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Table Graces: Connecting Sung Prayers in Church with Meal Prayers at Home

How many North American families, in our harried, push-God-to-the-margins culture, still pause before eating in order to pray? One recent poll suggests a dismal 29 percent, another, an encouraging 64 percent. But a more important question might be, What sort of prayers are they? If daily prayers underscore and help children make sense of what happens in corporate worship on Sunday, what do children learn from the awkward moment of silence, or a perfunctory “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat” before dinner? We can do better.

Those who attend worship weekly learn many lessons on Sundays about prayer: lessons about humble gratitude, about rooting our prayers in God’s character, about being mindful of the unity of the body of Christ. These lessons can—and perhaps should—influence our everyday prayer lives, especially around the dinner table.

First among those lessons, as St. Augustine famously said, is this: whoever sings, prays twice. The joy of corporate song is one of the great blessings of human life, celebrated in the church and offered to its households. Here, then, are some table graces: sung prayers fitting for family use at mealtime. They are playful, yet reverent; they work well with minimal accompaniment or none at all; they are simple enough to be sung well by both children and parents, yet not simplistic or silly. Informed by the church’s liturgy, they are songs to give thanks to the God who makes and sustains us.

 

Noontime (Morning/Evening) Has Come

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This familiar grace can be sung at any meal: change the first word from “Noontime” to “Evening” or “Morning” or even “Mealtime.” Because the first three notes of this tune move in a descending arpeggio, it is easy to locate the song’s simple harmonies.

In this song’s ordinary simplicity—harmony, melody, and lyric—there is a kind of humility, which points to the fact that every meal, no matter how simple or ordinary, is a gift from God. We pray not only on feast days; we pray when we eat common food: rice and water, cornflakes and milk, bread and wine. Jesus is our model here, who gave thanks when he ate (Mark 6:41; Luke 22:17). In fact, when we worship on Sunday, we remember Jesus the Lord at his Supper, and offer a prayer of thanksgiving—a Great Prayer of Thanksgiving—over bread and wine.

 

Come to the Table

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A wonderful way, then, to make explicit the sacramental connection between our everyday life and its distillation in liturgy is to sing a variation on the Great Prayer over our ordinary meals. Chip Andrus, a pastor, teacher, and musician with the Office of Theology and Worship for the PC(USA) has written a lively folk prayer that works well for just this purpose.

Sing upbeat, but not too fast—maybe 88 bpm. The song is syncopated throughout, but is notated more simply here for easier learning. Once you’re familiar with it as written, attempt appropriate syncopation where you feel it (the third “come” in the first measure should slightly anticipate the third beat). If you have trouble, ask your kids for help. The song repeats the chorus a few times, and then concludes moving to the tonic and repeating “come.”

This wonderfully percussive tune works best antiphonally. When the meal is almost ready, begin to sing (“Come, come, come!”) as you bring the food from the kitchen to the table. Or send out a family member to the corners of the house, singing and summoning everyone together. When all are assembled, conclude with a spoken prayer to God, since this song is a call to pray and feast rather than a prayer itself.

It’s especially fitting to pray following a classic prayer pattern, like a collect. So, for instance, begin by (1) addressing God and naming one of God’s attributes (“God, you are . . .”); then (2) speak a word of thanks and/or make an appeal rooted in that attribute (“we thank you for/help us to . . .”); finally, (3) express an aspiration rooted in God’s character, an outcome that makes sense of the request (“so that we might . . .”). For example, (1) Lord Jesus, you said that wherever two or three are gathered together, you are with them. (2) We thank you, then, for this good food, for those who made it, for each other, and for your presence with us as we eat. Open our eyes to see you at this table, (3) so that we might more easily see you when we leave it.

 

Be Present at Our Table, Lord

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These same three prayer elements (Attribute, Appeal, Aspiration) can be found in the classic table grace “Be Present at Our Table, Lord.” Though it can be sung to any LM tune (hamburg, o waly waly, tallis canon, and so on), you may have learned it, as I did, to the tune old 100th (the Doxology).

Be present at our table, Lord;
be here and everywhere adored;
these mercies bless, and grant that we
may strengthened for thy service be. Amen.

The first three lines constitute the Appeal: be present, be adored, bless this food. Of course, the Lord is always present at our tables—a more accurate prayer might be to ask that we be made more keenly aware of it. But the key feature of this prayer is the last line—the Aspiration—and its distinctly Calvinist flavor. We ask God to bless the food in order that we might be strengthened for ministries of service. Our Methodist-leaning brothers and sisters sing this grace too; but in their alternative version, the last line emphasizes the eschatological anticipation in our present feasting: “These mercies bless, and grant that we/may feast in paradise with thee.”

Instead of choosing either Calvinist or Methodist flavors (which are not incompatible with each other), the text and tune shown here affirm both the intrinsic and extrinsic value of our mealtimes, and punctuates the whole thing with a celebration of God’s most fundamental Attribute: love.

An easy harmony line can be sung a third down throughout this piece. Keep the pace lively, but be careful of the funny rhythm at the 2 bars of 12/8.

 

Señor, Dá Pan

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Expanding the ecumenical circle points us to a final lesson we learn when we pray in church: our connection with the whole body of Christ, which includes family, friends, neighbors, strangers, Reformed, Presbyterian, Methodist—and more. After all, our prayers in worship are the prayers of the whole church on behalf of the whole world. Especially for those of us in the wealthy Western world, it’s good to remember that in distant lands and in foreign tongues, other people loved by God gather at table and give thanks, often with more profound gratitude because of their greater hunger. This Mexican table grace is a wonderful way to sing in solidarity with them—the extended family of God—and to pray for the God-hunger endemic to our own culture.

Sing the song through twice. If accompanied, play the parenthetical chords the second time through.