On Baking Bread and Being Present

I think a lot of us are rediscovering the joy of slowing down, these isolation days. For me, that has meant being able to sleep in until just before I start my work day, rolling out of bed and across the hall to my “home office”, instead of rushing around to catch a bus or make the 40-minute walking commute. It has also meant a return to old hobbies, ones that require uninterrupted time at home and a physicality that we don’t always pay attention to. While I can easily lose myself in a good book, the uncertainty of the present moment has had me seeking out activities that make me feel grounded in both time and space and allow my mind to rest while my body works. I’ve been seeking out activities that force me to work within the constraints of time, to practice patience, activities that permit me to get my hands involved, to practice presence.

And so, while I love to read and learn languages, to listen to music and chat with friends on Zoom about the Bible or development theory, I am finding these days a lot of joy in spending time on more physically present hobbies, rather than mental ones. Hobbies which, for this 23 year “old lady” are a pleasant return to things I used to love doing in my childhood: knitting, bread baking, long walks in quiet reflection. I am glad many people are learning these things for the first time. But for me, this has been less about developing new skills and more like putting on a well-loved, well-worn sweater and catching up with old friends.

As in any good quarantine household, there now sits a jar of sourdough starter on our kitchen counter, the lid poked full of holes and, often, a line and time written on the side in whiteboard marker. 11am, one inch high. 3pm, three inches high. After 6 weeks of careful cultivation, weeks of careful pouring and stirring and watching and spilling and waiting, my starter is thick and stretchy, spotted with bubbles that pop if I shake the jar and a slightly alcoholic, yet kind of sweet, yeasty smell. This is not my first go around with this baking ingredient and pseudo pet. In high school, I had a starter for a year or two but it sadly died off when I went to Switzerland for three months; sourdough requires you to give it love and flour weekly, if not daily. Life in residence and back and forth stints abroad have likewise prevented me from trying again but now, the slow, long days of working from home have given me the space to get back at it.

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But preparing my starter, affectionately named Khobz (Arabic for bread) is only the first step. Sourdough is an art that takes time and practice. Day after day I have measured out warm water and flour, gently squished the ingredients together in big bowls, carefully covered them in plastic wrap and damp towels, and waited (more or less) patiently for the dough to rise. When I go to do my laundry, all my clothes have bits of flour stuck to them; I always seem to miss some dusty white patch on the kitchen counter. This hobby is little bit messy.

I have been remembering that sourdough waits for no one and cannot be rushed or urged along. It is not something done on whim or without planning. While I often operate in whirlwind, fitting my hobbies in during bus stop waits, or in the 30 minutes between dinner and class, baking a loaf of sourdough begins 48 hours before I plan to eat (or gift) the bread. I have to feed the starter, make the dough, shape the loaves, leave them to sleep and rise in the fridge, bake at varying temperatures while taking lids on and off. It is a long process that requires a few minutes of attention in intervals of 30 minutes to 16 hours. It isn’t time consuming all in one go. But you have to be present.

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I got up at 4am to shape the bread after miss-timing a long proof. Sourdough waits for no one, slows for nothing. The next week, I spilt goopy starter on my laptop while trying to show it to a friend on Zoom. Sourdough is not a digital activity. Over the weeks, I have tested loaf after loaf, playing with lids and ice cubes and various temperatures, trying to get a crusty outside and soft inside with a labyrinth of holes. Sourdough is an art and an experiment. It requires me to be home, it requires attention, it requires touching and smelling and tasting to know just what to do next.

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Bread, the most basic of foods, has been helping me remember the powerful yet simple rhythms of time and patience, the mental peace that comes from kneading and working something out with your hands. For the sake of these lessons, I am grateful that we are an embodied people. We are not just our minds and our souls but we are whole bodied creatures who need to eat, to sleep, to move, to work with our hands. We learn and live through the five senses, through home-baked crusty bread and tight hugs from dear friends, from the smell of the sidewalk after a warm spring rain and the feeling of fresh cleaned sheets on our skins.

I live through the sounds of my roommates’ laughter below me as I try to fall asleep and of the neighbour practicing an instrument through the thin walls of our old crooked house in Sandy Hill. I taste red wine and think of Jesus, our Word who was there in the beginning, who created and knows the importance of embodied living…so much so that He came down to walk dusty roads and swim in cold rivers and feel the rumble of hunger in his stomach. I run along the river in the early morning fog, watch rabbits dart across the path, feel the chill of the wind on my cheeks and the burn of exertion in my legs and lungs; I sing the chorus of the best song on my playlist at top volume when there is no one else on the path. I knit for long hours, winding the yarn around my fingers to keep it taut, wrapping and dipping and sliding off stiches with the metallic click of the needles slipping against each other. I make coffee slowly, savouring the smell and experimenting with flavours. While my favourite to drink is espresso, I love the step-by-step of using my French press: measuring the water and waiting for it to boil, scooping out a heaping spoonful of fragrant grounds, brewing and straining and pouring out the coffee. I am resting by letting my hands work and my mind wait.

