Sermon: Cheeseburgers, Barley Loaves, and the Bread of Heaven

13th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Gospel text: John 6:51-59

In keeping with the lectionary texts of the past few weeks, which, in case you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, have all been about food in general and bread in particular, I would like to tell you the story of a cheeseburger.

It was a McDonald’s cheeseburger, and my grandfather had asked for it. He was in the hospital, and the doctor, concerned that he wasn’t eating enough, told him he could have whatever he wanted. And he wanted a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

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We arrived at the hospital and transported the long-awaited sandwich to Grandpa’s hospital room, where he was lying. After we’d all hugged and kissed him, the duty of announcing the arrival of the much anticipated burger fell to me. “Grandpa,” I said. “We brought you a cheeseburger. We made sure to get it the way you like it: onions, no sauces.”

And my grandfather, much enfeebled after months of chemo, weeks of hospitalization, and several days of not eating anything, looked at me and retorted, “You got it wrong. I wanted mustard.”

Well, we weren’t about to let the lack of a silly little condiment spoil this burger. So while my mom began wrestling with Grandpa’s dentures and my uncle started finagling the bedside table to make it yield its tray, my dad and I descended four floors to the cafeteria…which was closed. After pushing past the closed doors and pleading our way past the staff, we escaped with a little pouch of mustard and returned to find that a nurse had been called in to fix the table, and that the dentures had just conceded after a protracted battle.

My aunt unwrapped the burger so that I adorn could it with mustard, and we placed it reverently in front of my grandpa, who observed, “Well, now it’s gone cold.”

So my mother whisked it away to the secret microwave that she’d somehow managed to find during an earlier visit. After this final amendment, Grandpa did take four tiny bites of the cheeseburger before pronouncing himself satisfied.

I don’t think a McDonald’s cheeseburger has ever been the center of so much pomp and circumstance. But I remember the cheeseburger saga not as a story of how much my grandpa loved McDonald’s cheeseburgers, but as a sign of how much he was beloved. My family and I were willing to move heaven and earth to get that burger—warm, pickle-less, and with the appropriate amount of mustard—to my grandpa, because we would move heaven and earth to show him how much we loved him.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is trying to tell the crowds that heaven and earth have already been moved to give them, not just the food that they’ve been asking for, but the food that they really need.

It’s been a long time—four weeks—since we started reading this chapter, so indulge me in a quick review:

Jesus begins by feeding five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish. Then he walks away in the night, taking a shortcut over the Sea of Galilee.

The crowd, terrifically excited about this meal and the mystery, follow him to the other side of the Sea. And even though Jesus knows that they’ve really been drawn by the prospect of bread and circuses, he urges them instead to believe in the one God sent.

And the people, who still don’t quite get the message, say, “Great! Can we have another sign, please, so that we can believe in you? How about that manna in the wilderness thing, huh? THAT was a good sign.”

And Jesus says, basically: “You are being given manna. You’re being given more bread. It’s me. I’m the bread. I’m the food you need, not just to stay alive, but to live. You already have it. It’s right here in front of you.”

In other words, Jesus is saying: It’s not about the cheeseburger. It’s about the belovedness. You, you hungry people, are beloved by God so very much, that God has moved heaven and earth to give you bread. Me. I am that bread. I am that love.

Shortly after the night of the cheeseburger, my grandpa came home on hospice. We set up his hospital bed in the living room, in the center of the house—which is something hospice encourages to help the family accept the fact that death is imminent.

And it seems strange to say, but having the hospital bed in the living room made life more imminent too. From my view out the back door while holding Grandpa’s hand, I could see my dog joyfully reducing a stick to tiny shards. Whenever we ate dinner in the next room, the percussive noises of the respirator kept the beat to every conversation. The paperwork for Grandpa’s body donation hung on the refrigerator next to a painting of my five year old nephew.

For a while, I struggled with the normalcy, even the abundance of common life that was going on around me as my grandpa moved closer to death.   A pastor once told me that people’s bodies take on a sort of beauty as they moved towards death, a sort of transcendent loveliness as they moved closer to the moment when they’d be embraced by everlasting arms. I looked for that transcendence, but couldn’t see it in my grandfather, in our crazy busy house. It was normal. It was common. Nothing seemed unusually alight with heavenly splendor. No new piece of wisdom burrowed into myself to give me fresh insight.

Well, sometimes, like the quarrelsome listeners throughout John 6, we go looking for miracles in all the wrong places. They stood there, asking Jesus for a sign, for the bread of life, and he kept looking at them and going, “Yes, ok, you have it! It’s me! I’m the Bread of Life! I’m standing right in front of you! Just believe it!”

They didn’t believe him, because he didn’t look like what they expected. He looked too common. He made it too easy. Believe? Just believe? Was that it?

And then finally, at the breaking point, Jesus promises that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will abide in me, and I in them.” Think about that promise for a moment. Don’t get hung up on the mechanics of the eating and the drinking, on the rational and philosophical minutiae. Look at the promise: “I will be in you. You will be in me.”

