I’m not sure where or when I saw it, but I vaguely recall a movie scene in which some not particularly religious character was asked to pray over the meal. After awkwardly folding his hands and bowing his head, he uttered, “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat!” Not the most eloquent expression of thanksgiving!
Then I think of persons asked to pray at public gatherings who reach into a coat pocket, unfold a sheet of paper and proceed to recite a prayer they had composed in advance. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. None of us would want to stumble with our words in such a setting. But I believe the prayers God loves most are those expressed spontaneously, from the heart, without pomp or circumstance, as led by the Holy Spirit.
On the day recognized nationally as Thanksgiving Day, perhaps this is especially significant. In some households, a traditional “saying of grace” before meals is rare. So a show of sudden spirituality might seem daunting. How should we pray? And what should we pray for?
I don’t have a formula – or “recipe,” if you will – for a Thanksgiving Day dinner prayer. But the Scriptures do offer many helpful suggestions. Perhaps one of the best was given by Jesus when He warned against what I’d call “ostentatious religiosity.” In giving examples of persons who liked to parade their piety, He said,
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men…. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).
This doesn’t mean if someone asks us to pray for God to bless the food, that we should retreat to a room, close the door, and then pray. That would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it? But we don’t need to try to impress anyone listening, either. Jesus continued, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8).
What’s most important, I believe, on this Thanksgiving Day, is that before enjoying the food that’s been so lovingly prepared, that we pause to enjoy and praise the One who has so lovingly provided for all that we need. I like what the apostle James said about prayer, words that could be applied even to the simple practice of “saying grace”: “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
Recently I was reminded of how the ancient Israelites sometimes expressed their gratitude in a call-and-answer manner. The worship leader would voice a phrase of thanksgiving, and then the congregation would give a repeating response:
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good...His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods...His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords...His love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1-3).
Maybe it’s because it reminds me of my early church days when we had a responsive reading each Sunday, but that seems like a cool way of giving thanks. Amen!