Online, I am struggling to connect with people’s disembodied voices and the long hours of working alone at my desk. I am remembering just how much of a whole-body human I really am,  how much I ache to be present with people and to go through the motions of daily life within the restraints of a 24-hour day. I am learning to slow down and be present here; I am wanting back the opportunity to be full-body present with my people. I have no idea what the world will look like tomorrow or next week or in six months and there are so many things I miss about normal. But I pray that when we emerge from our houses and get to be close again that we will lean into the physicality of our humanity, rather than see our COVID-tech adaptions as examples of not needing to be present together. Right now I am learning to slow down and bake bread; it is physically present activity. But so is loving people. I want to remember that when all is said and done.

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Bible Study

Most people hate Mondays because they mark the beginning of a work week. But this year, Mondays quickly became one of the highlights of my week. Monday evenings brought friends crowding into my living room, on the couches and on the floor, and even some standing by the door at first, so as to have an escape route if needed. Each week we gathered, a core group consistently and a rotation of guests intrigued and drawn to our funny mismatched group of Christians and non-believers. There would be chatter and shuffling and throwing off of coats as people got settled into their spots. Often someone would bring a treat: cookies, scones, chips. Mondays meant using every mug in my house for tea, an open invitation to bring along friends and quickly whispered prayers as I printed manuscripts 5 minutes before my pals arrived, prayers that the Holy Spirit would make up for my gaps in knowledge and, sometimes, for my woeful lack of preparation. And then, when most people had arrived and everyone had a pen ready, we would start. 

Together we would dive into the Bible, into the book of John. As we worked our way through the book, John became our trusted narrator and eyewitness to the miracles of Jesus; we knew he was on a mission to prove his thesis that Jesus is the Son of God. We contextualized ourselves as best as we could, trying to figure out what ancient Israel was like in John and Jesus’ time, what these events and words would have meant to people then and there. And then we jumped back to Ottawa, 2020, and we asked honest questions: some nit picky, irrelevant questions, some easily answered questions, some big picture philosophy questions, and some real life “more vulnerable than we maybe would have liked” questions about who Jesus is and what he was trying to teach each of us. All of us asked questions: those of us raised in the church, who felt like we should already have every answer, and those of us who had never read the Bible before, and all of us in between. We noticed themes, of light and darkness, of living bread and water, of Jesus knowing people intimately, of people asking and seeing and believing. We shared what we had seen that made us believe in Jesus, or what we would need to see, or what we were desperately hoping to see and had yet to. We sat in tension. We came together to study and we took it seriously but, we also laughed a lot. We became friends. 

And as we became friends, we chose more vulnerability and we learned more and more each week from the Word and from each other. A deep fondness for and trust in our group grew in my heart as we wandered through each passage. We became a team and as one of the leaders I learned to adapt to the strengths of my people. They didn’t need me to have prepared application questions or to drag observations out of people; they just needed me to show up. I trusted our team to navigate well together, to ask the hard questions and be engaged in trying to find answers. I trusted us to be ok with not always finding those answers, to be ok not wrapping everything up with a bow for the sake of simplicity. Unspoken, we decided to leave space to walk away still chewing a challenging question. As a leader, I trusted my team but even more so I trusted the Holy Spirit to keep teaching us throughout the week. That trust meant that I got to walk with people rather than ahead of them, to be vulnerable, to ask my own questions, and to be deeply blessed by conversations we had. 

This year, on Mondays, I fell back in love with the Bible and with my community. A mixed bag of experiences with manuscript studies before, I should have had low expectations. But in September, at the start of the year, God gave me vision for this Bible study. He told me He was doing something new, whispered that I would get to watch the Holy Spirit change hearts right in my living room. He gave me specific names of people who would be there (despite some of their own proclamations), reminders of how He desires to speak to His Children, promises of investment and consistency and engagement. And He has been faithful to those promises. 

God doesn’t have to let me play a role in His ever evolving story of redeeming humanity. But, thankfully, He is in the habit of letting His kids step into what He is doing, letting them see and participate in and be changed by His work, despite their (read, my) many flaws. This year, on Mondays in a small way, I think I got to watch and participate in and be changed by what He was doing through the Word in my living room. And dang, I am grateful. 

Walk boldly friends, into the places and with the people the Lord has given you vision for. It’s a gift and a joy to see the ways He is making all things new. Speaking of, the song “New Wine” by Hillsong has been a beautiful ongoing conversation this year between me and God. You should give it a listen.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:1-5