Because this is what’s going on: the holy enters into the common, and the common enters into the holy. In the mystery of the incarnation, God took God’s very self and put it into common, sweaty, bruisable flesh. In the promise of the gospel, Jesus comes to us in things that are so common, so ubiquitous—bread, water, one another—and makes them holy.

This is the great mystery of faith—that God has come among us, and now dwells in everything, and brings us to dwell in God. Nothing is merely common, anymore. Nothing is untouchably sacred, anymore. God has broken down the barriers between death and life; sacred and profane; holy and common. Not a single moment of our lives is untouched. Not a single place we dwell is apart from God’s presence and God’s love.

The transcendence I had been searching for was in the very commonest things—in cheeseburgers and barley loaves. Jesus abides among us, and we abide in Jesus, as the room fills with death and life, grace and grief.

In a few moments, we’ll celebrate Jesus’ presence among us in Holy Communion. Our voices will blend with those of the angels around God’s throne as we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The great prayer of thanksgiving that we lift will be the prayer of voices living and voices dead. Heaven and earth will touch here, and Christ will be present in the bread and the wine in ways too wonderful to understand. There are white palls and spotless purificators and the sounds of the organ and song—as well there should be, because after all, in worship we bring to God the best of the praise and thanksgiving we can possibly offer.

But don’t let the pomp and circumstance obscure for you what is at the heart of our meal: a common loaf of bread, and a simple cup of wine that is both the sign and the reality of how much we are beloved. God has moved heaven and earth to give us this bread and this cup, this meal through which God dwells in us and we dwell in God.

And that is no less true against the sound of organs, than it is against the hum and bump of the respirator, or against the sound of a child’s laughter, or against the sounds of death and life, powers and principalities, against the patchwork of sounds that make up the very commonest moments of your lives. Everywhere, God is there. And you are in God.

Amen.

Sermon: What do you desire?

Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

I went to an all-girl Catholic high school, which was a blessing sometimes and a challenge others. One of the blessings was Mrs. Slater, who taught Shakespeare by intention, and spirituality by example. She had a gift for nurturing her students’ varied talents, and her classes were often a lesson in organized chaos.

“Now, girls,” Mrs. Slater would say sometimes to our class, “the Dean of Students is coming to observe our class today, so I want you to use your best acting skills and pretend that I’m in charge.”

Mrs. Slater began every class with a prayer, as did most of the classes I took at that high school. But while French class would always begin with the “Glory Be” in French, and History would begin with a “Hail Mary,” Mrs. Slater went a different route. “Dear God,” she would say. “You said, ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened unto you. So in the name of Jesus, we ask, we seek, we knock….”

It took a few rounds of saying this prayer for me to begin to think: “Are we sure this is a good idea?” After all, at the same time I learned this prayer in Shakespeare class I was learning about original sin in religion class, and I recognized in the doctrine something that seemed fundamentally true: that humanity seems to be pre-set to want what it shouldn’t have.

To take Jesus at his word, and ask, seek, and knock in the full and confident faith that we will receive whatever we ask for is at the same time both beautiful and risky. It assumes that God will take seriously whatever our answer is this very dangerous question: what do you desire?

And when God asks us to name our desire, it’s not like God’s asking, “Would you like some fries with that?” or “Would you like to win the lottery this week?” or “Would you like to me to excuse you from rush hour this Monday and give you a miraculously fast ride to the office?” The question what do you desire requires us to be vulnerable, to look inside ourselves and name the thing that maybe we are afraid to speak out loud.

I desire…to make her better.

I desire…that he would love me back.

I desire…to look like, feel like, be a different person.

What do you desire?

To answer the question means giving an answer we sometimes know is wrong, but is nonetheless true.

I think the same thing happens to the Israelites in today’s Old Testament reading. The story of the manna in the wilderness is often told as a wonderful tale of God’s provision, but it has a dark underbelly, and the psalmist captures it in this small but alarming verse: “So the people ate and were well filled, for God gave them what they craved.”

“God gave them what they craved.” It’s worth taking a closer look at that.

The people complain against Moses because they desire the food that they had, sitting by the fleshpots in Egypt and eating their fill of bread. When this story is told a second time in the book of Numbers, they get even more specific. They want leeks and onions and cucumbers and melons and fish—juicy food, food from the Nile delta. The food they ate as slaves.

So God gives them what they crave.

In Exodus, manna is described as tasting like wafers made with honey. In Numbers, it’s compared to cakes baked in oil. Rabbis of old account for this discrepancy by saying that God made the manna doubly miraculous: it not only came down from heaven, but it tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste like—like a chocolate bar, or macaroni and cheese, or roasted mushrooms—anything you desire.

And what did the people desire? The food they ate in Egypt.

God desires the trust and love of the people God had chosen. The people desire what they had before God rescued them. God is hurt.

