A Dinner Essay: Less Prayer, More Grace

I ran across this quote on the great wide webs, and it bummed me out a little bit. This is from the great and influential (in the Reformed world) R. J. Rushdoony, theologian and ethicist extraordinaire.
"I am sorry to see in recent years the decline in dining, which has been replaced by eating. It was once common for breakfast, lunch, or at least dinner to be marked by Bible reading and prayer, and, at times, a discussion of the text and of a Christian and world and life view. In some cases, a particular Bible was always near the table for these. In some families, the children were asked at times to do the reading: they might then be quizzed on the meaning of the text (to prevent daydreaming during the reading)."
R. J. Rushdoony, Chalcedon Report, September 1999
I've never heard anyone say "with all due respect" respectfully. I'm afraid that this is a "with all due respect" essai contre Mr. Rushdoony.

Alas that the attitude in the quote is all too common in Calvinist circles. Not only do we manage to make dinner a drag for everyone, we redefine what dinner is so that anyone who is actually just taking "the principal meal of the day" feels guilty.

There are several Calvinist vices and indulgences embedded in this quote. Let's poke at a few of them, and try to do it quickly.

1. We are hopelessly middle class. And don't get all capitalist, protestant-work-ethicky on me. I don't mean financially prosperous, or wise in business, or hard-working. I don't mean that we are like the ant of Proverbs. I mean that we are possessed by that middle class fear that if something doesn't have a visible and immediate utility or profit, it is immoral.

My beloved wife will roll her eyes when she hits this part of the post. She will picture me gathering steam on a favored topic of mine. My "bourgeois Christian" blast is epic at this point, after fifteen years of refining; only wifey has heard the stone hit the bottom of this rant's pit. Let me try to limit things.

Instead of hearing God's commands that we trust him and feast, we call anything that isn't work "a little folding of the hands". We fear that if we stop working for just a moment, our poverty will be upon us like a thief. That is why so many of us can't justify studying art in college, or playing basketball on a Sunday, or, as in the quote above, sitting down to a meal with family.

For most Christians, dinner is a time of communion and refreshment. You know, for our bodies. For our beings. For our whole beings. It is a time to thank God for his provision, and to use that provision. This is the utility of dinner: eating. It is not Sunday school and Bible memorization work. And the deeper joy of dinner is time with each other, a gift which God has given. We should enjoy it gratefully.

We Calvinists are always going on about not being saved by works, but when we show up before the King we are more like town burghers, full of scraping and the currying of favor, than like princes who are glad to be with their father. Approaching God as if we were merchants leads to the next problem.

2. We are constantly making Christians prove themselves. Even the ones at our dinner tables. Yeah, sure, you say you're a Christian. But we'll see about that. What are your credentials?

We're sneaky about this, too. Perhaps we even deceive ourselves. Many Christians decide that some are not brothers based on lifestyle and deeds. There is some warrant for this, although it is a dangerous game to play. Still, most members of your local First Baptist or Methodist church are fine, upstanding American god-fearers, and they pass the lifestyle test. But for us Calvinists that is only the first test; where other Christians exercise charity, we employ the gift of "discernment". We quiz, we badger, we argue, we demand explanations of other Christians. And we do the same with our kids.

There is nothing wrong with "a discussion of the text and of a Christian and world and life view", or with being"quizzed on the meaning of the text (to prevent daydreaming during the reading)." But there is something wrong with forcing it into a space where it kills off other good things.

We have a responsibility to educate our children as Christians. So hurray for scripture memorization, hurray for catechisms. But also hurray for rejoicing. It is tempting to tell ourselves that Bible reading will lead to rejoicing. But it doesn't. Practicing biblical practices leads to rejoicing. We must practice dinner and feasting. They are disciplines unto themselves.

3. We kill the Sabbath. The failure to recognize so many other wonderful Christian disciplines and virtues kills our Sabbath celebrations.

Sunday dinner. That's a classic. Everyone knows Sunday dinner. Extended family, roast chicken, gravy, Norman Rockwell on the wall. Everyone smiles. Sunday dinner is a little feast, really, looked forward to all week.

For some. For others, the impulse to shortsightedly do the how-will-this-make-me-holier means no games on Sundays: only meditation.

The Sabbath sets the tone for the entire week. If our Sunday is one of not doing, our week will be one of sitting on the sidelines. And that, dear friends, is something we Reformed folk are very good at. Warming the bench. We're always almost ready.

We comfort ourselves that even if our bodies are weak, our minds are strong. But alas that it might not be so. It might be that the mind that refuses to act sickens. And here is an irony. The Protestant works hard in his "secular" work, and when he is done engages in "sacred" thoughts and prayers. But where is his sacred work?

It could begin at dinner.

4. We deny the Incarnation. Blessed the Presbyterian who says "All this meditating is making me hungry", for he is not a gnostic. There is wine to make his heart glad, and oil to make his face shine.

Christ came into the world to save the world. In that way he vindicated it. He declared once again that Creation was good.
“For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is an outlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself-and it is our glory to see it so and to thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.”1
If we are to be the sorts of Christians to constantly go die for the world, who work to save it, we must find a place for dinner and all lovely things. Sadly, our temptation is to consume and forget, pretending our mind is on holy things, when the truth is we're just keeping our heads down until the fighting is over. We become the servant with one talent.

Friends and brothers, I love that the name in English for our pre-dinner prayer is "grace". It is specifically a prayer of thanks, a Deo gratia. And if we are thanking God, we ought to be enjoying what we thank him for.

I am sorry to see in recent years the decline in dining, which has been replaced by eating. It was once common for breakfast, lunch, or at least dinner to be marked by conversation, laughter, and rest. These things were gratefully and joyfully received. For many, the practice of eating dinner simply disappeared. For others, who saw good in eating together, fear turned dinner into group nourishment. Neither group prospered.

We have heard pastors say when discussing marriage that love is not a feeling, that love is something you do. We could say that love without deeds is dead. Gratitude is also something we do. It doesn't just well out of us after we pray the right way or read the right passage. We act grateful to be grateful.

Less prayer, more grace.

I'm serious about this.


Post a Comment