Thanksgiving is coming; it’s time to destroy my diet. But, of course, that’s a lie; my self-control and I haven’t been talking for years. My diets over the years have never survived the holiday season anyway. It starts when my wife habitually buys Halloween candy way too soon. So we end up having to buy another bag of “fun size” candy after we wiped out a giant bag of those little bastards, including the miserable York Peppermint Patties, Milky Ways, and the Almond Joys. Hey, someone’s got to finish off those otherwise untouchables!
Thanksgiving isn’t the time for dieting, anyway. Not with my family, at least. The Thanksgiving dinner is too good to decide whether to cry light raspberry vinegarette tears into my salad or eat the good stuff in moderation. For me, Louis C.K. said it best, “The meal isn’t over when I’m full. The meal is over when I hate myself.”
Besides “hating myself,” there’s one other thing about Thanksgiving I don’t like. It’s the brief yet, for me, the seemingly endless moment before I ignore everyone in the room and get down to the business of ensuring I stay fat. It’s when all heads turn to me to lead us all in grace. A grace that everyone knows will be utterly devoid of—well—grace.
There was a time I enjoyed this preamble to stuffing my face, but that was when I was a kid and my grandfather was alive. When my grandfather said grace, it was all my brother, and I could do from breaking out in laughter. To our ears, my grandfather’s grace was utterly incomprehensible. To us, he mumbled through nearly the entire event, and it was funny as hell. We knew it was over when he finished with the flourish, “…for Christ’s sake!” The final three words—the only words I could make out of the whole prayer—were spoken not as a petition in the name of God’s only son but as if he found a bug walking over the mashed potatoes. Little did I know as I giggled through all those prayers that I would inherit, leading the family in grace around the time I could grow facial hair.
I didn’t sign up for this gig, nor did I draw the shortest straw between me, my older sister, and my younger brother. Perhaps my mother felt I should inherit the job from my grandfather partly because my dad didn’t want to do it and partly because I was her eldest son. But, in all fairness to my mother, I’m sure she thought it was an honor to be given this task. And I’m sure I felt honored to receive the mantle until I realized I didn’t have a talent for it, even after becoming a Christian.
Look up the definition of “pray” or “prayer,” and you will see such descriptives as “adoration,” “confession,” “supplication,” and “thanksgiving” (hey, whaddayaknow, thanksgiving!). The only times I ever prayed to God out loud was when I was a child/young teen. It was more of a crying bitch session than anything even remotely close to adoration, confession, supplication, and absolutely nothing like thanksgiving. I cried to him, wanting to know why he made me so horrible in sports. My brother and especially my best friend Jesse seemed like naturals at baseball, dodgeball, tetherball, anything that required hand-eye coordination. I sucked at all sports. I spent many an evening in my bed crying out loud, asking God why he made me this way. That was the only “conversation” I had with God, and it always felt one-sided, primarily when I remained the suckiest kid on the blacktop the following day.
I grew up and, after a while, stopped whining to God about my lot. However, as an adult, I remained horrible at sports on the rare times I picked up a ping-pong paddle, softball bat, or even tried to pass my driver’s test. (It may not be a sport, but I’m sure Guinness has me down as the world record holder for failing that test four times before finally passing. Even now, no one wants me to drive the car, so I ride a scooter alone.)
I recall complaining to my bride that I knew I was horrible at saying grace and didn’t know what to do about it. She recommended I write down a prayer beforehand. I had been flipping through Marianne Williamson’s beautiful Illuminata: A Return to Prayer and chose one of hers. That worked, but I got embarrassed when someone giggled, and from that point, I went back to my boring, simple prayer. I don’t think anyone at the table understood how difficult this was for me.
At church, I avoided the mid-week prayer meeting because it meant praying out loud and doing it more than once within each gathering. To the uninitiated, a prayer meeting consists of church members and guests talking about concerns and blessings with the congregation, community, and beyond (illnesses, deaths, pregnancies, births, war, travel, new jobs, and just about everything else). Then each attendee would pray over these concerns/blessings. It’s a round-robin prayerathon, and when it got to me, I stumbled through my prayer then surreptitiously glanced at the clock until it was time to go. As a result, I only attended one of these. If I had forced myself to participate in these meetings regularly, I might have become an eloquent prayer reciter, but I didn’t. So praying aloud became as awkward as fielding a hard-hit grounder or hitting a fastball: instead of sticking with it and slowly but surely getting better, I quit.
Even without the prayer-intensive mid-week meetings, some would have thought after many years attending church and Bible studies, I would have built self-confidence and developed a style of talking to God. But, nope. I even skipped praying and instead listened attentively during communion when the deacons and elders prayed over the elements so I could evaluate the prayers of my church’s uber players. “Wow, Victor, that sounds beautiful. You stuck that one, bro!”
I feel bad about dreading saying grace when I should be honored. So in the end, I say the same tired boilerplate: “Heavenly Father, thank you for these gifts we are about to receive. In Jesus’ name.” I occasionally hear a smart-aleck crack from a family member who recognizes the same old prayer. From time to time, my wife would do a follow-up, cleaning up my lousy prayer, but she never volunteered to be the designated grace giver. My brother’s children (now grown-ups) used to say their Vatican-approved grace after my crappy one. I thought that was great, hoping my niece and/or nephew would take over the tradition. But, alas, it kept falling back on me.
As far as my faith goes, I had become more of a Doubting Thomas than I was when I was first saved. However, this doesn’t make grace any more or less easier. If I was a devout Christian, I am sure my prayers would suck just as bad as they do now. Maybe if I go all Richard Dawkins on a prayer one time, no one would want to hear my devotion to the empty void again.
The funny thing is there are not that many church-going believers at these dinners: a few Roman Catholics, my very devout wife, and me, Doubting Jack, and that’s it, I think. (Of course, only God knows who is saved, as punching the clock at a church has nothing to do with salvation.) The first person I ever heard praying at the dinner table was my grandfather. I believe he attended seminary when he was a young man, and I recall seeing photos of him as a young man holding a Bible. Then the Great War came along, and after he stepped over one too many dead soldiers, he felt God did not exist, or something like that. This phenomenon was common in modern warfare. As humans figured out ways to kill their fellow humans en masse and the dead bodies stacked up quicker, many previously religious people felt a genuinely merciful God wouldn’t allow this kind of thing to happen to his children.
I honestly couldn’t hear a word my grandfather said during those prayers, which makes me wonder if he was no longer a believer; maybe he was mumbling about high property taxes or reminding himself to take the car in for a tune-up next week. But, on the other hand, if he was mumbling no actual words, maybe I should do what he did and belatedly carry on the tradition, “for Christ’s sake!” As for this Thanksgiving dinner, it just dawned on me. It’s an odd-numbered year, so that means my wife and I will most likely be spending Thanksgiving (and Christmas) at the in-laws’ house, where my wife’s father will be doing the praying, which he does very well. Now that’s what I call grace!