And yet, thousands of years later, God took on human form, and gave us this prayer about asking, seeking, knocking. Generations later, God still really wants to know what we desire.

Why?

I think the first part of the answer is that God’s relationship with us has evolved. This story comes at the beginning of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. At this point in the relationship, here’s what the Israelites know about God: He’s really good at turning rivers into blood, sending swarms of locusts, parting seas, killing the Egyptian firstborn…all the big, heroic, intimidating stuff.

God cared for them like a warrior, winning the battle, but can a God like that also care for them like a mother, with tenderness and table-setting and good food every day?

God, on the other hand, comes across like an overeager lover. After rescuing her beloved people from Egypt, God finally gets them alone in the desert and seems so excited to begin this next phase of the relationship. But the people just aren’t in the same place She is. They just got out of a bad relationship with Pharaoh. They’re not ready to jump into anything serious.

In the meantime, God wonders if the Israelites love him and much as he does them, so God sets tests for the Israelites that the Israelites fail, and the Israelites complain at every possible opportunity, and all the while, there’s poor Moses, running back and forth as the go-between, interpreting God’s actions to the people, and the people’s actions to God, trying to smooth things over and keep this whole ship from going up in flames.

There’s a breaking point just a few weeks later when the people of Israel arrive at the promised land—which is already occupied by hostile tribes—and express doubt that God will indeed give it into their hands like God promised.

And God, fed up, says, “That’s it. I’m turning this tribe around, and you will wander in the desert until this whole generation has nearly died off. Your children will inherit the land I promised to you.”

And that’s what happened. For forty years, the Israelites wandered in the desert wilderness, relying on God’s daily providence, until the older generation had nearly died off, and all that was left were the children who had grown up never knowing anything other than the God who made bitter water sweet for them, and blew quails in on the wind for the them, and every day except the seventh, for forty years, let manna fall with the dew. They wandered until they could trust.

Despite deep disappointment, God stayed in relationship with the people She had chosen. This is the lesson of the 79th psalm, of which we read just a small portion today. The much longer psalm tells the story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, in which God’s faithfulness becomes the common denominator, wooing and winning the people of Israel.

And throughout that process, something changed about the way God heard the desires of God’s people. When God invites us to knock, to seek, to ask, God is very serious. Because God knows that when we answer that question honestly, we make ourselves vulnerable before God, and in that place of vulnerability, in that place of desert wondering, God can reach us, and shape our desires.

We can see this playing out in the gospel as well. In this encounter between Jesus and the huge crowd that comes looking for him, Jesus compares daily bread to the bread of everlasting life. “You came here looking for the food that perishes,” he tells the crowd. They came looking for manna, for a feast like the one that fed five thousand. That bread is what they desire, but it’s not what God longs to give them. God wants them to desire more! God longed to give them the food that would feed them forever, and glory be, that Bread was standing right in front of them.

And at first, the response of the crowd is right on the money. “Sir, give us this bread always.” Yes! Brownie points for everyone! But as we continue to read through this chapter, and Jesus says more and more about what this Bread of Life is and means, people begin to drift away. And little by little, the crowd slims down until just 12 are left. And Jesus says to them, “What do you desire? Do you also wish to go away?”

And Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

The disciples didn’t get everything Jesus was saying. But they trusted him. And they knew that no words but the ones he had to offer were going to get them through the wilderness.

God invites us to name our desire honestly, but He also doesn’t leave it alone. God is always at work in us, wooing us, shaping us until when we ask, and seek, and knock, we are praying for that which is God’s very own will for the world.

But that process begins with a question, one which each of us must answer both for ourselves, and which we answer together, as a community of faith:

What do you desire?

Let us pray. Dear God, you said, ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened unto you. So in the name of Jesus, we ask, we seek, we knock. Give us the courage and the trust to name honestly the deep desires of our heart. Give us the imagination to desire boldly: the bread of angels instead of the bread of slavery; the bread of life instead of the bread that spoils. Grant that our cravings may be abundant and for abundance. Transform the desires that need to be transformed, O God, and for the rest: Answer. Let us find. Open the door.

Amen.

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Sermon: Zucchini God

9th Sunday After Pentecost, Year B
2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be faithful and fruitful in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand is, hands-down, a gospel favorite. In fact, out of all the miracle stories told in the four gospels, the Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle—aside from the resurrection—that all four evangelists tell. It’s a stunning tale of scarcity turned into abundance, as Jesus takes a little boy’s lunch and transforms it into a feast for thousands.

And I am so glad that we get to hear it now, at this time of year, when creation is retelling the same miracle.

When I walk the dog in the evening, I pass garden after garden where a similar miracle is taking place. It never ceases to amaze me how a tomato seed the size of a hole on my watch band can grow into a plant taller than my waist, with pounds and pounds of red fruits.

