The Slow Beauty of Baking Bread
Coaxing a new creation from flour and water.
I remember the moment vividly: I looked down and realized my phone was covered in flour. “That can’t be good,” I thought to myself. How else would I share this beautiful experience of baking bread? I need photos! Instagram! Snapchat!
I am not a regular bread maker, unless you count filling the kitchen appliance that does all the mixing, kneading and baking while you’re at work. But I was at a workshop with baker and theologian Kendall Vanderslice – an opportunity to learn from a pro. She spent an afternoon with a small group of us as part of the tour for her new book, We Will Feast.
During the workshop, six of us gathered at a table already set with bowls, measuring cups and water. I thought it was odd there were no spoons or other utensils to use for stirring. As Kendall showed us how to pour water into the flour and mix it by hand, however, I understood. We were instructed to put our fingers right into the sloppy, wet mixture and stir it with our hands. Gradually the water was absorbed by the flour and it started to come together as a sticky dough that clung to our skin. It was very messy, and I liked it.
There’s something special about getting your hands dirty, whether in bread dough, garden soil or finger-paints. Being in contact with raw ingredients means you can experience their texture against your skin. You can feel whether they are hot or cold, wet or dry, silky smooth or rough and pebbly. You are tuned into the changes and possibilities that are found right in the palm of your hand.
I was fascinated as my dough went from powdery, to sticky, to smooth. Once it was kneaded and shaped into a loaf, I went back to the table to pat it over and over again. It was soft and supple and unlike anything else I had touched before. It was only a little flour, water and yeast and yet under my fingers it was mysteriously transformed into food.
Of course I am not the first to be fascinated by this process. As Kendall wrote last year in Faith and Leadership magazine, “When disparate ingredients, inedible on their own, blend in a particular way and then face the heat of the oven or stove, they are transformed. The resulting treats manifest the creative goodness of the God who crafted the world such that baking is possible at all.”
The creative goodness of God was being revealed right there at my fingertips! As I mixed and kneaded, God’s strange miracle of yeast came to life right in front of my eyes. I know that the psalmist says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). But that day, it was a powdery bowl of dough that revealed God’s creation, and I was holding it in my own two hands.
That’s when I looked at my phone and saw that it was covered in flour. I left it on the table earlier, beside my little workstation, and then got carried away with the mixing and kneading. I tried to pick it up so that I could send a snap to my kids and show them what a great time I was having, but that turned out to be a mistake. There was so much flour on my fingers, and on my phone, that the touch screen wouldn’t even respond.
It seems that bread baking and using handheld technology are mutually exclusive activities. In order to bake bread, I needed to stop texting. I had to stop taking pictures to post on Instagram. I couldn’t give my family a moment-by-moment commentary. It was a strange revelation but it wouldn’t be the last time I noticed it that day.
The bread baking workshop was just a prelude to the main event celebrating Kendall’s new book, We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship and the Community of God. It is a beautiful collection of stories about the new dinner church movement happening in North America. Chapter by chapter, she explores communities who bring people together with worship and food. There is St. Lydia’s who meets in a storefront in a big city; the Garden Church that tends fruits and vegetables together and feasts on its produce; and the Simple Church that meets every Thursday for supper in a rented church basement.
At the heart of each community is a desire to use food as an integral part of worship, combining the Eucharist, relationship-building and a genuine feast. “What these fellowships all hold in common,” she writes, “is a firm belief that Christian worship at the Communion table is much more than a taste of bread and wine.” Around it, each community had a different context and a different style.
On that summer day at Crieff Hills Retreat Centre, where I serve as the director, we certainly had a different style than any other dinner church I’d read about. For starters, we are not a regular worshiping community – our staff is small and most of our guests visit for a few days or a week at most. We have no particular tradition of celebrating the Eucharist because we welcome people of all faiths and all branches of the Christian Church. And yet here we were, a collection of people ready to worship and learn together.
It was an interesting assortment of staff members, volunteers, board members and local church members. Some came from area churches, while others had only a tenuous connection with any Christian community. One church sent their entire group of elders to research dinner church as a possible model for a future ministry, but another group had been hosting dinner churches for years. The youngest guest had barely started elementary school, and a number of others were enjoying retirement.
Most of us had never met before, which meant that our conversation was a bit awkward. I worried about how uncomfortable we all seemed as we gathered in a circle to hear Kendall’s greeting. She assures me that this is completely normal at dinner church. “In reality,” she says, “most folks feel a bit tense as they stand around the circle for the first time. . . conversation often begins slowly.” Tension is simply part of the experience, but often gives way to meaningful conversation as the meal and the worship progress.
Our meal lasted a couple of hours. There was a beautiful buffet table in the centre of the room and along with grape juice, the fresh bread baked earlier in our worship was passed around, still hot from the oven. We heard a reading from the book of Genesis, sang “This Little Light of Mine,” and remembered the last night Jesus spent with his friends.
By the end of the evening, our conversation had grown louder and there was more laughter than before. One church gave another advice on how to begin a dinner church ministry. People came forward to ask Kendall questions or offer thanks. All of us were very well fed.
Once everyone was gone and the last of the crumbs swept up, I realized that it happened again: I had neglected my phone. Only once had I spent a few hurried minutes trying to take some photos so I could share the experience later, and I hadn’t paid any attention to the notifications. My hands had been too busy clapping and passing the salt. My eyes and nose had been filled with beautiful fresh flowers on every table, and my attention taken up with the slightly shy, smiling people around me. I had been fully attentive to the community around me and God’s presence among us.
I needed to put my phone down while I baked bread, but I also needed to put it down in order to share in communion and community. It wasn’t as if someone made a rule – no phones at the table – as we have in my family. There was no instruction to turn off our ringers. I didn’t even want my phone. It would have been a barrier to the joy and learning and laughter.
Since that night, I have started to wonder what else is worth putting my phone down for. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to keep thinking about it while I go and make another loaf of bread. With my hands.