These and This: Gratitude at the Table

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We were all gathered around the kitchen, pots and plates and dishes loaded with food beneath our noses. My dad was hosting his first-ever chili cook off, and he had just pronounced my uncle Fred the winner. On his notes, my dad had commented about Fred's soup: "like Wendy's," of the fast-food chain fame.

"Let's pray before we dig in," my dad said, transitioning from competition to communal feast.

So all these people I love - some from the same blood, some even deeper than that - bowed heads and my dad began.

"O gracious Lord," he said. "We are thankful for all these and all this. Amen."

"Great prayer," my younger sister, Sierra, said, referring to the brevity. The little ones were squirmy, the food smelled delicious, and a long prayer might have been difficult to sit through.

I laughed.

But as we all scrambled this way and that for bowls and spoons and crackers and cornbread, I thought about "these" and "this" and knew my dad wasn't just talking about people and food. This simple prayer was an expression of gratitude for the order of things. These people, they all had worked hard -- some who had never made chili before working harder than others -- to bring a pot to share. And this food, it arrived to the table by more effort than from just those present.

For years, I have prayed before meals. I don't remember that it was a habit in my home from early on; I think I learned it while attending the little Baptist Church near my home in rural Indiana. Before hitting the buffet line of church pitch-ins and just before youth group pizza parties, we would all bow heads, sometimes holding hands, and thank God for the food.

Praying before meals was a way to offer gratitude for the meal and to ask a blessing that it would nourish us and make us strong for His service. Sometimes, people who prayed before meals seemed like they were getting reacquainted with God, mentioning long lists of people and concerns as if God were unaware. Somewhere along the line, I was taught that praying before meals could be a way to evangelize, even. As heads were bowed, I could pray for people in my hearing who weren't Christians. Or the unbelievers would see my piety and be amazed. Occasionally, I would hear people thank God for "the hands that prepared the food."

These were the kinds of prayers I prayed for years before I ate.

After I started shopping at farmers' markets, though, and met John and Todd and Maria and others who hoed fields and picked vegetables and ground grain, I started remembering them before I ate, too. I thought about the hard work involved in bringing just one plate of food to the table, and my meal-time prayers became more about "these" and "this," though not nearly as simple, or beautiful, as my dad's.

Standing around the kitchen that night, we all knew that we weren't there together because of luck, and the food we were eating wasn't just from the store. We were there because of grace and because of work. And thanking God for "these" and "this" was really a way to say "we join you in your grace and work, God, and we are amazed."


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