And the same thing is happened with green beans and eggplants and patty pans and cantaloupes and cucumbers and squash, and even beyond the gardens. I took Barnaby for a walk at Cove Gap the other day, and the thorny brambles that usually lie in wait to ambush us were instead gesturing like welcoming hosts, offering drooping branches of ripening fruit. The whole earth is singing the story of God’s abundance.

It is, in fact, the season of first fruits. And first fruits have a special meaning in the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are called to offer the first fruits of their harvest to God at an altar—in fact, it is bread of the first fruit that the man brings to Elijah in today’s reading from Second Kings.

And the thing is, giving up your first fruits to God isn’t just a gesture of thanksgiving for the harvest; it’s also an act of faith. You bring your first fruits to the altar unsure of what the rest of the season has in store. Maybe a bad storm will wipe out much of your harvest. Maybe disease will strike your herd. You just don’t know.

So when God responds to the offering of the barley loaves by multiplying them to feed one hundred people, it’s not just a happy little miracle that makes for a nice story. It’s a symbol of God’s promise to God’s people: to take care of them, to respond to their faithful risk with God’s own divine faithfulness.

In Great Britain, this act of bring your first fruits to God was ritualized into a festival called Lammas Day, from the words for “Loaf-Mass,” during the Middle Ages. On the first day of August, households would take the bread that they had baked from the first wheat harvest and bring it to church with them. Some of it would be set aside for communion bread. Some of it would be set aside to give to the needy members of the community. Some of it would be blessed and returned to the members of the congregation.

I want to hit ‘pause’ for a moment and acknowledge something here. Sometimes, in the passage of the thousands of years since the different bits of the Bible were written and today, the symbols can change meaning.

For example, in Jesus’ day, and in medieval England, bread was a daily staple. You ate it every day, for just about every meal, especially if you were poor.

We lose track of that in the American melting pot. I myself come from a firmly committed potato household. For others, it’s rice or pasta. In fact, it might very well be the case that quite few of us eat bread on a daily basis, as Jesus and his friends did. I even read an article this week that said that one in three Americans avoid bread and all its gluten-bearing kin, for reasons of health or preference. Bread is no longer a staple, and for many, it’s not even an option.

So maybe, just for today, we could try out a new symbol. Something that evokes first fruits. Something that symbolizes abundance. Something that we could visualize multiplying to feed five thousand people.

Fortunately, something of just such a nature appeared on my porch this past week.

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What do you think?

If you have a zucchini plant, then you understand abundance. You understand what it means to eat squash at every meal for a month, and to give away gourds the size of a baseball bat. Garrison Keillor said that July is the only time of year the people lock their car in the church parking lot, so that people won’t put squash on the front seat.

It is a kind of miracle, a multiplication that takes place in every summer garden. God takes that little seed, smaller than my pinky fingernail, and produces a dozen gourds bigger than my arm. And they all have more seeds. It’s actually a little bit scary.

Particularly when you think about how often the Bible uses the imagery of seeds and green and growing things—and not just in parables, but in prayers. Just today, we heard the author of Ephesians pray that the church might be rooted and grounded in love. It is a prayer for strengthening and fullness and growth, and it is beautiful—but it’s also scary. Because this is a prayer to the God who invented zucchini. Who knows what a God like that will do with a prayer like this?

What if we grow like squash? What if we end up with the spiritual equivalent of boxes of zucchini, filling the aisles, so much giftedness and abundance that we have to sneak out and leave it on other people’s doorsteps in the dead of night because it’s just too much grace for us to keep for ourselves?

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I’m only half-kidding when I talk about how frightening that is. That kind of abundance necessarily transforms the ways that we think about the world. We’re so used to operating out of a sense of scarcity. It’s almost as if there’s a sort of security in the not-enough style of thinking. At least we understand how the world works in that scenario: those who hold back, hold out.

There, the gospel brings us good news and bad news. Every story of abundance in the Bible begins with the fear of scarcity. It begins with a kid’s lunch when what you need is a catered feast. It begins with an idea for ministry and one guy saying, “We don’t have the budget for that.” It begins with Jesus responding to that kind of scarcity-thinking with, “That’s adorable. Bring me what you have.” And then he takes a gift, and gives thanks to God for it, and blesses it, and breaks it. And he hands it off, and says, “Here. Share this.”

It solves the problem of scarcity. But it also requires that we let go of our understanding of the world, and especially of the church, and particularly of this congregation, as a place with a problem of “not-enough.”

Here, after all, we gather to worship a zucchini-creating God, a God who doesn’t just feed five thousand people, but makes sure that there’s twelve baskets left over. Those baskets are a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel—that is, everyone who wasn’t there on the mountain that day. In other words, God not only answered the need of the crowd, but made them the answer to the prayers of others.

Which is exactly what God does to us, every Sunday. Today, you will receive the Body of Christ in your hand, and as you eat it, you will become the Body of Christ for the world.

