Saturday, December 24, 2011

Table Prayer Fellowship

I grew up in a home where people said grace before, and sometimes after, every meal. But as I have moved around the country, and visited different parts of my family, I have picked up a number of variants in what is considered the "common table prayer."

First of all, there's the one that Missouri Synod Lutherans everywhere seem to know, and fall back on as a default at church dinners and family get-togethers. They seem to consider it the Common Table Prayer, with capitalized initials. It goes something like this:
Come, Lord Jesus;
Be our Guest,
And let these gifts
To us be blessed.
I say "something like" because one still sometimes runs across a very tradition-oriented group who insist on preserving King James English, and so they put "Thy" in the place of "these." Under my father's roof, meanwhile, you can hear a compromise position: "these, Thy gifts..." It doesn't scan well, but nobody can complain that the word they prefer was left out.

This would be an adequate reason for squeezing both "these" and "Thy" into the ditty, but when he explains his reasons for the redaction, my Dad doesn't stop there. He goes on to wax nostalgic about an older pastor, brought up in the days when LCMS worship and instruction were all in German, whom he had heard rattling off the original German table prayer. Dad swears up and down he heard a "diese deine" in there.

To no effect, then, do I remind him that I have also dined in at least one Lutheran home where they said the Common Table Prayer in German. The one before the meal, from which our English version is translated, goes:
Komm, Herr Jesu, sei Du unser Gast,
und segne, was Du uns bescheret hast.
The after-meal blessing was even shorter and sweeter:
Gott sei Dank
für Speis und Trank
durch Jesum Christum, Amen.
...For what it's worth. No matter; Dad, invincible in his (ahem) conviction, is willing to agree to disagree on the assumption that some people obviously learned a corrupted version of the original German. Still, I'm pretty sure I can explain his "diese deine" memory. The table grace for before the meal in the Daily Prayers section of Luther's Small Catechism, imported directly from Roman Catholicism, says (after a few preliminary Psalm verses):
Lord God, heavenly Father, bless us and these Thy gifts, which we receive from Thy bountiful goodness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Of course, that's too "catholic" for most Lutherans' sensibilities; though exactly why that's a bad thing, I'm sure I don't know. I find it a little odd to see eyebrows tilted at no less a Lutheran authority than Luther's Small Catechism. But that's just me.

Out west, where I pastored my second parish, I discovered an appendix to the Common Table Prayer that many people automatically recited, swearing that they had always done so regardless of where in the country they came from:
...And let there be an equal share
On every table, everywhere.
I went along with this add-on so as not to stir up needless conflict, but I had never experienced it anywhere else, and have never encountered it since. Besides this, it always brought to mind the proverb, "Be careful what you wish for"—or, in paraphrase, "what you pray for." I mean, it could be quite awful if everyone actually got an equal share. It depends on how big or small that share is. It seems to me that you're better of just asking God to bless what He has given you, and leaving it at that.

Some of my Calvinist relatives used a different rhyming prayer, which I learned while visiting them in my childhood years:
God is great, God is good;
Let us thank Him for our food.
By His hand we all are fed;
Give us, Lord, our daily bread.
That's all very well, I suppose. I just can't help noticing that Jesus isn't in it. And, in a typical Reformed move, the greatness-of-God card is played on the first trick.

Luther's Daily Prayers also include a brief after-meal grace, which I have yet to hear anybody use in real life (except myself, on purpose to try to get the tradition going). Again, after a preliminary excerpt from the Psalms, it says:
We thank Thee, Lord God, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, for all your benefits; who livest and reignest forever and ever. Amen.
I suppose the awkwardness of the sentence structure might have something to do with this formula's unpopularity. Still, I find that it sticks in the memory pretty well.

When my brother and I were snotty little brats, we frequently livened up the saying of grace at family get-togethers by starting additional table prayers after the initial petition had been said. Just when everyone was starting to unfold their hands, open their eyes, and dart a greedy paw toward the mashed potatoes, one of us (by turns) would start another prayer rolling, and quiver with impious glee at the frustration of everyone else who felt it his or her duty to fold their hands, close their eyes, and pray along with us again. Sometimes, and not without the encouragement of some very irresponsible adults, our repertoire would wind down to almost blasphemously silly table prayers, such as:
Thank God for the grub
Good bread,
Good meat;
Good Lord,
Let's eat!
Still, I can't help feeling that all our mischief falls short of the fundraising video for the LCMS seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which came out while I was a student there. One scene depicted a classmate of mine sitting down to dinner with his wife and kids. They folded their hands and, obviously modeling a widespread practice among Fort Wayne-area Lutherans, sang "The Lord's been good to me" from the classic Disney animated short about Johnny Appleseed. I remember, as a schoolboy in Fort Wayne, being impressed to see John Chapman's grave from the window of my school bus every day, situated next to a big Lutheran church. The unspoken assumption then followed that Johnny Appleseed was some kind of Lutheran saint. Even Disney depicted him walking the length and breadth of the Ohio River drainage basin, planting apple trees and proclaiming the Word of God.

It wasn't until I was actually a Lutheran seminarian that I learned that John Chapman was, in fact, proselytizing for a heretical sect known as the Schwenckfelders, which might even have been considered a cult by some modern definitions of the term. You can't imagine how it tickles me to think about those pious Lutheran families, reverently singing a Disney song from a cartoon about a sectarian missionary. I wonder how they feel about the Tannhäuser march being used in church weddings... Anyway, I'm not saying this to condemn anyone. Just to explain a few of the many reasons that scene made me snicker.

I reckon you can almost perceive the boundaries of denominational fellowship within a large group of dinner guests, such as members of your extended family, by observing what (if anything) they pray before meals. There are those middle-of-the-road Lutherans ("these gifts"), the right-wingers ("Thy gifts"), and then my Dad ("these Thy gifts") who is so far beyond the right winger that he may actually be on the left wing of the next goose over. You have the side of the family that converted to Presbyterianism ("God is great"), the old uncle who stayed put in the Catholic church ("Lord God, heavenly Father") and who may be the only person who crosses himself at the end of his prayer; and, if the juvenile delinquents can manage to stifle their giggles long enough to sneak past the restraints of their parents' chilly stare, perhaps a whimsical table grace as well. But if you hear someone start to sing, "The Lord's been good to me," you'd better break out the cider. Preferably a nice, stiff, hard cider.

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