opportunity to bring God consciously into our lives is to be seized; in Jesus even the most “secular” moments are also “sacred”. He is always there, of course we know that. But why not make a point of acknowledging the fact?

Lord God, help us to recognise your holy presence even in the ordinary situations of everyday life, not least when we are receiving food from your generous hand. Amen.

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