Chris Stedman is an atheist religion teacher. Her sister is Lutheran. Spiritually, their siblings fall somewhere in between.
When they get together for Thanksgiving, they don’t say grace like their grandparents once did. Instead, they take a moment for a simple practice that has become a family tradition.
Before the meal, everyone writes at least one thing they are grateful for on a piece of paper without signing their name, then puts the pieces of paper in a bowl. Once seated, they pass the bowl to each other and read the “acknowledgments” aloud.
“It’s that nice mix of humorous stuff and really real heartfelt things,” said Stedman, author and podcaster who teaches at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. “It’s that thing that I think everyone really feels included in, whereas, if it was some kind of traditional prayer or something like that, it wouldn’t necessarily resonate with everyone. . “
For Stedman, the practice provides a moment of pause and reflection, which is an important part of so many rituals, whether religious or secular, traditional or DIY.
“They take us outside of our normal daily routines and give us a chance to take a break, to check in with ourselves, to sort of reorient ourselves to what’s important to us,” he said. “They remind us that we are trying to live in a particular way, perhaps in a more intentional way.”
Saying a prayer or a blessing before a meal is a tradition in almost all religious cultures, including Islam, Hinduism, Baha’i, Christianity, and Judaism. Even as religious affiliation continues to decline – with just 47% of all Americans belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque according to a March Gallup poll – meeting before a meal to thank endures in many homes.
According to a 2017 Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation poll, about half of Americans grant some kind of pardon at least a few times a week. Even for those who don’t give thanks regularly, Thanksgiving is often the exception. not part of an organized religion can create their own way of observing, reading, reciting a poem or holding hands for a moment of silence together.
But saying grace, whatever its form, can be more than just spiritual practice. There are tangible mental and physical health benefits to the ritual. It can teach a lesson in gratitude, provide a moment of mindfulness, and help us recognize the simple joys of reuniting.
For wellness dietician Jason Ewoldt, who guides people through mindful eating in the Mayo Clinic’s Healthy Living Program, a break before meal is part of a healthy dinner.
“Mindfulness before meals can help reduce stress and anxiety, move us away from ‘autopilot’ and refocus our attention on the present moment,” he said. “It can also help us. to become more aware of how much and why we eat. “
Ewoldt advises anyone interested in mindful eating to spend five minutes thinking before a meal twice a week.
“Practice gratitude. Think about the day. Take a few controlled breaths. Let go of stressors, to-do lists, personal expectations and self-judgment while eating,” he said.
Even for those whose meals can start without thinking 364 days a year, Thanksgiving can be different.
The holiday (although historical facts complicate its myth) is now part of what is called America’s “civil religion,” which is not a denomination but shares sacred symbols, practices and values, said Deanna Thompson, director of the Lutheran Center for Faith. , values and community at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
Although not a religious holiday, Thanksgiving is sacred to some Americans and can be claimed by all faiths – inspiring prayers or family table traditions to mark it as special. It is also a day for interfaith services in many American cities.
In Minneapolis, Temple Israel hosts an annual interfaith service on Thanksgiving Day that brings together congregations from more than a dozen churches, mosques, and temples in the area.
“There is a common thread here to be thankful to God for the harvest, for the food, for our family, for the life we live in this country,” said Thompson.
In his own home, Thompson follows his parents ‘and grandparents’ tradition of saying grace. As a national expert on interfaith dialogue and worship, she also often reflects on how people of different faiths or beliefs can come together to give thanks before a meal.
“When people eat together, this practice can do more than just nourish our bodies – it can nourish our soul,” she said. “It is important to take a break before eating and to give thanks for the food and the people who prepared it …
His family often recites the Christian prayer at the beginning of the mealtime: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest …”, but Thompson also finds that a less specific grace that a pastor friend uses may be appropriate at a surrounded table. from people of various beliefs: “For what we’re about to receive, makes us truly grateful.”
Another way to approach a meal among people of different faiths is to have guests bless the food or gathering in their own way, emphasizing instead of setting aside traditions that are meaningful to them.
Give meaning to the table
For Laura Adelman’s family of four, weekday meals at their Plymouth home are often rushed.
Every Friday night for Jewish Shabbat, however, they have what she calls a “relaxed family meal” and take the time to say many blessings, which they recite in Hebrew.
“Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz,” they say to bless the bread. “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, master of the universe, who brings out bread from the earth. “
“There are special blessings for the lighting of candles, for food and drink, and blessings for our children to be brave, wise and kind – like their ancestors before them,” she said. . “Our Shabbat meal can be anything from roast chicken and soup to matzo dumplings to take out pizza. It doesn’t matter what meal is served, it’s friendliness. more important. “
They also have another family Friday tradition: reading the questions from the “Table Topics” game. They take turns going around the table responding to card prompts, such as, “If you could invite someone, who would you invite and why?” Said Adelman.
“These questions sparked many interesting discussions with our 6 year old daughter, Sophie,” she said.
Emma Dunn also celebrates Shabbat each week with her fiance in Minneapolis.
Dunn, who is the young adult engagement manager at the Minneapolis and St. Paul Jewish Federations, did not grow up with the practice (she converted as an adult and did not say the grace as a child) but finds Shabbat to be “an oasis.”
“There is a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that ‘Shabbat is a palace in time’,” Dunn said. “Which is really just a reflection of people looking for the chance to put their phones down, look around the table and meet someone new, or hang out with friends and family. they know it well, really putting the intention to the end of the week and the meal. “
A lasting connection
Growing up, the Lutheran family of Reverend Mark Hanson prayed not only before meals, but also after them.
“Loved going to play, I would get restless at times while waiting for others to finish eating so that we could pray,” said Hanson, founding director of Interfaith at the University of Augsburg.
After everyone had eaten, only the words “God is great, God is good. And we thank him for this food,” would unlock them all from their seats, he said.
When Hanson’s six children were young, they recited the pre-meal prayer that he and his wife, Ione, had said at their table when they were children. Hanson, however, decided to skip this verse after the meal.
“We knew that asking everyone to stay at the table until we had all finished eating so that we could pray again was not wise, given the energy of at least some of our children!” he said.
Hanson believes that the “family table traditions” of praying and eating together have been of great benefit to their families.
One of his adult sons recently told him: “I always knew that no matter how much I screwed up, when I got home there would always be a place for me at the table and that you and mom always loved me, ”said Hanson.
Hanson now sets a seat for one at his table. The children are all grown up and his wife is in memory care.
“Most meals, I eat alone, but I always pray,” he said. “It is a way to stay connected through prayer with God, with Ione, our family and those who are hungry in the world.”
Here is his meal prayer:
“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and may these gifts be blessed to us.
Blessed be God, who is our bread:
let everyone be clothed and fed. “
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