Mark Reed is a praying man, which means he always says grace at mealtime.
It’s been a practice of his since he was a little boy growing up in Smyrna, in a Southern Baptist family of three children.
It was automatic, like being on autopilot, he said.
Reed is 70 now, a retired father of two grown sons. He and his wife, Michelle, still say grace at mealtime.
And according to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Foundation poll, they’re not alone.
Nearly half of all Americans, the survey said, take a minute to say a prayer over their food at least a few times a week.
What I found particularly striking was this:
- Rural and urban Americans are equally likely to say grace.
- Northerners and Southerners, Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans all say grace to varying degrees.
- And those who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or adherents of no particular religion say grace at least a few times a week.
And so I couldn’t help wondering how the practice has managed all these years to escaped the ire of the ACLU even while public prayer was being challenged at every turn.
Remember the long national debate about whether it was OK to pray in public meetings, in our schools, in our sports arenas?
To my memory, there have never been any legal challenges to saying grace in public, and I hope there never are.
Given all the things that separate us, especially now, God knows we need all the prayer we can get, and being grateful even for the nourishment of our bodies is certainly a good place to start.
Growing up, Reed, a former men’s ministry leader, said that his parents and siblings took turns saying grace, but his mom was the primary default prayer giver.
As he got older, that tradition became a way to honor and thank God for what he was doing in his life: providing not just food to eat, but everything else he had.
When he and Michelle had children, they did their best to make sure they appreciated the importance of prayer in their lives.
“From the time our sons were infants, I would say the Lord’s Prayer over them at bedtime, with them joining in as they became older, and that became a tradition, but one with a realization of why we did it,” Reed said. “As the man of the house, I was the primary grace giver, although as they have grown, our children will do it when asked.”
Sharon Schweitzer, a cross-cultural and etiquette expert, believes saying grace is a personal decision based on your belief system, philosophy or religion.
But if you believe this is just about etiquette, you’re sorely missing the point.
Teaching our children to pray was one of the first things Jimmy and I taught our girls. More than anything, we wanted them to meet the higher power guiding our lives and realize that while we were “bringing home the bacon,” it was God that made it all possible. We also wanted them to be grateful. For food on our tables. The clothes on their backs. The roof over their heads. And we didn’t just teach them to pray, we prayed for them and with them.
Wherever he happens to be eating, if grace is not given, Reed said he asks to say grace or if appropriate say it privately and silently to himself with head bowed and eyes closed without making a show of it.
“Lord bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and us to your service, in Jesus’ name, Amen,” is his standard go-to blessing.
But Reed doesn’t believe in “rote” prayer.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus gives us a model prayer in which a petition is made for daily bread. Whether you repeat that over and over or offer something different, it doesn’t matter.
The condition of the heart, on the other hand, does. For any prayer to have meaning, it has to begin with brokenness and the realization that nothing comes to us except God wills it.
The Post-Kaiser poll, conducted April 13-May 1, found that 48 percent of American adults say they give blessings to God or say grace before meals at least a few times each week. In both rural and urban America, 51 percent say they do; in the suburbs, 45 percent say grace regularly.
Interesting enough, pollsters also discerned both a partisan and religious split: 62 percent of Republicans say grace at least a few times a week, compared to 43 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of independents.
Among Protestants, 6 in 10 say grace a few times a week or more. So do 52 percent of Catholics. The practice, however, is more prevalent among black Protestants (80 percent) and white evangelicals (74 percent) than among white mainline or nonevangelical Protestants, 31 percent of whom report saying grace frequently before meals.
Overall, African-Americans, 8 in 10, are more likely to say grace at least a few times a week, compared to 6 in 10 Hispanics and about 4 in 10 whites.
I found the few times each week measure a little curious. If we’re eating at least three squares a day, we ought to be praying at least 21 times a week. And not just when we find ourselves in need. I’m just saying.
Last month in response to a column I wrote about atheism gaining in the U.S., I got an email from a Johns Creek surgeon that seems worth repeating here.
He noted he was a Christian and that when things get tough, people yearn for a higher power.
“Maybe it is foxhole religion but Jesus passes closely to us in tough times and the simplest act of a whispered prayer can bring any man, woman and child closer to him and can dispel fear and bring peace,” he wrote. “I don’t know what atheists cling to when the going gets tough but I know what I do and I thank God he is there.”
He went on to say that “God reads all of our thoughts and in a way probably reads the newspaper when there is something in its contents worth his time.”
I pray this is one of those times.
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