An Essay on My Bread

“To eat bread without hope is still slowly to starve to death.”

Pearl S. Buck

I tore my bread in half this morning before I dipped it into a mug of hot coffee. Although you may not understand it, my bread was the best bread in the world this morning. The bread was a superior loaf of bread for several reasons. Allow me to explain my position instead of rushing over to my office to finish sorting files and packing boxes.

First, the bread was the work of my own hands. There are plenty of loaves down the road at the grocery store. Some of the loaves are quite lovely, but none of them are the work of my hands. The bread I sliced into perfect thick slices was shaped with my fingers. The pan in which it baked rests a few feet away. Even in the middle of packing and chaos, my bread is still a reminder of calmer moments.

Second, the bread comes with a memory of a yeasty aromatherapy. A few days ago, I soaked flour in water with a bit of yeast before letting it spend the night fermenting in a bowl. The house filled with a rich smell the following morning after I combined this fragrant mix with a little more flour, water, and yeast. Between the smell of the rising dough and fragrance of the browning loaves, our house was filled with sensations that were immediately recaptured through the toasting of the bread. Although my office smells like furniture polish and a hot paper shredder, for this moment I can be transported to quiet hours where more than my dough rested.

Third, my bread just tears well. As a minister, I break loaves of bread in half a lot more than most people. I have broken rolls, crackers, wafers, baguettes, french bread, challah, and a host of homemade loaves. My bread tore in half today with a little bit of resiliency, bounced back with a bit of spring, and was ready to suck up hot coffee. My bread tears in a lovely way.

Fourth, my bread tastes heavenly. There’s a tiny bit of salt for the tongue, a depth of earthiness from the wheat, and a yeasty aftertaste. The bread is complex from the darkness of the crust to the tasty depths of the crags. My bread is not from some uniformly mass produced taste factory. My bread is unique.

In conclusion, you may have heard that something or another is the best thing since sliced bread. Sliced bread is great, but my sliced bread is wonderful to me. There are only two types of bread that are better than this loaf of bread: the bread I will bake in the future and the bread that you make for your enjoyment.

Reflections on Taut Dough

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.

Yeasty scents come from under this kitchen towel!

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.

Fresh from the oven!

Let us Ramble: On Gluten-Free Communion

Today I intend to ruffle some feathers. I do not often choose to intentionally poke my head into controversial affairs, but I was recently the subject of several heated arguments around a practice our church has adopted for 2018. In 2018 our church is serving gluten-free communion bread to all people who come to the communion table.

I would love to say the most heated debates were in the church, but honestly, the church was not at the heart of the biggest debates. The biggest debates have taken place in my family’s kitchen. The phrase “Never discuss politics or religion” does not hold much water in a minister’s house. Discussions with family members often stray into religious matters and there are few things as capable of bringing consternation into a family meal than conversations around things held as holy as the sacraments. I am blessed to have an extended family who can live with differences of opinion as long as they say their piece. Regardless, I have learned to never bring this subject again during Easter dinner. I’m guessing it would not go over well at Christmas or Thanksgiving either.

Still, I am passionate about this subject, even as I understand the reticence of folks to having anything change. If a church has had the same type of bread for the past 50 years, it can be hard to understand why they need to change because of others. Would it not be enough if we were to put a couple of gluten free wafers on a plate? Why should we all have to “suffer” from having bad bread in order to allow one or two people an easier time coming to communion?

Well, I have theories and responses to those questions. First, let’s deal with the idea of having two loaves of bread. Consider the words from the “Service of Word and Table I” in the United Methodist Hymnal: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.” While the body may be shared in other churches with different loaves, there is something powerful about witnessing that in the local church we are all sharing in one loaf as one body. There is no division when we share one loaf.

The other questions about suffering bad bread and about changing our own behavior will take a bit more nuance. I will say there is a thing called bad bread. Bad bread comes from people who have not taken the time to learn how to make bread. As we currently have a study based on the spirituality that can be drawn from bread baking, we are currently creating a crop of good bakers who may be able to rise (pun intended) to that particular challenge.

