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Finding God around the dinner table

By JANET K. KEELER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 26, 2001


art
[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]
In the past few weeks, there have been many more folded hands and bowed heads around the nation's dinner tables.

I know that has been the case at our house.

We've clasped hands and stumbled through prayers because we aren't sure what else to do. The horror of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington is beyond our scope. Our words are feeble, but they tumble out, along with our tears.

"God is great, God is good

and we thank him for our food

By his hands, we all are fed

Thank you, Lord, for our daily bread.

Our 6-year-old son offered this Christian standard one evening last week. He was adamant that "by his "head,' we all are fed," which made us smile. I lit two candles, one to represent the families torn apart by violence, the other to remind us that God mourns with us.

I explained the significance of the candles to my son and husband and took myself by surprise. How did I know that? What was I talking about? Yet, I kept going, pushed by a faith I often question. After dinner, a calm settled in where the night before there had been fear and uncertainty.

The sacred texts of the world (the Christian Bible, Islamic Koran, Jewish Torah, Hindu Vedic writings and others) command followers to give thanks for food. The Bible has many references to saying grace; a verse from the Koran says, "Eat of your Lord's provisions, and give thanks to him."

Buddhism's history is rich with reverence for food, writes Adrian Butash in the out-of-print Bless This Food: Amazing Graces in Thanks for Food. American Indians accept food and water with thankful rituals and prayers. Hindus believe that food cannot be eaten unless it is first offered to God. A modern Chinese prayer, often said before large gatherings, quickly gets to the point: duo xie, duo xie (many thanks, many thanks).

The concept of the table as family altar is strong among Jews, who tonight at sundown begin the observance of Yom Kippur, a period of prayer and fasting. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews admit their sins and reconcile with God, ends Thursday at sundown with a meal that traditionally includes dairy items such as cheese blintzes or bagels with cream cheese and lox. Prayers of thanks will accompany the meal that breaks the fast.

Even in the hustle of modern American life, when the family dinner is not a seven-night-a-week event, saying grace before dinner is still a tradition in many households. A 1999 Gallup poll found that 29 percent of American families say they always pray before meals and an additional 22 percent report that it is a frequent occurrence. Only 14 percent say they never pray at all.

But what to say to God when you're angry and confused? How do you give thanks, even for your food, when you just want to say, "Where were you, God? Where?"

Dr. Terry Markins, pastor at my church, First United Methodist in St. Petersburg, believes that God was in the police officers and firefighters who hurried to the World Trade Center to save lives and in the process were lost themselves. Today, God remains with the recovery workers and the people who pray for peace, give blood and call for fair treatment of Muslims.

Despite the deaths, the sadness and uncertainty, all the good books teach us we must be thankful. In the face of Sept. 11, Markins says, our children must know how fortunate we are, how easily we can get clean drinking water when three-fourths of the world cannot.

"Prayer is a soul-expanding exercise," he says. "Food nurtures the body, and prayer nurtures the soul."

Without a script, I sometimes find myself tongue-tied when moved to say grace. Growing up, my family saved mealtime prayers for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Somewhere along the line, Thanksgiving became my hallowed ground, and I said the prayer every year.

I would spend weeks searching for prayers or writing my own. Often I would come to the table with a prayer too long to be memorized so it had to be read from my note pad. Depending on the year, I seized the opportunity to pray for American hostages in Iran, the end of famine in Ethiopia and world peace.

I know now that I was grandstanding, not praising.

The prayer of thanksgiving is simple. It should proclaim the greatness of God and gratefulness for nourishment. It does not have to be fancy, just heartfelt and genuine.

Markins says that when he prepares to give thanks, he often envisions the process the food has gone through to get to his plate.

"The farmer plowing the field, the farmer weeding the field, bringing the potato to harvest, taking it to market, then to the grocer, then to my house. It has to be peeled, cooked and mashed, and what have I put into it?" he says.

Sometimes he contemplates the forces that created the food itself: the sun, the water and the cellular makeup of the potato. Prayer can come in familiar verses or in conversational tones, he says. It can even come in silence.

"Our spirit dictates different needs at different times," he says. "Be still and listen; that is prayer, too."

Like many of you in the past two weeks, I have been still sometimes, and I've talked aloud to God at others. I've thanked him for my daily bread while trying hard to keep the faith.

- Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or by e-mail to krieta@sptimes.com.

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