In the fine tradition of Lammas Day, I have something for you to take home with you: zucchini bread. I would like to ask you to do something special with it. Take it with you, and let it anchor a prayer for the week: a prayer in which you ask God what seeds God has given you. A passion or hobby, something you love to do. Bring that gift to God in prayer, and as Christ did once so long ago, give thanks for it. Ask God to bless it. And then ask God to help you break it and share it.

Perhaps God will call you to use that gift in a way that you and I can’t even envision right now, a way which is only possible thanks to the power at work within us through the Holy Spirit.

There is only one thing that is certain: this is the God who created zucchini. Anything could happen.

Let us pray:

God of the first fruits, we give you thanks for every sign of your unbounded abundance: in the food of the earth, in the sharing of love, in the gifts of the Spirit that fill this place. Bless this bread, we pray. May it lead us into deeper contemplation of the gifts with which you’ve blessed us, and the ways in which we may be a blessing to others. In the name of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, we pray: Amen.

Lessons from bread-making

As those of you who read my most recent post know, I’ve decided to learn how to bake bread. Like, really bake bread. I am determined to learn how to bake the shit out of bread. I shall walk the mysterious connections of gluten networks. The secrets of why bread rises shall soon be mine!

To aid me in my quest, I purchased a book called Flour Water Salt Yeast which, I trust, shall unfold to me the mysteries of the wild yeasts. This tome is at pains to teach the discipline of bread-baking: the precision of temperature, time, and ingredient amounts and quality. I have made three recipes from this book so far, and in this post, I’m going to share with you some of the sacred tenets of this book, as well as what my experience so far has taught me, all without violating copyright. Behold:

Good baking requires precision.

The book is very clear about this. For example: from the get-go, the author, Ken Forkish, makes clear that there shall be no namny-pamby volume measurements in his book. “Seven cups of flour”? What kind of measurement is that?! Perhaps your flour is affected by any one of a thousand circumstances that can make the difference of several grams between your seven cups of flour and my seven cups of flour! Therefore, measurements shall be given in proper grams, the culinary measurement preferred by reasonable people throughout the rest of the world. Only in America, where people still drive their cars on the wrong side of the road and drink light beer, could the vagaries of standard units be tolerated!

(Or so I imagine Ken’s thinking went.)

Fortunately, at this point Ken Forkish’s American editor stepped in and told him to include standard measurements or else his royalty would be converted from dollars to crates of Miller Lite. Therefore, the book begrudgingly includes the number of cups of flour that you need.

On my first recipe, a white bread, I tried to atone for my heinous lack of a kitchen scale by following those measurements exactly: fluffing my flour as per instructions, leveling each cup off with a knife, and getting so anxious and worked up about it that I lost count around the sixth-ish cup and had to re-measure everything.

I breathlessly added water and combined the two, noting with dread that the mixture seemed woefully underhydrated. My dad looks on from the background. “You need more water,” he said.

“But I followed the measurement exactly!” I returned. “This has to be right. I was precise.

“It’s too dry,” Dad said, pointing out the obvious. “Add more water.”

“No,” I said. “I can’t just add water. I measured everything exactly. YOU CAN’T JUST ADD WATER.”

Dad walked over and calmly dumped in a few teaspoons of water.

“There,” he said. “Try that.”

I tried it.

It worked.

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Precision requires a kitchen scale.

Success notwithstanding, I determined that I absolutely must purchase a kitchen scale. Because what, after all, is success when compared to doing things right?

I combed through online reviews to find a digital that combined quality with low cost, and found a lovely decent one for $18 on Amazon. I ordered it. It arrived. I excitedly took it out and started on a new batch of bread. I went to measure the flour, and…

…the scale returned a number that wasn’t anywhere close to where it should have been.

And as I watched, grams kept dropping off.

The scale was clearly mad.  My dad inspected it. My mom inspected it. Lacking calibration weights, we tested it using cans of soup, cans of cat food, and cans of artichoke hearts. It failed every test.

Disappointed but optimistic, I filled out a return form on Amazon and requested a new scale of the same type. It arrived a few days later, and filled with hope, I broke out the cat food, the soup, and the artichoke hearts, and breathlessly placed them on the scale.

This one, too, was bonkers. But a different kind of bonkers. It didn’t change weight, like the other one. It simply refused to acknowledge that it was weighing anything, unless quite a lot of weight was on it.

My mom, my dad, and I all stared at the scale. What were the chances that we would get two malfunctioning scales right in a row? And each malfunctioning in its own special way?

We stared some more.

And finally, my dad said, “Maybe if we took the lid off.”

Yeah. That worked.

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Dough temperature is crucial.

According to Forkish, the temperature of the dough when you let it do its bulk fermentation (i.e.: when you’ve finished mixing everything and are prepared to let it sit for several hours) can make the difference between OK bread and YOWZA bread. The variation of a single degree Fahrenheit (because apparently Fahrenheit is fine, even if cups have been exiled) can change the world, at least as the world pertains to your bread.

