Wednesday, November 26, 2008
For what we are about to receive...
I thought about starting this blog with a reference to Thanksgiving. It has all the elements I wanted to talk about - being grateful, giving thanks and eating - so it would have been perfect. Only problem is that since I'm not an American, I don't celebrate Thanksgiving. Unfortunately my pioneer ancestors decided to dive straight into the whole "taking the land and killing the natives" part and totally skipped the "first having a big meal with the natives" part (leading me to suspect that the Pilgrims were in fact Bond villains). I always felt a little cheated by that because I sure do love turkey and could have done with a holiday dedicated to eating it. But I digress...
I recently received radiation therapy and had to spend four days locked in a hospital room with no computer, radio or TV to distract me (and thanks to an embarrassing mishap with a drain, I also spent half of that without a phone...). Basically the only contact I had with the outside world was the plate of food that was rolled into my room 3 times a day and that got me thinking about the practice of saying grace before a meal. For some reason it is almost a reflex for me. I have been doing it for so long that I don't know if I could even eat anything without praying over it first. Even at times when my faith was low to the point of practical non-existence I still found myself praying before eating. There have been long periods in my life where the prayer before meals was the only prayer I said at all. Well during my time in the isolation ward I happened to be reading a book that had been sitting on my shelf for ages called "Jesus the Jewish Theologian". Now this is a fascinating book for anyone who is interested in getting back to the Judaic roots of the Christian faith and during this time the chapter on how giving thanks is a way of life for the Jewish people really spoke to me. I have noticed over time that when it came to saying grace before a meal, there tended to be two elements present no matter who prayed and no matter what language was used:
1. Asking God to bless the food, and
2. Asking God to make us grateful for it.
What really spoke to me as I learned more about the Judaic approach was that their prayers lacked both of those elements. Firstly, they never blessed the food, they blessed God. Our practice of blessing food is in fact rather removed from the Biblical perspective that the world and everything in it belongs to God and that He made it good. The need to bless food draws far more on the Hellenistic, gnostic idea that the physical world is tainted and not good. In the Jewish mindset it would pretty much be an insult to God to ask Him to bless something He allready declared "very good"! Instead, the Jewish prayer for bread goes:
"Blessed are thou o Lord, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth."
This is most likely the prayer that Jesus and the apostles used when the Bible talks about them saying a blessing before meals. I really liked that small prayer because it is a simple acknowledgment of God as our ultimate provider. Seems to me that the Biblical concept of saying grace sounded a lot less like:
"Bless this food to our use, and us to thy service and fill our hearts with grateful praise. Amen."
and a lot more like the doxology:
My favourite part here was that it didn't stop at saying thank you for bread. There was a similar prayer to say thank you for wine. In fact there was a short prayer of thanksgiving - called a Berakhot - for pretty much every part of life. It is believed that this is what Paul was referring to in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 when he wrote:
"Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."
There was a Berakhot for pretty much everything - on receiving good news, bad news, when eating, drinking, smelling a fragrant plant, being in the presence of thunder, lightning, rainbows and comets, seeing a king, seeing a dwarf or a giant - the list goes on. There was even a prayer to bless God for the ability to urinate! (If you are really curious, it goes: "Blessed is He who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and many cavities. It is fully known before the throne of Thy glory that if one of them should be [improperly] opened or one of them closed it would be impossible for a man to stand before Thee" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 60b))
Now I'm not suggesting that as Christians we learn a new set of prayer to replaced the old set of prayers. But what really stood out for me here was how this practice fostered an attitude of continuous marvel, awe and wonder regarding the things we so easily take for granted. Which brings me to the second element of the traditional mealtime grace the very familiar "For what we are about to receive, make us truly grateful oh Lord" part. I have had a problem with that part for many years. Why should the responsibility for our gratitude be God's problem? It just never made sense to me. Plus you would not want God - or anyone really - to make you grateful. Think about it. If you truly want to be made grateful, here are two simple things I can suggest:
a) Go without food for a while. Nothing like a good fast to make you appreciate the goodness of even a piece of dry bread.
b) Not feeling up to a fast? OK, do it the third world way and eat nothing but the most basic food for a while. Try living from only bread or only rice or only porridge for a week. I can promise you from personal experience that it will make you truly grateful for the next piece of meat you eat!
I for one would rather not be made grateful, trust me, I have been there and its no fun at all. I would much rather try and foster an attitude of continuous gratitude and childlike wonder for the world I live in. After all, we get to enjoy it for such a short time, why not learn to appreciate it while we have it for the gift that it is?
So may you cherish every moment spent with the people you love and may you enjoy every good thing in this world whether it be food or drink, dancing or sleeping, nature or technology. Whatever stirs your heart, may you always be at least a little in awe of it and may you always remember what a gift it is to be able to enjoy it.
If all else fails, remember the Boom de yada!
[Sources: "Our father Abraham" by Dr MR Wilson and "Jesus the Jewish Theologian" by Dr BH Young. I recommend both very highly.]