I don’t think I’ve ever felt comfortable saying grace before a meal, even at home, and when I’m in public I dread it. I try to time the prayer so that the server won’t interrupt us. The idea of a server waiting while my family prays over a meal makes me feel self-conscious and guilty, as if I were imposing my religion on them. I don’t want anyone around me to feel uncomfortable watching and listening to me pray. Besides, I tell myself, does it even matter if I pray for the food? I paid for it. I know I’m grateful. And I’m in a hurry. Isn’t the necessity of saying grace just legalism—empty ritual that actually makes me less grateful? In the moment, especially when I’m hungry, it’s much easier to start right in on the food and maybe, if I feel guilty, I can pray something silently like, “Sorry, God, but you know my heart.”
It could be that you haven’t experienced any reticence toward praying over a meal in public, but I hope you can see that many other Christians do feel uncomfortable. No small part of this discomfort stems from the rise of secularism in our country. Even in the fairly religious states I’ve lived in, such as Texas and Oklahoma, you don’t see most people praying over their meals in public. Our society’s broad assumption is that religious exercise belongs in our hearts, in our homes, or in our churches. It doesn’t belong in a booth at McDonald’s.
Our society’s broad assumption is that religious exercise belongs in our hearts, in our homes, or in our churches. It doesn’t belong in a booth at McDonald’s.
Public displays of religion are more offensive than public displays of affection, which I think partially explains some Americans’ reactions to Muslims who say their daily prayers. For many Americans, seeing someone practicing religion in public feels a bit like watching the inebriated or mentally unstable in public. What are they going to do next? Why aren’t they being rational? Why couldn’t they keep this to themselves?
Which is one reason why saying grace can be a testament to a watching world that our faith is not a personal preference that we keep discretely hidden behind our “normal” public life. And insofar as saying grace defies the secular social etiquette of privatizing religious practices, it is a disruptive witness.
We certainly shouldn’t say grace in order to be seen saying grace, or to make people uncomfortable. We don’t pray loudly so that others will be shocked and disturbed by our piety. Being a “Jesus freak” just to be a freak capitulates to the game of secularism in that it turns our faith into an advertisement, a signal to others. The practice of our faith turns out to be the advertising of our faith, which is the exact kind of hollowness at the core of so many contemporary beliefs we are seeking to avoid.
If our public prayers or any other public display of faith ceases to be primarily about the spiritual purpose—in this case, thanking God for his provision—and instead becomes about others seeing us be thankful toward God, then we have exchanged the thing itself for the appearance of the thing. Our motive ought to be gratitude to God, not seeking attention. But if we actually avoid public prayers because it feels socially awkward, or because it feels like we’re imposing our faith on our neighbors, we need to be able to call that avoidance what it is: a capitulation to secular ideas of the public square.
If we find ourselves avoiding public prayers because it feels socially awkward, or because it feels like we’re imposing our faith on our neighbors, we need to be able to call that avoidance what it is: a capitulation to secular ideas of the public square.
Challenging Materialist Accounts
Another way that saying grace is a disruptive witness is that it challenges a materialist account of provision. Although there are nearly innumerable acceptable visions of fullness in our secular age, the majority of them assume that we live in a closed universe wherein everything or virtually everything can be explained through an empirical, materialist, scientific account. Physics and chemistry account for the totality of existence. We may come to many different conclusions from this assumption, however. For example, someone might look at the purely material world as a kind of nearly transcendent gift that requires our admiration and worship. Such a person may show gratitude for the idea of the Earth in all its vastness. Others may believe that the food in front of us is a testament to the human potential for greatness—our ability to cultivate the earth and produce fine food efficiently and economically. Still others may simply take provision as a given, not bothering to consider it at all except insofar as they are responsible for paying for the food.
What is uncommon is the view that whatever food lies before us is a gift from a personal God who provides for us because he loves us. The more divorced we are from the cultivation of crops and animals, and the more mechanical and manufactured our food appears to us, the less we see it as a gift. When our meals come to us carefully wrapped in paper from hands wrapped in latex gloves that took ingredients from hermetically sealed plastic bags that were created in a sanitary, automated factory, it is no easy thing to see the hand of God at work providing for us.
Contingencies of weather and seasons, human errors, and animal behavior and health have been carefully, systematically, and technologically reduced as much as possible. Think, for example, of the fact that modern people expect to be able to go to the market and buy apples year-round. Humanity has mastered nature, and we owe humanity no gratitude—just some monetary compensation. This of course makes the act of giving thanks to God all the more disruptive.
If I am thankful to the cook or the restaurant chain or capitalism or modern farming techniques or my job that allows me to afford the food or even a semimystical conception of Mother Earth, I am still fundamentally accepting that the food before me is completely the result of processes in the material world. But to thank God is to defy this logic. This is not a generic or impersonal sense of gratitude toward nature or the universe, but a specific thankfulness for a meal to a personal God whose common grace provides for us all.
Practiced regularly, saying grace is a reminder that the way things appear to us as modern people is not the truth of being. Underneath all the packaging and production and procedures remains God’s providence and sustaining power. In truth, the world and our being within it is far more contingent than we know.
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