A Mennonite Poem

Be gentle when you touch bread;
Let it not lie uncared for, unwanted.
So often bread is taken for granted.
            There is so much beauty in bread:
            Beauty of sun and soil,
            Beauty of ancient toil.
            Winds and rains have caressed it,
            And Christ often blessed it.
Be gentle when you touch bread.

Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines

I have been involved in a 40+ year love affair with bread. My grandma, of course, made the best bread that I’ve ever eaten. My mom never caught the knack, but I used to go and sit on a stool in Grandma’s kitchen and watch, with saucer eyes, her hands digging into the vast expanse of flour and yeast-infused water and wrangling that amorphous mass into submission and form. To her, it was so second nature that she never bothered to measure anything. When she died, the recipe died with her.

I have embraced my grandma’s baking ways. And, though I have yet to crack the code of her signature loaf, I have my own pet bread recipes that I bake again and again. I think for me, baking bread has always been about being a part of something bigger. It gives me that connection, not only to my Italian grandma, but to generations of bakers going back to the beginning of civilization. As the poem above says, to bake bread is to take part in the “beauty of ancient toil” – men and women who had to labor with ceaseless devotion to enjoy the gift of daily bread. And even though my husband (the economist) will make teasing allusions to “the bakery at Safeway” after I have spent hours on a single loaf, I know and he knows that it is worth it.

All this is to say that when I learned of Preston Yancey’s new book, Out of the House of Bread, I was delighted, but not surprised. Somehow, the rhythms of praying within the Christian spiritual disciplines seem to fit with the rhythms of creating bread. Both rhythms are about a line of connection between past and present; both are about eschewing the easy for the significant; both are infused with God’s grace – in the former, the bountiful gift of being conformed ever closer to his likeness; in the latter, the endless miracle of sustenance out of unlikely partners.

First a confession in this season of confession: Though Yancey urges the reader to bake a loaf of bread nine times throughout the reading of his book, I have not yet had a chance to bake this “very good loaf of bread” even once. I am, though, enough of a home baker to understand the parallels he draws between the process of hand-forming an artisan loaf and learning to pray under the guidance of the different disciplines.

Spiritual disciplines are a kind of prayer, and when you find yourself in the middle of a season where nothing spiritual seems to matter and nothing feels like it’s working, having something new to try, a different perspective, a new way of telling God you’re in need or you’re lonely or you’re just fed up can feel like a lifeline. It can be a lifeline.

“This is a book,” Yancey writes, “about being on the path. Or it is a book about being uncertain of how far into the path you are. Or how long you have even been on it … It is also a book about baking a single loaf of bread and learning a handful of different ways to pray.” Every physical reality of baking is paired with a spiritual discipline, so that, in Out of the House of Bread, the kitchen is our path, the place where we both work toward something and are also in medias res. To begin this journey, measured in pages and experiences and prayers and loaves, Preston Yancey asks that we first consecrate our kitchen with an act of worship and blessing. “Now let’s begin.”

I have to say that I laughed aloud to read the chapter title Mise en Place: The Examen. Such a perfect pairing! As a cook, I and have often found my plans for dinner stymied by coming across an unread instruction in a new recipe to “let sit overnight.” Preparation makes all the difference, doesn’t it? That is why I was so glad to see this idea linked to something that has become one of my favorite exercises: The Prayer of Examen. There is something so healing about closing the day with a spiritual inventory and releasing it all to God. It is, of course, preparation for the new day ahead. Check your ingredients, survey your equipment, test that oven, and pray.

Kneading. Kneading has often left me needing a break. Yeouch! Yancey links it to intercessory prayer, as both require not only a certain focus of attention, but a conversation. As we speak out to God and listen to his Spirit, we also speak and listen to the dough as it forms under our hands. The ten minutes or so it takes to knead quite well is a good opportunity to engage with God on behalf of others and even, Yancey asserts, ourselves.

Passing through the chapters about wonder and rising – the miracle of life-giving bread taking on a life as it rises – and rootedness and forming – as the living loaf is shaped, we reflect upon our own formation from within the traditions of our faith, Yancey brings us to the final rise and the practice of remembrance. The loaf requires a second rise in a cooler temperature which slows down the rising and also makes the loaf more flavorful. In this vein, Preston reflects upon how contemplation of an icon or before an altar can slow us down and “pronounce to us reminders of God’s goodness, God’s might, God’s holiness, God’s love.

Fascinating to me was the linking of baking the bread with fasting – and the link between fasting and death. Of course, of course it is there. This living dough goes into an oven where it dies; but, from that death springs life for others. The fasting before the feast; the death before the resurrection. Fasting voluntarily is an act of worship and discipline; Yancey describes a “hiding” aspect to it. The will for something is veiled for a while, put away, so that something else can be shown. “What was hidden for a time,” he writes, “like bread in our oven, emerges well-formed, beautiful in its time, ready for the feast.”

You would think no one needs to be instructed to feast, but too often the church does not encourage celebration in proportion to the encouragement of abstention.

The final loaf and discipline he leads us through are linked as Serving: Feasting. One of my favorite visions of eternity is the picture of the Wedding Feast (did I mention that I am half-Italian?). Until then, we have Communion, that feasting in fellowship upon the eternal Bread and Wine. “Feasting,” Yancey writes, “is a discipline of trust, of declaration to the world that there is a God who has made all things and is making all things new through the power of the Spirit at work in and around us to fashion us all into the full image and likeness of Jesus Christ.” And so we eat the bread with a friend or neighbor or stranger – Preston recommends butter and preserves – and we rejoice together in “the great mystery of the God who has come near to us, is in us, is making us new. Again and again and again.”

(And then, Preston Yancey reminds us to clean our ovens, make good use of our leftovers, and try something new in the seasons of life, bread, and prayer.)

Out of the House of Bread:Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines was published by Zondervan in 2016. Please visit this page for more information.
Photo Copyright
Poem taken from More-with-Less Cookbook (Herald Press, 1976)

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