So, let’s go deep. In 2004 the church adopted the document “This Holy Mystery.” The document laid out the groundwork for the United Methodist Church’s understanding of the sacrament of communion. The document is a deep document, which has been reprinted in subsequent Books of Resolution, including the 2016 Book of Resolutions.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from “This Holy Mystery” found in the subsection labeled “Communion Elements.” The excerpt speaks on the use of alcohol at the communion table:

“Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and many Protestant denominations
have always used wine in the Eucharist. During the movement against beverage
alcohol in the late nineteenth century, the predecessor bodies of The United
Methodist Church turned to the use of unfermented grape juice. This continues to be the position of the denomination.”

There is a tradition of using alcoholic wine at the communion table. Despite that tradition, the United Methodist Church does not use alcohol at the communion table. We share in the unfermented fruit of the vine. Why buck tradition to engage in a practice that differs from so many other denominations? Our church felt a call to battle the spirits of spirits and we continue to stand against the abuses of alcohol. Consider what it says in ¶3042 of the 2016 Book of Resolutions:

“As God’s children and participants in the gift of abundant life, we recognize the need to respond to those who know brokenness from the widespread abuse of alcohol and other drugs in our world. The experience of God’s saving grace offers wholeness to each individual. In light of the reality of alcohol and other drug abuse, the church has a responsibility to recognize brokenness and to be an instrument of education, healing, and restoration.”

Consider the words and the implications of this responsibility to recognize, educate, heal, and restore those struggling with alcoholism. Our love of these individuals has moved us as a denomination to do something strange. We recognized the problem and as a church we chose to change instead of continuing to follow tradition. Compassion and wisdom moved the church to consider the challenge faced by individuals. The church was convicted.

If you are not familiar with life in most churches, change is a difficult idea. For some people, change is a four letter word. Despite the power of tradition, inertia, and complacency, an entire denomination decided to do something different for the sake of people who had a need. The church felt a responsibility upon recognizing the brokenness of individuals. This motivated them to do things differently.

I can personally attest that there are folks who do not come forward at communion because of a number of factors. Some people think those wafers are nasty and they usually are pretty bad. I have to agree and sometimes admit that the gluten-variety are no picnic either. That being said, if we’re serving wafers, which occasionally happens when plans go askew, we can all suffer together.

Some people do not come forward because of embarrassment. Why are they embarrassed? Sadly, snide comments about having gluten-free communion is one reason. Some people believe they are drawing attention away from communion if they confuse things by asking for something different. Some people believe others will judge them for “wanting to be different” even if they have an actual concern like celiac’s disease.

For these folks, I will name the brokenness. The Lord’s table is a place of welcome and grace. If embarrassment keeps people from participating in this means of grace, the situation needs to be addressed. To avoid the difficulty being faced by individuals for the sake of our own comfort is selfish. In United Methodist tradition, the sacrament is a form of blessing from God. Our lives are literally made better by participating in the sacrament. How could we look at the table, see there are people who feel excluded, and not work to address the situation?

In other words, if we have to choose between our gluten-filled tradition and the possibility (in our church the certainty) that a gluten-free change will help to bless more people, are we not obligated to consider a change? If the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor, are we not obligated to make certain that they are welcome at the communion table? In this odd, strange, topsy-turvy world, doesn’t our own integrity demand action?

The bread to be and several tools. Bob’s Red Mill does not sponsor me, although we would be happy to pray for them if they mailed us a couple of coupons. Gluten-free flour isn’t cheap!

Now, I want to be clear. I do not believe in judging other churches or other ministers. Each church has to make their own decisions. As far as my ministry is concerned, I am always seeking to draw the circle of inclusion wider. I will keep trying to serve gluten-free communion as often as possible to make certain people are not left out. So, wish me luck as I seek to perfect gluten-free bread making despite the fact that I personally add extra gluten to the bread I make for my family. Pray for me as well, because it is difficult to educate when you only have a few minutes on any given communion Sunday.

Let us Bake: Holy Smoke!

Today, I’m baking my first loaf of bread while reading through Preston Yancey’s “Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines.” I’ve already let Yancey’s words begin to affect my style of making sandwich bread for my family, but today will be the first time I intentionally set about the 6 hour process of making bread.

I have spent the last few weeks enjoying morsels from Yancey’s book, but this week we are plunging into our study, so the time has come to not only become serious about working with Yancey’s book, but to become serious about baking bread.

This week we’re working through the chapter on “Mise en Place: The Examen.” At the heart of it, mise en place is the most important part of trying a recipe. Yancey summarizes the process (in the first paragraph of the chapter) as “checking in, giving the kitchen and your abilities a once-over to confirm you are able to complete the recipe.”

