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Come to the table and give thanks

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I love food – so much, in fact, my husband accuses me of being a food snob! My mouth waters when I think of spicy exotic curry, hearty goulash soup from my dad’s native Hungary, rich potato gratin prepared by my chef brother-in-law, or decadent organic chocolate brownies baked by my entrepreneur sister. Eating can be such a pleasure!

But there’s more to eating than mere flavour; mealtime also has a political side. Food sustainability is a hot topic these days, with practices such as organic farming, community gardening, and local marketing gaining popularity. We’re beginning to think about where our food comes from, and how it’s grown and distributed, not just what it is. We’re slowly realizing how our food choices affect the health and future of our planet.

Simply put, eating is an act of survival – for our planet, as well as human beings. The link between food and human survival is clear as we witness millions of East Africans unable to find enough nourishment to keep themselves alive. It’s a sombre reminder.

O Lord, give us today our daily bread! This simple prayer – spoken by Jesus (Matthew 6:11) – reminds us that food also carries a deeply spiritual component. The mere fact we have a meal on our plates means that God is providing for our daily needs and keeping our bodies alive. Thank you, Lord!

Grace: a lost art

With these thoughts in mind, my family tries to make it a priority to say grace before every meal. Grace puts things in perspective: food is about many things – pleasure, politics, survival, spiritual sustenance. No matter how grumpy or cynical I may feel, mealtime grace turns my heart in the right direction.

The word “grace” comes from the Latin term meaning “thanks,” with contemporary roots in the Protestant Reformation, when monastic prayer traditions were reinvented for regular Christian believers. Families developed prayer routines at the beginning and end of each day, and at meals.

Today, many North Americans still say grace before meals. However, it’s not as common as it once was, especially with busy family schedules. The popularity of eating at restaurants also impacts our prayer habits, since many people are just too embarrassed to pray in public.

Whom do we thank?

But perhaps the saddest loss we face is our hesitance to name the object of our thanks. I’ve seen and read many secular expressions of thanksgiving – on Oprah Winfrey’s blog, for example, or at our mayor’s annual prayer breakfast. Many people are quick to give thanks for the food on their plates, but it’s not always clear whom they’re thanking. Is their gratitude directed to the family breadwinner? Farmers? Nature? Many people find it easy to say thanks, but difficult to address their thanks to a personal, loving God.

A few years ago, Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn wrote an article about her thoughts on mealtime grace, and said, “When I was 13…I announced to my [practicing Christian] father that I was an atheist and that I would never say grace again.”

Life circumstances changed, however, and Quinn modified her position: “This year, though, I’m going to say grace. I haven’t become a believer, but I do feel overwhelmed with gratitude for all the wonder of my family and friends and the gifts I have been given. After all, what is grace anyway, what does it mean but gratitude?”

It strikes me as odd (and sadly empty) to be grateful for the gifts we’ve been given without acknowledging the Giver of those gifts. A general “attitude of gratitude” is helpful. But gifts never appear out of a void. James 1:17 is clear: “Every good and perfect gift is from above.”

This Thanksgiving, I’m going to think carefully about the food on my table, where it comes from, how it nourishes my body, how fortunate I am to have access to such an abundance of culinary choices – and how all those things are wonderful gifts from Jesus.

—Laura Kalmar

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