Over the last week at Maine Federated Church, our daily devotional has focused on the subject of the spirituality of bread baking. A while back, our church used Preston Yancey’s “Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines” as the basis for a small group study. Last week we delved into the same subject using additional resources. In particular, we delved into the science of bread baking through “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee and Ken Forkish’s “Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza.”
This morning the Maine Federated Church is shifting to a week studying the Ascension, but I am not leading an Ascension service or a Memorial Day service. I am preparing a loaf of bread to go with dinner. Leading a church without an online worship service in the midst of the pandemic has been frustrating at times. I understand the rationale behind the church’s decision to proceed digitally in a way that is inclusive to all people in the congregation, but it is unsettling to wake up Sunday morning with time to bake bread.
To be entirely clear, while I am frustrated, I believe with all of my being that the church has a responsibility to reopen in a way that is measured and safe. I do not believe that we should rush into a dangerous situation that can endanger lives because any politician says that it is time to open. I also own the fact that this is my opinion.
Today I am working with a recipe from Ken Forkish’s book. In particular, I am making a loaf of whole wheat bread to go with dinner. Overnight, water, flour, and a little bit of yeast fermented on our counter in a container. This morning, I combined the biga with additional water, flour, salt, and yeast to create a dough. Over the last few hours, I have sat with the dough as it continues to grow across the room. Yeasty scents fill the air and lead to thoughts of life.
One of the parts of the bread baking process which is in my thoughts this morning is the folding process recommended by Ken Forkish. I have folded the dough four times and have noticed the dough growing more and more taut as the process continues. The folding helps to give structure to the dough and itself is very interesting. When you first uncover the dough, it seems like a sloppy mess. After a few gentle folds, the dough begins to show a structure that seemed impossible moments before.
The tension in the dough continues to amaze me. Without the stress placed on the dough, the dough would end up a messy pool of liquid. When the dough is stretched, the dough develops the structure that will make the bread incredible.
Think about what spiritual lessons might be drawn from a parable rooted in this practice. We all want to live in communities that never face tensions, but can we be shaped into the communities we are meant to be without the occasional pressure or stressor? Just as a knife cannot be sharpened without the pressures of honing or as an athlete cannot grow stronger without challenging practice, can a community grow stronger without facing the occasional struggle? Can an individual grow into their potential without facing difficulty?
To be clear, there’s something to be said against stretching the dough to the point where it rips. Dough can definitely be overworked, but dough can also be underworked. How would the bread turn out if a person just put the ingredients into a bread pan without mixing?
As a minister, I have witnessed congregations that were unwilling to engage in healthy challenges and stretching. Most of them have struggled and some of them have closed. As a person, I have witnessed in other lives and have lived through portions of my own life where an unwillingness to engage in difficult situations led to terrible consequences.
When we live with the goal of never facing difficulty, we often become weakened to the point of uselessness. While this is a difficult time in life, it is my hope that the stretching we are all facing might strengthen us over the long run. May God bless you all this Sunday and keep you well.