My in-laws have a lovely meal-time tradition in which the family gathers around the kitchen island before dinner and the oldest grandchild, who is 4-and-a-half, chooses who says grace before everyone dives into the feast set before us. It’s heartwarming, it’s thoughtful, it’s faith-filled… and so I fully recognize that I resemble Oscar the Grouch when I confess that I can’t stand this evening ritual.
It’s embarrassing to admit my aversion, but what can I say? I dread the moment in which a hush falls over the crowd, my niece slowly scans the group, and her eyes almost inevitably land on me. Like a dog can sense fear, this small child seems to know that I loathe any form of public speaking, and she is committed to giving me all the practice that she can. Bless her heart.
Recently, as I found myself whining to my husband about this tradition, I had a moment of clarity: The tradition isn’t the problem, and it certainly doesn’t need to change. If I am complaining about praying, I need to change. With that epiphany, I made the decision to become more confident praying extemporaneously. I did some research, I reflected on what makes a prayer feel meaningful and genuine, and I nailed a formula so that my mind wouldn’t draw a blank the next time I was called upon to offer the blessing.
Inspired by my own efforts, I decided to take my research and practice a step further, and I learned about and started giving toasts and birthday blessings as well. Are you interested in giving the gift of words at your next gathering of family or friends? Here are my tips:
In my efforts to become more proficient at this form of prayer, I read mealtime blessings from a variety of faith traditions, cultures, and eras, and I found that my favorite ones include three key components: a naming of the blessings before us (“For the love that surrounds us and the meal set before us”), an expression of gratitude (“We give you thanks, O God,”) and a call to action (“As our bellies are filled with food, may our hearts be filled with a hunger for justice”). I cemented these ingredients in my mind, and now, saying grace before a meal is as easy as 1-2-3.
You might initially think that toasts are the purview of maids-of-honor and best men. But we don’t limit the celebratory drinking of champagne to wedding receptions, so why limit the warming words? A toast is an opportunity to offer well wishes, honor and gratitude for anything or anyone, and the small but impactful speech can add a spirit of joy to any occasion.
In an attempt to reclaim our weekends, my husband and I started a Five O’Clock Friday Happy Hour tradition, and we’ve toasted everything from each other, to the author of the book that we’re currently reading, to courageous cult busters, to the season of fall, to our Boston Terrier, Bean. The best toasts, we’ve noticed, have some sort of hook, a meaningful message, and glass raising, of course!
For instance: I will never forget this day three years ago when we drove to Connecticut to adopt Bean. All the other dogs walked off the truck, but Bean was carried. He is undoubtedly the cuddliest and most affectionate — if also perhaps the most lazy — little dog around and he has weaseled his way into our bed and our hearts. Raise your glass as we celebrate our past three years together and look forward to many more; to Bean!
Throughout my childhood, family birthday dinners involved a few key elements: a confetti tablecloth, the birthday kid’s favorite meal (tacos all the way), and a special blessing from one of my parents. Given just after the family recited grace, these blessings were short, but in less than thirty seconds, they managed to pack a punch. They gave thanks for what had been, they provided direction for what was to come, and they celebrated the birthday person in a unique way.
Here’s an example: Today we give thanks for the gift of life, and especially the life of Jillian. In all her years on earth she has been a force of good, delighting friends and strangers with her contagious laugh, gently moving caterpillars from the sidewalk, and being a true-blue friend to people far and near. May her next year be filled with good books, delicious meals and meaningful moments. Amen!
Grace before meals, toasts, and birthday blessings are opportunities to bring a crowd together, to bestow affirmation and to remind everyone present of what matters most in life. So next time you find yourself with a group of family members or friends and the opportunity to give thanks, to celebrate, or to bless presents itself, go for it! Your words will infuse the room — and the people in it — with warmth, joy and love.