As a home cook, the process is like the preflight checklist before taking off in an airplane. You might as well try to fly a jet without fuel as try to bake a loaf of bread without the ingredients. Do I have the right equipment? I experimented with trying out the mise en place on the recipe provided by Yancey Preston and realized I didn’t have two of the right bowls for letting the bread proof in the refrigerator! Either Amazon’s mistake or my own actions led to me only having one when I needed two! I had a poor substitute for one of the bowls, but I didn’t have them prepared! I looked further and realized I’d need to pull out my Dutch Oven and check the seasoning.

To be honest, I was a bit shocked that I was so unprepared to make the bread! I cook often in our home and often make bread for my family’s lunches. To be aware that I was completely unprepared for the recipe in the book is something that rarely happens, but as I reflected on the process, I realized how much I have learned to cope, to substitute, and to adjust recipes simply because I forgot to look ahead to see if I had what I needed. As Preston Yancey says: (pg. 39)

“The practice of mise en place is essential but often skipped. We assume a lot in this life, and we are no different in our kitchens. We plunge ahead because we’ve made x or y before so surely this is like all those times before. Often it is, until the dreadful moment it is not and we are affronted once more by the sickly quality of presumption.”

The concept of reading through directions, collecting ingredients, and even double checking that I have enough of those ingredients should be second nature as I cook a lot in our home, but for some reason it is not a regular part of my practice in the kitchen. I know for a fact that I am a better cook when I double check that I have what I need before I begin my time cooking in the kitchen. I still find myself often ignoring my better judgment and relying on my ability to substitute or make do with what I have on hand.

So, am I alone in the pattern of ignoring my better judgment? I somehow doubt that I am alone in this bad pattern of behavior. What’s worse, I know that this behavior is clearly not restricted to the kitchen. I often go rushing off into things without thinking about the long run. Sometimes it is something like a new Bible study program for personal growth or an extreme exercise routine to help my body get healthier. I start off with the best of intentions, but find myself suddenly in a situation far above my skill level or capability. Occasionally I do not check in with someone else who needs to be a part of something, I assume that everything is in place, or I just decide I will go with the flow without proper preparation. I sometimes believe that I am a master at not properly planning!

I think there are two things I have learned from this week’s attempt at mise en place. First, I need to do my homework, check off my list, and simply be more aware of what I am doing. Second, I need to intentionally be more prepared for my own journey in the kitchen and through life.

Part of the mise en place, as previously mentioned, was to prepare my dutch oven for the stove. The stove was going to be heated to 500 degrees. The cast iron dutch oven is seasoned with shortening. Looking ahead should have warned me to be prepared for smoke. What happened? Was I prepared? Take a guess…

Thankfully, my nearly three month old found the puff of smoke amusing, the fact that I rushed into the next room with a magazine to wave at the chirping smoke alarm to be funny, and was perfectly alright with my need to be distracted for a moment. She was just as giggly after the smoke cleared.

The very first loaf of the bread from the book. A bit overly brown, the slashes weren’t deep enough on top, and it is definitely a good reminder that everything can be seen as a work in progress! If at first you don’t succeed (in doing it perfectly), obsess  endlessly over the next loaf!”

Part of the mise en place that I need to enact in my own life is the ability to roll with the punches with grace. I need to prepare myself for when things don’t go perfect every single time I bake, especially as I do have blind spots in how I often prepare. I need to learn to let some expectations go and to have the capacity to replace my frustration with amusement. That’s a preparation that needs to happen deep in my heart. It is also a preparation that goes beyond my cooking.

When I wake up in the morning, do I prepare my heart for things going wrong in my day? Do I tell God that I want today to be a wonderful day even if things go sideways? Do I seek to find places not only to feel gratitude but to foster gratitude in my life? Do I practice the mise en place to be ready for my life?

IMG_1756.JPG

You see, now that’s a little bit better!

I think Preston Yancey is correct that disciplines like the examen can help us to be prepared for the turmoils of life, but I also believe there is something powerful about the discipline of asking God to give us what we need for a given day or a given hour. Do we prepare ourselves for the kitchen of life? If nothing else comes out of this week’s study, I am grateful I now have that question to ponder.

How about you? Do you have a favorite practice for preparing for a day of life in the real world? Do you have some sort of pattern or practice that helps you to be ready for whatever comes in your path?