Thursday, December 11, 2014

Saying grace…

Here’s the prayer my family says every meal now that a foster child joined us last month. You may recognize this deceptively profound supplication; it’s rather famous. It goes, “God is great. God is good. Let us thank God for our food. Amen.” Note, that when saying the Ah in amen, it’s traditionally held for several beats: Ahhhhhh-men.

You can guess why we pulled this out for a five-year-old. The short sentences form a rhyming, easy-to-remember couplet. And sure enough, by week three’s end, he had it down pat. Thus, now he’s dogmatic about him leading the prayer, leaving us to catch up. But initially, while Tab and I introduced it, we spoke slowly, precisely, in a tone and rhythm that resembled melody so the rhyme would stick in his mind. The strategy worked. Wahoo!

However, it led to me not really praying, simply saying the words. Know the feeling? Like during the Lord’s Prayer, have there been Sundays when you’re thinking about speaking in the right words in rhythm with everyone else, but not really about what they mean? That’s a perpetual temptation for me. So I created a counter-strategy several years ago: recite the words until one line jumps out as particularly relevant that week, and let it be my focus. When I do this, of course, it means I don’t think through the prayer’s full gambit of meaning. But that’s fine. I say it often enough, I’ll get to the rest eventually.

Anyway, that’s how praying this “God is great” prayer had become for me- recitation and not devotion. So now that he’s memorized it, I decided to invest more spiritual energy in truly praying to God. Which means recognizing that when I say those words, God’s actively listening, actually present; that when I “thank God for our food,” a spiritual “You’re welcome” may come. The feeling was great! Plus, I further discovered that, oftentimes, my pre-foster table prayers were suspect too. In a way peculiar to adults, I hadn’t thought much about how God was hearing my prayer, but more about what clever words I could string together. Ugh. That’s also compromised praying, not fully effective. The eloquence of prayer should be in our hearts, not in our tongues, amen?!

Besides, while beautiful, poetic prayers are wonderfully useful in many situations, the mammoth proclamation of what we’re saying with the foster kid has bowled me over the deeper I’ve listened. I mean, consider the heavy freight those apparently “simple” words actually carry? They present the #1 conundrum monotheists have ever faced, in just two sentences- “God is great,” and “God is good.” WHOA! Ponder that pairing, and try to make it simple. You can’t.

“God is great” is a claim about the power, prestige and primacy of God. It’s akin to the label “Creator,” that one who made the heavens and earth, hurricanes and tornadoes, who, in Job’s words, controls the Leviathan. That same one, we then suggest, is “good,” meaning worthy of praise, love, and devotion. And so doesn’t mistreat God’s creations, doesn’t use them as playthings. Honestly, that’s a hard-to-justify supposition at times, like when facing cancer, or making sense of a tornado destroying your neighborhood, or when mental illness enslaves a loved one. The goodness and greatness of God seem to contradict.

Which is another reason I’m glad that’s become our table prayer with the five-year-old. Not only are we, together, cultivating a practice of routine devotion, but we’re ensuring it’s more than fluff. It’s substance. I want any child I’m blessed to influence to learn that faith well-lived is faith deeply considered, that our posture before God shouldn’t be blandness, but toughness, doubt, and striving. That will help the child- it helps me!- craft a truly strong spirituality, the kind that’s reliable in hard times, not simply a comfort when life is already easy.

Not that he understands this now! But one of you recently told me something right: kids learn from what we do, more than from what we say. So if I want to be effective, I must pray these words, and not just say them. Lesson learned, and learning.

Grace and Peace,
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