Just FYI, I haven’t, even one single time, managed to come within five degrees of the optimal dough temperature.

It still works.

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Real bakers know the difference between pizza and foccacia

Tell me, what is the difference between a white pizza, and a thin foccacia topped with cheese and herbs?

Oh, you don’t know? YOU PLEBIAN.

I’m pretty sure this is actually a trick question. I believe this because I used half of one of the white bread recipes for pizza dough. I made two pizzas, using nothing but the oven and some cast iron cookware.

The first was a quattro-formaggio pizza, which is Italian for “We have extra cheese to use up.” After a brief argument over proper cookware with my dad, which he won, I moved the dough from a skillet into the bottom of a huge cast iron pot, grumbling about how the extra manhandling was going to positively RUIN the dough, which, according to the book, should be treated as gently a butterfly.  One made of glass.  Glass and eggshells.  Glass and eggshells and innocent dreams and unsullied aspirations.

I spread it with sauce, topped it with cheese, and resigned it to its fate.

For the second, I lovingly gentled it into a 9-inch iron skillet, which is what Forkish’s book actually called for. “Hmm,” I thought to myself as I persuaded the dough into position. “I think this is going to be a rather thick-crusted pie. But whatever. PRECISION!”

I accurately added some precisely-cut fresh tomatoes in a specific fashion, layered on exactly 8 slices of panchetta, and topped it off with carefully measured cheese and 6 leaves of torn fresh basil. This was my masterpiece.

I popped both in the very hot oven.

When they came out less than ten minutes later, it was clear that the quattro-formaggio had spent that time thinking carefully about its purpose in life, and had emerged from its contemplation in the way that you hope your pizza will: full of flavor, with a chewy character, and only slightly charred in spots.

The panchetta pizza, meanwhile, was a battlefield. Apparently its gentle treatment had allowed the unmolested gas pockets to wage a final battle for supremacy in the heat of the oven. As the dough expanded from the edges inward, the topping slowly slid toward the middle until what was left to emerge from the oven wasn’t so much pizza as a lightly baked loaf with a little ditch of toppings in the middle. It was like a pizza donut.

So I called it foccacia.

And that worked too.

Barnaby begging for his share of panchetta.
Barnaby begging for his share of panchetta.

You are saved by grace, and not by works.

I have not, not even one single time, despite all my best efforts, managed to follow a recipe successfully. And still, bread has happened with astonishing persistence.

I’m convinced that this is down to divine intervention. I can in no other way account for the fact that despite my screw-ups, the flour and the water still very much seem to want to be together, to create beautiful networks of gluten to hold enthusiastic bubbles of gas. I have over-hydrated and under-hydrated, used incorrect flour ratios and the wrong kind of yeast, overcooked and undercooked and managed to do both at the same time, and still, bread happens.

Clearly this is divine grace. The bread just really wants to be bread, and it’s going to be bread, even if it has to use me to get there.

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I knead a new hobby.

Well, it’s happened. Two weeks ago I graduated from Yale Divinity School with my Master of Sacred Theology degree with a little more knowledge and a lot more debt, packed all my stuff, and drove south. And now, I’m living into a fine tradition of my millennial, nearly-30, overeducated-but-underemployed cohort: I’m living in my parents’ house, waiting for a job.

I mean, it’s slightly more elegant than that. I’m trained, qualified, and approved to be an ELCA pastor, it’s just that with the way the call process works, I don’t get to be ordained until I receive a call from God through a specific congregation. It’s an idea wrought of beauty and simplicity, which I’d be in a much better position to appreciate were it not also wrought of ever so much waiting.

My parents are very generous, very hospitable people, and are letting me and my large dog sleep on the futon in their home office/guest room for freesies. I’ve done nothing for two weeks except sleep in, binge-watch Doctor Who, and fret over the fact that my health insurance expires in July.

And yes, I’ve started to go a little tiny bit stir-crazy. To the point that I’ve started putting on makeup for grocery store runs, because that represents my most intensive contact with non-familial members of the human race.

Clearly, I need a hobby.

While casting about for just such a thing, I noticed that it’s Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary, and that means that Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations will start reading their way through John 6 on July 26th. That’s right: buckle in, people, because five straight weeks of sermons on the Bread of Life are headed your way.

And I thought: I bet I could learn a lot about bread by July 26th.

And then: I bet there’s probably some good sermon material to be had in that learning process.

If only you had a congregation to preach to, replied some unhelpful bit of my brain.

Well, if you had a congregation, you probably wouldn’t have time to learn about bread for fun, responded another bit.

I really hope you have a congregation before your loan repayment grace period expires, chimed in some obscure lobe.

This is unhelpful. Can we think more about making bread? I silently queried.

Whereupon all thought circuits agreed that, concerns about utility aside, making bread sure did sound like fun.

Wikimedia Commons

Next thing, I was on Amazon, looking for a really good book about making bread. Not just recipes, but something that would actually explain why bread happens when you mixed certain ingredients together, and why different kind of bread happened depending on which ingredients they were.

