Everyday spirituality: baking bread

Yeast gets a bit of a bad rap in the Bible.

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

I’ve become a fan — and something of a student — of yeast. It’s an amazing thing, a living organism, that gives rise to fermentation in bread and beer.

Yeast gets a bit of a bad rap in the Bible. It takes too long during the Exodus, so they ditch the yeast and unleavened bread becomes the spiritual food of Israel to this day. In the Christian scripture, Jesus does equate yeast with the kingdom of heaven, but he also warns of the “yeast of the Pharisees” seeping into his followers’ spiritual lives.

I’ve been baking a lot of bread lately — 2-3 loaves per week — and that’s got me thinking about yeast. I’ve been reading about it, too, in William Alexander’s fascinating book, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust. In his chapter on yeast, he makes an interesting point: for thousands of years, bakers and brewers relies on yeast, but they had no idea what it was or how it worked.

It wasn’t until the first microscopes were invented that scientists could see that yeast was, indeed, a living organism. In fact, it can live with or without oxygen. It’s fascinating.

And, if you’re a baker or a brewer, you also know that yeast is temperamental. Too hot or too cold, and it won’t activate. Too much sugar or not enough, and it won’t have eat. Often, when you’re sure you’ve done everything right, your loaf doesn’t rise; and the converse is also true.

I’m currently using a yeast in a sourdough starter that was given to me by a Swedish woman I met at a Walker Art Center Open Field night. She’d made it from Swedish yogurt and smuggled it past TSA. I’ve kept that starter going all summer. (I know a baker in Dallas who’s kept a sourdough started going for two decades.)

There are so many connections between baking bread and Christian spirituality that I could write a book about it. But, for starters  I’ll note these:

  • That the sourdough starter is a living organism that I have to feed regularly;
  • That it was given to me as a gift by someone I’d never met before and will likely never meet again;
  • That the yeast is fickle;
  • That my spiritual ancestors used it for millennia, yet didn’t know how it worked;
  • That they even feared it a little;
  • That a baker works the yeast into the dough, then leaves it and waits, not quite knowing how it will turn out.

It’s that last one that is most instructive to me, especially as I’m struggling with why we pray.

If you’re a baker, what connections do you find between baking and spirituality?

This post was written by  Tony Jones and originally published on the  Tony Jones Blog. Follow him on Twitter:  @jonestony

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