A few days ago, about to start lunch, my teenage son did what teenagers all over the world do: challenged something we've always done, i.e. a family tradition. In this case, saying grace before the meal: why do we have to say thank you before we eat?
It was a valid question and it set me off thinking. So yesterday (Sunday) I decided to base our regular family prayer time on this subject and, as I think it's probably something of interest to many, this blog is an expansion of that theme.
Some years back, when I was involved with a Jewish organisation called Jews4Jesus here in London, I bought a bible at one of their stalls: the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB). I did this because I wanted to get closer to the original language of the Old and New Testaments; I wanted to read the Bible names and places as they are. When I was teaching English to international students I would never dream of anglicising their name (i.e. Thierry remains Thierry, not Terry) yet we do it all the time with the Bible. So, for example, Jesus' father and mother were not Joseph and Mary but Yosef and Miryam, names we still find in the Middle East, whilst in tjhe Hebrew, Jesus was known as Yeshua or Yashua, meaning 'God saves', which of course adds so much more to our understanding. Another example: we've just celebrated Christmas. You may have sang 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' in a carol service; Bethlehem is actually Beit-lechem, meaning 'House of Bread', which again sheds a whole new light on Jesus calling himself 'the bread of life'.
Another insight is this: whereas in most bibles, we find the word 'blessing' or 'thanks', in the CJB this translates as 'barakhah'. Now a 'barakhah' is a blessing or benediction and we find them throughout the Bible and from where we get the name Barak, as in Barak Obama. This is reflected in a little book I have at home - my Lonely Planet Hebrew Phrasebook. This little gem has a middle section dedicated to the 'barakhah' as the Hebrew language has many such prayers for different occasions. Personally, having worked with folk with learning disabilities for many years, I think one of my favourites is this, to be said upon 'seeing a person of abnormal appearance':
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם משנה הבר'ות.
'Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, m’shaneh habriyot.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe,
who varies the aspect of your creatures.'
In a world which so often belittles those who look different, isn't that beautiful?
So yesterday afternoon we looked at three examples of a 'barakhah': in a psalm of King David, written around 3000 years ago; in a 'barakhah' from the awed crowd after Jesus healed a paralysed man lowered down through the roof by his friends (recorded in Matthew 9) and a few chapters on, when Jesus himself, 'looking up to heaven made a barakhah', before transforming a few loaves and fish into a meal for 4000 men and their families.
Of course Jesus also said a barakhah at Pesach, or Passover - as Jews around the globe still do every year - with his followers in Jerusalem: this has come to be known as The Last Supper which, as well as being the core of the Mass or Communion Service has been celebrated by artists throughout the centuries. Interestingly, given that some of these prayers have been used by the Jewish people for over 2000 years, we can make a pretty good guess at what Jesus actually said before eating bread, drinking wine, seeing the beauties of nature or a rainbow or seeing someone of unusual appearance.
So we know that Jesus prayed before meals. If we say we are his followers, i.e. Christians, then it makes sense that we do the same, in the same way that countless fans of a Manchester United striker the world over might end up sporting the same haircut as their idol.
However, unlike copying a football star's haircut, the act of being grateful, actually has real, practical benefits. In a recent online art course, one of the books I was required to read talks about this. Written Drs Pratt and Lambrou, The Code to Joy, which I refer to on this website relating to the benefits of art, says that research shows that consistent gratitude results in:
- more energy
- higher optimism
- less affected by life's uncertainties
- more resilient
- better health
- lower rates of depression
- more compassionate
- more altruistic
- less materialistic
- more satisfied with life
In the final chapter of the book, in which they outline five pathways to a rich life, they describe the process from a neurological point of view. By being specifically and consistently grateful we reprogramme a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System, or RAS, (described as 'the Google of the brain'), resulting in the benefits listed above. They advocate beginning by making a list of between a dozen or two items and then at the same time each day, scanning and adding to this list for a year. However, at least one experiment involving c.200 subjects saw positive change after only 10 weeks. The main thing is to start and then to be consistent.
So, simply put, being grateful is good for you! I think this makes sense. After all, if God is a Father who loves us, which I believe he is, then, like any doting dad, he only wants the best for us.
This is how I and many others begin the day and have for thousands of years. Perhaps it's easier for some of us, having worked in Care for a lot of our lives. We've seen what it's like to be blind, mute, deaf, crippled, paraplegic, homeless. We can be grateful to be able to see the raindrops on the window, to hear the cars outside, to smell the coffee. To be able to pick up a cup of tea and bring it to our lips on our own. To have a bed to sleep in, with duvets and a pillow, a roof over our head...
So, why not start today?
'Irish Blessing', completed at the end of 2019.
May your be blessed as we enter this New Year!