I ended up ordering one called Flour Water Salt Yeast based on a Google search for “best bread books.” The book arrived just a few days later, while my excitement about a new project was peaking, and therefore I was determined to dive in right away.

I flipped open to a random page, my eyes devouring the gorgeous photography of pretty, pretty artisanal bread before taking a look at the recipe. And I thought, “What the hell is this?”

The list of ingredients was in grams.

And there were phrases I didn’t understand. Like: “Bulk fermentation: 12 hours.”

And there was an absurdly small amount of yeast being used.

And there were only four ingredients. Guess which four?

It turns out that the basic premise of Flour Water Salt Yeast was that every recipe in the book is made out of…omigosh, you’ll never guess…. Flour. Water. Salt. And yeast. And in demonstrating the myriad of different ways you can combine and treat these four ingredients, the author, Ken Forkish, endeavors to teach not just how, but also why, bread happens.

Which is exactly what I was looking for, if in maybe just a leeeeeettle more detail than I’d been expecting. So I set about reading the first three chapters of the book, which, as it turned out, was a prerequisite (or at least highly recommended) before making the first recipe.

As I read, it became clear that Ken Forkish does not bake bread the way that I know how to bake bread. My bread-baking know-how involves eyeing ingredients, kneading dough, short rise times, and—my favorite bit—punching down the risen dough in one extremely satisfying poof!

POOF! (From: recipetips.com)

His involves being incredibly exact about everything, from measurements (which accounts for the metric units, though, to be fair, he does include standard measurements in small print) to the temperature of the water, rise times of anywhere from 5 to 14 hours, and never ever raising a violent hand to one’s dough. No poofs!. Just very gentle folding that keeps air pockets in and eeeeeases the gluten into stronger networks, which is what kneading is supposed to do.

It’s actually kind of hard to believe that this approach to bread-making, which is so different from anything I’ve encountered before, is actually going to produce markedly better bread. And according to the book, it takes several tries before you can produce a reasonably good loaf. Even the slightest factor, like the dough being a couple of degrees too warm or too cool when you let it rise, is apparently enough to make a noticeable difference to flavor.

Either someone’s taking the mickey, or there’s a whole new world to bread baking that is mine to discover.

In any case, with all the stir-craziness, it’s nice to have something to actually stir.  :-)

Worship is what makes us Christian

“Worship is what makes us Christian.”

I first heard those words over coffee with Justin. We were fellow Lutherans in our third year of seminary classes, both called to parish ministry, and I was trying to find out more from Justin about these liturgical dramas he kept writing for daily chapel services (don’t scoff—they’re awesome) when he said, “Worship is what makes us Christian.”

I had to pause for a moment to take that in, because I’d never heard it before. I was surprised, and curious, and later on, a little disturbed. I was three years into seminary and it had never before occurred to me to think of liturgy, this thing we get together and do every Sunday, as an event that defined me as a Christian? What else hadn’t I learned in seminary?!

(That sound you just heard, by the way, was the ironical laughter of hundreds of pastors remembering their first calls.)

Perhaps more to the point, if I didn’t think of worship as the formative thing that made me a Christian, what did I think it was?

Poking more closely at that question actually yields a perfectly reasonable response, maybe the same one you’d have given: before that conversation with Justin, I would have said, “Belief in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And this is true. But what I’d never seen before is that that response is actually saying something else: that faith is synonymous with intellectual assent. I believe, and therefore I am Christian.

When we say that worship is what makes us who we are, we are saying that being Christian is not just an act of intellectual assent, it is an act, period. We’re saying that Christians aren’t defined solely by what happens in our heads, but also through what we do with our bodies—and even more significantly, in what God does with us when God gathers us as the Body of Christ. We are also saying that faith is not born fully formed in a moment of rational choice, but is actually formed and reformed through liturgical practice.[1]

Consider C.S. Lewis’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of that concept from The Screwtape Letters. As one demon writes to another:

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“One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray ‘with moving lips and bended knees’ but merely ‘composed his spirit to love’ and indulged ‘a sense of supplication’. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want….At the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”[2]

We might take exception to Screwtape’s demonic snark, but we can’t deny the truth of his point. When Lewis, through Screwtape, makes the claim that choosing whether to kneel or not while praying is a choice that actually matters, recent scientific evidence supports his conclusion. Research has shown that arranging our facial muscles into a smile makes us feel happier,[3] and that changing our body posture alters our hormone levels.[4] While no one that I know of has yet undertaken a study of what happens in our brains when we submit to the ritual motions of a Sunday morning (that would be really cool, by the way—anyone looking for a research project?), worship is an embodied experience, and what we do in those bodies shapes who we are.[5]

