As soon as I placed the bowl of spaghetti in front of him, our little guest picked up his fork and dug in.
Our three children gazed at him in stunned silence.
I was slow in formulating a response, distracted as I was by burning smells coming from the kitchen. It didn’t matter. My son leaned over and whispered to his friend: “We wait. First we say thank you God, and then everyone eats.”
This little conversation happened right around the time I was ready to give up on saying grace altogether. Our kids were rattling it off in a manner so rapid-fire it could barely be called prayer. ThankyouJesusforthisfoodamen!
“This is beginning to feel counter-productive,” I told my husband.
And yet, imperfect though it has been, our mealtime family practices have shaped us.
We never begin our supper without waiting until the whole family has gathered round. And the sign that we are ready to start the feast (I use that term metaphorically; we’re terrible cooks) is an invitation: “Who would like to say grace?” Once we’ve greeted God, then everyone is at the table. Let the meal begin!
Although I’m not so pedantic to say so at our family dinner, still, I often find myself thinking of Communion. I remember the way our church community waits for the children to come upstairs from Sunday school to join us round the table. The deacon and I raise the wine and bread, saying: “The gifts of God, for the people of God!” And the whole congregation joins in our words of table grace: “Thanks be to God!” It’s never perfect at church, either, not even in that holiest of places: there are banging pews, and crying babies and people momentarily distracted by a passing thought, a buzzing phone. Still, it’s grace.
There is something about the discipline of waiting for the family to come together and returning thanks to God that is very Christian, and that shapes us in quiet ways. It’s a modest practice, yes, but it has to do with good things like community and belonging, with love and fellowship. And of course, faith.
The other thing we do at our family dinners is talk.
Some of you may be thinking: Well, of course you talk. Everyone talks over dinner!
And we do now, as a family. But not so long ago our children were wee, and talk at supper was limited to petitions for More milk and negotiations over How many more bites. These were the days when the thought of having a civilized conversation seemed an impossible dream.
There is a bit of an art to having a conversation with children.
When our children were very little, as in non-verbal (baby), barely verbal (age 3) and talkative (age 5) I introduced a simplified form of the Review of the Day. We went around the table, and each answered two questions: What was the best part of your day? And What was the hardest part of the day? The goal was to learn turn-taking, listening, and a rudimentary form of “sharing our lives.” At bedtime, I would pray over these “best parts” and “worst parts” individually with each child.
One day, a frequent little suppertime guest was over at our house. He was joining us for dinner again, which was fine, but I was feeling frazzled. If I recall, there was some kind of parish emergency that had come up, and my husband was away. In any case, I was throwing kid-friendly food onto the table and backing towards the phone: “Just start,” I said. “Go ahead and eat.”
Sam,* our guest, looked at me with reproach: “But, we haven’t said our Best Part and Hardest Part of the Day. And we haven’t said thank you Jesus.” Without missing a beat, he then organized that night’s conversation, explaining who would go first (the youngest) and who would go last (himself, the oldest), and then he said grace. Sam, incidentally, had never attended a church service in his life.
There is value in learning when to talk and when to be silent. There is skill in learning to have a conversation, much like we learn how to speak to God. There is art in learning to care about other people’s stories, as baby steps on the road to compassion. And there is joy and comfort in sometimes seeing – maybe just a glimpse, as a fleeting image out of the corner of our eyes – God’s loving presence, in the middle of our ordinary stories, from our ordinary days.
Moments of silence and speech, of listening and speaking shape us as a Christian community, too. There is this ebb and flow of conversation between us and God, and between us and our brothers and sisters. Our liturgy teaches us how to be God’s conversation partner as we gather around the Table each week.
It’s all about fellowship, really, these Christian table practices. And it is Christian formation too, humble though these little rituals may be. I’ve learned this again and again, in parish ministry, as families tell us how these simple little Christian disciplines – of saying grace, and sharing their lives – have gently nourished faith in the home.
Research tells us that parents matter in the spiritual formation of children, yet many parents are unsure of how to go about that. Simple table practices are easy for everyone to learn, no matter where they are in their spiritual journey. They are also easy to share with parents during children talks, baptismal preparation classes, sermons and seasonal events.
A couple of resources to offer the families in your churches:
- A collection of table graces printed on individual cards, for families to use at their family meal.
- A collection of conversation starters, such as one can find online at www.focusonthefamily.ca/parenting/mealtime-questions or www.familiesalive.org/dinnertable/, or www.loyolapress.com/family-fun–.htm
- If you’re without your questions, the Review of the Day is a place to start (what was the best part of your day?)
- Short (short!) mealtime devotions with conversation questions for special seasons during the church year, such as Advent or Lent. Creative Communications, an online resource, sells good and affordable church resources to help with this..
It’s a simple idea, right? Sometimes it’s the simple habits that shape us in the most surprising ways.