Behind the Baked Loaf

A variety of bread rolls with sesame and poppy seed toppings
by Rev. Terry Davis
 
Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on November 20, 2016
 

Dear friends, I have a confession to make: I’ve never baked a loaf of bread in my life.

Yes, I’ve made my share of what are commonly referred to as “quick breads” – banana bread, zucchini bread, cranberry walnut bread, and corn bread, to name a few – so I’m not entirely without bread baking experience. However, that bread I consider to be the Grand Poobah of all breads – the slow rise and bake yeast bread – is one with which I have no experience.

I think I missed that class in high school Home Economics. And, over the years, I never developed an interest in learning the craft of making yeast bread from either my grandmother or mother.

For one thing, it looked like it required way too much physical exertion. After mixing the flour with the yeast, sugar, salt and water, I remember my short and stout Italian grandmother turning the dough onto a floured countertop and kneading the hell out of it. She would press the dough hard with the heels of her hands, turning it in a circle and grunting and perspiring as she went along.

Then, after the dough had rested for a few hours and risen, there was the punching. With clenched fists and more beads of perspiration running down her face, Grandma would hit that oily dough ball with gentle, firm blows to release any gas bubbles and get the desired grain. A right jab here and a left hook there, and Grandma’s dough ball was eventually reduced in size, ready for the second rising stage and, finally, to be made into loaves and put into the oven.

If all of that violence and hard work wasn’t enough, I think the thing that has probably dissuaded me the most from making yeast bread is time. It seems that just too many precious hours are required to make the humble loaf.  

I recognize that people make homemade bread for many reasons other than food. It’s creative . . . it’s therapeutic . . . it’s a way to connect to arts and to traditions passed down through generations. I like the sound of all of that. But, so far, none of these have been enough of an incentive to get me to give up a Saturday afternoon to make it happen.

In thinking about my grandma making her loaves of Italian bread and her pizza dough and of all the time that took, I never considered that breadmaking might have invited and refined her patience. Patient is not a word I would have thought to use to describe my grandmother. Loving? Yes. Loud? Yes. At times, pushy? Yes. But not patient.

But a wellspring of patience is exactly what is required to make the Grand Poobah of breads, and my grandmother found hers, week after week . . . despite working full-time and dealing with what I imagine was stress of family and poor health.

And, I imagine that her heart and spirit, as well as loaves, were shaped in the process.

Gandhi said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” This quote is a powerful reminder that something as ordinary in our lives as the humble loaf is not a given in the lives of so many others. For people who are starving, a loaf of bread is more important than perhaps anyone or anything.

Gandhi’s words also made me also wonder about the emotional and spiritual hunger many of us may feel from time to time. I gather that so many of us are looking for ways to connect – to that sacred place within us, with each other, and to something that puts our lives in perspective and gives them deep meaning.

Our celebration of bread today is a reminder that the familiarity of cherished traditions, the humility of simple actions, and patience with the journey are what can help us overcome our loneliness, fear, and a sense of spiritual rootlessness.

Bread’s tangible elements of texture, color and flavor stand in for those elements of our human existence that we cannot taste, smell or see, but that we nevertheless strive to make manifest in our lives, including compassion, generosity, and community.

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In thinking more about bread-making, I wonder if one of the other reasons I haven’t pursued it is because it involves my hands not my head. Unlike the creative task of writing, bread making is something that invites my physical sensibilities to take priority over the rational. It seems to invite a different kind of knowing . . . where judging the weight and feel of dough might lead me to a new and unexplored side of myself.

What might happen to me – what might happen to any of us – if we let our sensory selves take priority over our thinking selves for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon? How might that change things? Could bread making or any activity that puts us in touch with life’s most fragrant and tactile moments play a modest and powerful role in our personal transformation? 

Lynn Ungar, a poet and Unitarian Universalist minister, says that to consider the act of using our hands to make bread is to consider the ways in which we are transformed by mystery and miracle each day of our lives.

She writes:

Surely the earth is heavy with this rhythm,
the stretch and pull of bread,
the folding in and folding in across the palms,
as if the lines of my hand could chart a map across the dough . . .
mold flour and water into crosshatchings of my life.

I do not believe in palmistry,
but I study my hands for promises when
no one is around.
I do not believe in magic.
but I probe the dough for signs of life,
willing it to rise, to take shape, to feed me.

I do not believe in palmistry, in magic,
but something happens in kneading dough
or massaging flesh;
an imprint of the hand remains on the bodies
we have touched.
This is the lifeline –
the etched path from hand to grain to earth,
the transmutation of the elements through touch
marking the miracles on which we unwilling depend.1)Lynn Ungar, “Blessing the Bread,” What We Share: Collected Meditations, Volume Two, Patricia Frevert, ed. (Skinner House Books, Boston, MA: 2002), 11.

These are Lynn Ungar’s words . . . words that remind us that we are transformed when we touch the miracles of life and allow them to touch us.

And so, in these days when we are looking for signs of hope . . . when we’re looking for something to ground us and help us believe that there is something holy and of real purpose in life . . . when we’re seeking to know deep in our bones that the moral and spiritual values we name when we gather here aren’t merely platitudes but, rather, provide real food for our hungry souls when we act upon them in our lives . . . in these times when we need all of these assurances, may we break bread together and hold one another in our shared journey.

May the sharing of our loaves and our stories behind them this morning be our simple and powerful act of faith and love. And, may they fill us in more ways than we can imagine.

May it be so. Amen.

References   [ + ]

1. Lynn Ungar, “Blessing the Bread,” What We Share: Collected Meditations, Volume Two, Patricia Frevert, ed. (Skinner House Books, Boston, MA: 2002), 11.