In writing about the Rule of Benedict—basically the medieval rulebook for how to live in a monastery—Nathan Mitchell claims that “ritual is not only a way Christians negotiate their access to the Sacred; it is also their way of editing experience, ‘rewriting’ personal history, and appropriating a new identity.”[6] The curious thing about the Rule of Benedict, according to Mitchell, is that intellectual assent and spiritual readiness for worship were secondary considerations for taking part in regular worship: the primary value of participating was the training of bodies in order to produce a holy people.[7]

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Of the Sunday gathering, Evangelical Lutheran Worship liturgists wrote, “regular keeping of Sunday gives a gospel rhythm to all our days and to our entire lives.”[8] They take their cue for this from generations of Christians who have gone before them, to whom the weekly gathering around bread and cup were vital: “We have to celebrate the Lord’s Day. It is our rule,” said the martyrs of Abitina. “We could not live without celebrating the Lord’s Day.”[9]

Wikipedia Commons.

How is it that this Sunday gathering, this thing for which I was so reluctant, as a teenager, to leave my warm bed, was so important to those forty-nine Christians of the early church that they considered it a matter of life and death? What is the connection between the essentiality of the Sunday liturgy and the forty-nine people whose lives were thought so holy that the Church still remembers them, two millennia after they have died?

Wikipedia Commons.

The children’s book The Little Prince offers a fable-like answer. In the book, the eponymous Prince tells the story of meeting a fox who asks to be tamed: “If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…” The prince agrees, and returns to visit the fox the next day, but the fox objects:

“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you … One must observe the proper rites…”

The Sunday assembly is the rite through which God “tames” us, teaching our hearts to long for the divine presence, training our eyes to see reminders of our beloved in the world around us, shaping our deepest longings so that we desire nothing in the world more than we desire God’s nearness.

Alexander Schmemann, a famous Eastern Orthodox liturgist, suggested that original sin “does not consist primarily in disobedience, but in ceasing to be hungry for God alone, and therefore, in seeking fulfillment elsewhere.”[10] Through participating in the rites that shape us into a holy people, we find our hunger restored: “The practices of holiness, the acts whereby the assembly bears witness to the truth of God, are like beggars’ hands out for mercy, naked bodies presented for the cloak.”[11]

Associated Press image, originally found on “Christianity Today” website. Follow image URL for original location.

[1] The Augsburg Confession points in this directing in Article V, where it states that God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these means, “[God] gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when it pleases God, in those who hear the gospel.”

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan Co, 1943).

[3] Daniel Goleman, “A Feel-Good Theory: A Smile Affects Mood” New York Times, (July 18, 1989). http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/18/science/a-feel-good-theory-a-smile-affects-mood.html

[4] Dana R. Carney, Amy J.C. Cuddy, and Andy J. Yap, “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance” Psychological Science 21, no. 10. (October 2010), 1363–1368.

[5] Cf. Frank Senn, Introduction to Christian Worship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 189-195.

[6] Nathan Mitchell. Liturgy and the Social Sciences (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999), 75.

[7] Ibid, 73-4

[8] Gail Ramshaw. Keeping Time (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 8.

[9] Qtd. in Ramshaw, Keeping Time, 9.

[10] Frank Senn, New Creation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 64.

[11] Gordon Lathrop, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2006), 226.

21 Steps to a Productive Afternoon

1) Commit to work on your thesis for the entire afternoon.

2) Get roped into a job for the admissions office.  Because their free candy has sustained you through many a morning when you didn’t eat breakfast, you say yes.

3) Get home an hour later and remember that you scheduled an extra meeting with your music director.

4) Finish the meeting, return to your apartment, go to your desk, and realize that it is not so much a desk as a pile of paper and books loosely held together with granola crumbs, half-eaten chocolate bars, and dirty coffee mugs.

Photo by Jeffrey Beall. Flickr Commons.

5) Clean your desk.  In so doing, you find bills to pay and papers to file.

6)  Pay the bills.  File the papers.  You are adulting so hard right now.

7) Sit down to work on your thesis.  Remember that you still haven’t done your reading for class tomorrow.

8)  Try to find book for class tomorrow.  Realize that it’s somewhere in the burrow of crumpled sheets and deflated pillows where you sleep.

9)  Make bed while dancing to Harry Belafonte’s “Shake, Shake, Shake Senora.”  So much adulting.

10) Read two pages of the book.

11) Remember that you were supposed to send an email by noon, which was three hours ago.

12)  Send the email.

13)  Read two paragraphs of the book.

14)  Realize that there are three other emails to send.

15)  Send those emails.

16)  Read two paragraphs of the book.

17)  Realize this would make a great blog post.

18)  Reflect on how you haven’t updated your blog in over a month.

19)  Admit that it’s because you were supposed to be writing and posting material for your thesis.

20)   Have a come-to-Jesus moment about all this procrastinating you’ve been doing.  Make it heartfelt.  Commit to do better.

21)  Feel exhausted from all the soul-searching.  Decide you need a nap.  Go sleep in your freshly-made bed with your newly-unburied half-eaten chocolate bar.