One of the better scenes in National Lampoon’s "Christmas Vacation" is at the dinner table when Clark Griswold calls upon the elderly Aunt Bethany to “say grace.”  She is evidently on meds that aren’t working, and in her befuddlement she ends up leading the whole family in the Pledge of Allegiance.  As extended families gather for the holidays, who gets called upon to “say grace?” 

The Washington Post ran an article yesterday on mealtime prayer.  In a poll taken four years ago, almost half of Americans stated that they regularly say a prayer before eating a meal.  

If you have ever been around me much, you will know that prayer before a meal is the only gesture of public piety you will ever see me perform, outside a church event.  In all other forms of personal piety, I follow what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount:  do it all in secret.  

My praying before a meal has nothing to do with my being a pastor. People expect this of pastors, of course, as the pastor at the table is usually asked to offer the blessing.  But I’m always grateful when a non-clergy host does the honors instead.  Honestly, a pastoral prayer before a meal never makes the food taste any better.  It is more likely to result in a hot meal growing frustratingly cold. When I pray before a meal, I do it despite being a pastor; I do it because I relish giving voice to my gratitude for many blessings we humans are capable of experiencing.  

Christian mealtime prayer has its origin in Jesus himself, who said prayers of thanks before eating.  But they weren’t long prayers, as he taught against lengthy prayer.  The only prayer he ever taught us to say (The Lord’s Prayer) only takes about 23 seconds. 

I’m all for short mealtime prayers, but not really into witty ones, although some of them are quite clever:  “Grant me strength that I may not fall…into the clutches of cholesterol…”   Or perhaps this Thanksgiving ditty:  "May our stuffing be tasty and our turkey be plump, the potatoes and gravy have nary a lump, may our pies be delicious and our yams take a prize, and may all that we eat stay off of our thighs.”  Or this:  “Thank you Lord for all the food you have given us, we hope you like (more than we do) the burnt offering we have prepared in return.” 

I once owned a book with the title, How Much Prayer Should a Hamburger Get?:  never actually read the book, but the title was good enough for me to make the purchase.  For those of us who are accustomed to praying regularly before a meal, it is easy to get twisted up in technicalities now and then.  For example, if you raid the refrigerator for a late night snack, should you say grace?  Or should you just keep quiet and hope that neither God nor your wife will hear you in the kitchen?  Or maybe you should do one of those confessional prayers, “We have done things we ought not to have done…”

I have been at several meals where a quarrel broke out over who would say grace.  “It’s your turn.”  “No! I did it yesterday.”  That argument can go on and on, a bit of devilish spirit that kind of defeats the purpose of the prayer in the first place.

Then there is the question of what words to pray when you have a religious melting pot around the table.  Do Christians end the meal prayer with our standard sign-off, “In Jesus’ name we pray” if we are eating with Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims…or atheists?  After all, Jesus teaches us to be hospitable to our guests.  Since the “pray-er” is speaking for the whole table, should we be cramming theological words into people’ mouths, if that’s not how our guests feel? Wouldn't that be the same as forcing them to eat food they can't digest? It would be ironic if “saying grace” lacked basic grace.  

And what if half the group has started eating: should everyone stop mid-bite so someone whose mouth isn’t full can bless everything?  And do you merely bless the uneaten food, or do you try to redeem the food already gurgling in people’s esophagi and masticating in their mouths?  Theologians of all religions pretty well agree that you shouldn’t keep shoveling food in your mouth while someone is trying to pray.  But what do you do if you’re in the middle of a mouthful when the prayer begins?  Do you stop chewing until the prayer is over?  Should you wait to swallow until everyone says “Amen?”  Everyone knows that at the end of the prayer you should join in with a hearty “Amen!” But what about talking when your mouth is still full:  would that be okay with your mother? Almost all biblical scholars are in agreement that you should avoid choking, belching, or passing gas while grace is being said, sure signs that you ate something before it was properly blessed. 

As for blessing the food, as in “Bless this food to the use of our bodies,” the whole thought is kind of goofy, if you think about it.  I hesitate to criticize this as it was a phrase my dad always used when he prayed before meals.  And it felt charmingly quaint to me each time he said it, and I miss hearing that from him now that he is gone.  

The sad fact is, however, that much of what we eat, particularly during the holidays, is a hazard to us, not a blessing.  One of these days, someone will utter “Bless this food to the use of our bodies” and a exasperated heavenly voice is going to thunder back, “Well if you’re so darn worried about your bodies, then quit trying to get me to bless all these carbs and sugars and fats you’re stuffing in your mouths…ain’t gonna happen!”   

Some believe we should not eat food until it has been “blessed?” But hasn’t it already been blessed:  by God’s rain and soil, by the divine miracle of life, by the hard work of people who are created in God’s image who have gotten it all the way to our table, by the holy generosity of those who prepared and served us?  

As for the phrase “saying grace,” it is nonsensical, a screwed up translation between Latin and English.  In Latin, the meaning of “gratiarum actio” is clear: “an act of thanks.” It’s mistranslation into English, “say grace,” is just another of our confusing idioms.

It lifts my spirit when I pause to give thanks before a meal, to nod toward God, to count my blessings: for food already richly blessed, for taste buds and a sense of smell that allow me to take pleasure in eating, for the nutrition the food gives my body, for plant and animal life that is sacrificed for my own life, for the efforts of all the people who have made the meal possible for me, for the earth that has enough for EVERYONE, for workers of justice who seek to make sure that everyone has what they need, for table fellowship that is so central to mealtime… And thanksgiving begats thanksgiving as I feel gratitude for whatever other good things are unfolding that day.  I recommend the practice, even if you are not religious, especially if you are.

But keep it short, about 30 seconds will do.  To carry on much longer would be to dishonor the blessing on the plate before you.  It’s okay to say more to God if you want, but don’t do it at the dinner table:  go into your closet and keep it between just the two of you.  

Happy Thanksgiving to you…for the holiday this Thursday…and for the mealtime rituals you practice every day.