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Amazing grace: Giving thanks takes on many forms throughout faiths

Around the dinner table Thanksgiving day, heads bow in prayer. Family members recite favorite blessings, or give thanks in their own words before the plates are passed. It's a day set aside for giving thanks, perhaps no better expressed than duri...

Around the dinner table Thanksgiving day, heads bow in prayer.

Family members recite favorite blessings, or give thanks in their own words before the plates are passed.

It's a day set aside for giving thanks, perhaps no better expressed than during that mealtime prayer.

It's a common tradition across the faiths - to ask for God's grace and thank him for his bounty.

"It really is an acknowledgement that God is God and we have much to be thankful for because of all the things he has gifted us with," says the Rev. Steve Easterday, dean at Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo.

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Opening one's heart to God at the beginning of a meal helps to open hearts to each other during the sharing of the food, he says.

The practice of praying before meals in the Christian tradition can be traced to early church documents encouraging prayers three times a day, says Roy Hammerling, religion professor at Concordia College in Moorhead.

If done morning, noon and night, these could easily have been attached to mealtimes. The focus would then have changed to one of giving thanks, he says, including praise to God, thanks for the food, and a recognition of those less fortunate.

The Rev. Victor Lehman, pastor of Fargo's First Baptist Church, says this acknowledgment may be one reason why the tradition of table prayers continues in so many families.

"I think there is a sense of traditional thanksgiving," Lehman says. "We do have bounty compared to a lot of people around the world and to generations past."

Lehman describes meal prayer as an opportunity to touch base with God and include him in the day. It also is a connecting point for the whole family.

Around his family's table, prayers are a reflection of the day, giving thanks for what has happened and what may come.

Praying in this manner helps keep the practice relevant and meaningful, rather than just an exercise before eating, Lehman says.

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Some people prefer memorized prayers, especially those tied to their denomination.

They may be attracted to the beauty of the phrases and their tradition, Hammerling says. But the origin of such prayers is hard to trace, he says.

For example, some people credit a common Protestant blessing, "Come Lord Jesus," to Martin Luther, which probably isn't true.

Easterday recommends simple prayers that are easier for children to understand.

Children learn to pray through singing before learning through spoken word, he says.

For that reason, meal prayers are mainly sung in Easterday's home.

"The great thing about kids and praying is once they get the idea that it's good and right and appropriate to pray at meals, they're just wonderful about making sure their moms and dads keep at it," Easterday says.

He stresses the importance of daily table prayers to engaged couples and new parents. For many people, it's the place where they start to pray, he says.

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He describes it as a "holy habit."

"If you get in the habit of giving thanks at every meal, then it just becomes part of who you are, and that will give you wonderful blessings for a lifetime and it will bless your children and everyone around you," Easterday says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5525

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