Last Sunday was an inauspicious start of the church year.
The day started out well enough. Our family attended our Presbyterian church’s “Rally Day” breakfast. Then I enjoyed a peaceful and thought-provoking worship service while my kids reconnected with their friends at Sunday school. The afternoon was pleasantly filled with play-dates. But things took a decided turn for the worse as we sat down for dinner that evening.
“Wait” I said (as I so often do) “Don’t eat yet. We’re going to say grace first”.
That’s when all three of my children informed me that they no longer wanted to say grace.
Our family only started saying grace before dinner a little over a year ago. Below I’ll explain why we started this practice, but regardless of the reasons, initially the kids enthusiastically embraced this new activity. They would fight over whose turn it was to say grace. They enjoyed selecting and reading prayers from an interfaith book of blessings my friend had given me called A Grateful Heart, even though the prayers included some vocabulary way beyond the reading level of a seven-year old.
But over the last few weeks, none of the kids have wanted to say grace. I’ve been stepping up to the plate (so to speak) a bit more – which is a challenge for me since I didn’t grow up doing this either. Bottom line – I guess I should have seen this coming.
Moments like this can be pivotal in a person’s lifelong attitude towards religion. Ricky Gervais noted that he became an atheist at the moment when his brother asked him why he believed in God, and his mother promptly quashed the discussion before Gervais could answer. In contrast, I strongly believe that kids (and adults for that matter) should be able to question anything, and should be allowed to make up their own minds based on the quality of the answers provided. On the other hand, I also believe that kids should not be allowed to dictate how a household is run either.
So, I told the kids we would discuss the subject after I had said grace. I gave thanks for our many blessings, prayed for a sick friend, and then asked the kids why they didn’t like saying grace any more.
“I just don’t like it”.
Right. I had to do a little more digging to get answers. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that for my line-backer sized seven-year old twin boys who are constantly ravenous, anything that comes between them and immediate consumption of food is BAD. Grace for them had become the equivalent of the long cafeteria line on pizza day.
Unfortunately for my sons, this complaint fell on deaf ears. In fact, one of the (less-important) reasons we started saying grace before dinner was because I got tired of the boys finishing their meal before I’d even sat down. Grace seemed like a particularly effective mechanism to force my boys to learn how to wait to eat until everyone was ready.
So I turned to my nine-year old daughter for her thoughts. I always like talking with my daughter about religion, because I think there is a very good chance she will end up being an atheist, and thus she challenges me more than most people I know. She is highly practical, thoughtful and intelligent. She is skeptical of much of what she is taught in Sunday School and what she hears in church. In other words – she is a lot like me – except that she hasn’t read all the books I have that could help her understand that her views are not incompatible with belief in God – just incompatible with certain conceptions of God.
Anyway – after some pauses, she confessed that she didn’t like grace because she didn’t believe that God really would listen to every prayer and act on it. And, as she put it ‘I just don’t get why we do it. What’s the point of saying grace?
So these were good points, meriting a thoughtful response. To put it into the classic jargon of my MBA education: my daughter was asking me to articulate the value proposition of saying grace.
So here are the real reasons that we started saying grace in our family, and why this religious act has value for me:
1. It offers a sacred moment of peace and reflection in our frenetic lives
When I had three children under the age of 3, I couldn’t imagine that my life could someday become more insane. Yet it truly has. With each child doing multiple different sports and other after-school activities, the afternoon and early evening hours are spent in a frantic scramble from one location to the next. Stopping to eat together at all is a minor miracle, but pausing before we consume to simply sit quietly and reflect is a true gift. Perhaps I particularly crave such quiet moments after attending Quaker meeting once a week for thirteen years of my life (I attended a Friends school from Kindergarten to twelfth grade). Regardless of the source, I strongly believe in the benefit of reserving a moment for spiritual connection or even just reflection every day. For our family, dinnertime seemed like the most reliable point in the day to make that happen.
2. It reminds us to be grateful for all that we have
Our entire economic system is based to some degree on instilling the drive to acquire that which we don’t yet have (try to imagine a healthy capitalist economy where everyone was content living with the bare necessities). While I am a strong supporter of capitalism, the societal and psychological consequences of this continuous ‘wanting’ can be pretty unhealthy. Giving thanks during grace can be one small way to counterbalance these unhealthy tendencies. In particular, I try to use this time to be grateful for those things that are intangible and most valuable – like the love of family and friends.
3. It cultivates a compassionate and caring heart
Every time I say grace, I first give thanks for our blessings, and then pray for those who need help. This second part of saying grace is what is referred to as ‘intercessory prayer’ (i.e. asking God to intervene in the world) and it is the part that was causing my daughter the most trouble. Basically, she didn’t buy that our prayers directly make God do what we’re asking. So here’s the thing – I’m not at all sure I buy that either. I realize many will take this as sacrilegious, but quite frankly, the evidence just doesn’t support the hypothesis that prayer, in and of itself, is a reliable method for helping others. For example, ‘The Great Prayer Experiment‘( the most comprehensive study to date of the impact of prayer) showed no positive relationship between praying and the health of the sick people who were being prayed for.
However, I am still a firm believer in the value of intercessory prayer – but for a different reason. To put it bluntly – I think intercessory prayer is extraordinarily important because of the impact it has on the person doing the praying. It’s one thing to talk about someone else’s needs, or to ‘keep that person in your thoughts’. But when you are actually praying for someone, you are pouring your entire heart and soul into caring about that other person. It is an intense, soul-changing process. From my own experience, I can vouch that when I have prayed for others it has helped me to remember to take action to help those people whenever I can, or even just to show them kindness whenever I saw them. Basically, praying for others knocks little chinks in my armor of utter self-absorption. It’s worth noting that there does appear to be some evidence that prayer, or other forms of spiritual practice such as meditation, can lead to more compassionate and caring behavior.
Also – as should be obvious – when those you love know that you are praying for them, this can help them feel loved and cared for, which is also extraordinarily important for helping with recovery from a wide variety of ailments.
So why bother saying grace? Why not just say some secular heart-felt words about the good things in our life and send good wishes to those in need? Interestingly, the very next night I tried just that. I asked the children to talk about what they were grateful for, and to think about anyone who needed our good thoughts. And it just wasn’t the same. It made for an interesting discussion, but it lacked the intensity, the spiritual power, of sitting quietly and really concentrating as we do when we say grace with full intention. Which leads me to the last point about the benefits of saying grace. While I cannot prove that there is a God, for me the ongoing reason for my personal belief is that at certain regular moments in my life – prayer being one of the most important – I experience a Presence that is unlike anything else. Is that Presence listening to me and helping those whom I know need help? I have no idea, but I do know that the upside of reaching out to that Presence is infinite, and the downside is pretty much non-existent.
So I communicated these three points to my three kids – hopefully more succinctly than I did just now. While I think they listened to my first point above, the attention span of twin seven-year old boys is not extensive and by somewhere in the middle of point two, one twin was playing footsie with my daughter, who promptly responded by poking her brother repeatedly in the armpit. After some pauses to reestablish focus I did get all the points out, and they said they heard it and it made sense. Did they really listen? Did they really absorb it? Well, given that they remain unconvinced that picking their noses and
belching on demand are undesirable behaviors – even after I have given them those messages multiple times every day – I guess I shouldn’t set my expectations too high. But I figure that by being honest, logical, and open to their questioning, perhaps I’m laying
the groundwork for them to mature someday into thoughtful people of faith. Or nose-picking belching atheists*. I’ll love them either way.
*This in no way implies that I think that all atheists are nose-picking belchers. Seriously.