Letter 46: Sourdough Jesus

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Last Spring, I decided to learn how to bake bread.  When I was a kid, I baked a couple of loaves from a recipe my aunt gave me, but I had done nothing since.  I thought it would be fairly easy, mix up the four, water and yeast, let it rise for a bit, and then bake.  This proved grossly optimistic.  I tossed several loaves before I finally baked one fit for use.

Along the way, I did learn many things about bread and bread baking that expanded my understanding of Scripture.  In the Old Testament, of course, bread is an important part of worship, as special loaves were baked for the priests to present to God and then consume as their daily bread.  Bread stands as a symbol of sustenance, and a key element of fellowship.

Most significantly of course is Passover, the Feast of Un-Leavened Bread.  For years, I thought I understood Passover.  Jews were required to eat bread without yeast.  That seemed easy enough.  The yeast causes the dough to rise, so matzos are flat.  Except there was no such thing as yeast back then.

Our word “yeast” comes from the middle ages.  People believed it was the bubbles that appeared in fermenting grain or liquids.  Scientists first observed yeast through a microscope in the 1680s.  It was not until 1850, however, that Louis Pasteur successfully isolated yeast and identified it as a living organism responsible for fermentation.  Within ten years, scientists developed a process for the manufacture of yeast for commercial and domestic purposes.  Fleischmann demonstrated this yeast to the American public during the Centennial celebrations in 1876.  The rest, as they say, is history.

So how did they make bread without yeast?  They didn’t.  We now know that yeast is naturally occurring in the air, on the ground, and even on the very grains ground to make bread.  Almost five thousand years ago, our ancestors discovered that if you ground grain, mixed it with water, and left it out for a couple of days, it would start to ferment, creating hundreds of tiny bubbles, that could yield a substance that we much more pleasant to eat.  With time, they took things a step further, reserving some of the fermenting dough to use in the next loaf.  That reserved portion was called the “leaven,” or if you want to be fancy, “levain.”

A good leaven was valuable, an absolutely essential requirement for any household.  Travelers would carry their leaven with them, usually in a pouch, close to their person.  It might be passed down through the generations.  Even after commercial yeast took over retail baking, the use of leaven remained.  It is the foundation of San Francisco sourdough.

This is what the Israelites were forbidden from using to make their bread during Passover.  More importantly, they were ordered to remove the leaven from their homes (Ex. 12:15b).  They would need the leaven to make their bread after Passover, but it takes time for the leaven to develop.  In the interim, they were literally trusting God for their daily bread.

In the hands of Jesus, the Passover un-leavened bread becomes something more.  In Christ’s hands, it becomes his very Body, the Living Bread.  Just as the yeast in bread dough, unbaked, is alive, so Christ is alive in us, suffusing us and enlarging us.  He has become the “Mother Dough,” replicating Himself in the lives of every one of His saints.

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Letter 45: Cupcakes and Wide Phylactories

Yesterday was my wife’s birthday, and I took it upon myself to bake her birthday cupcakes.  I like to bake, and I have even begun to venture into the world of baking from scratch.  But that applies only to things I am quite familiar with, bread and cookies.  From long experience with packaged mixes, I know roughly what I want, and what to look for.  But cakes remain a terra incognita of sorts, and so I entrust myself to the wisdom and industrial science of Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines.

But it was not merely a boxed mix.  It appealed to our higher aspirations.  It contained special frosting mix and a genuine icing bag to use in frosting the cupcakes.  My efforts at laying on frosting have been less than successful, but armed with such tools and directions, I had hopes that I, too, could create a confection worthy of the finest bake shops.

My efforts yielded some perfectly ordinary cupcakes.  It took me until my fourth cupcake to apply the frosting so that it completely covered the cupcake with one go.  In the end, some did not get frosting at all, but I had my one cupcake to properly decorate and present to my wife replete with candles.  I was pretty pleased with how it turned out, because I wanted to do something nice for her.  Before I brought it in to her, I took a picture.

And therein lies the trouble.  I wanted to post the picture to Facebook, that repository of the odd effects of our lives.  So in part, my motivation for posting the photograph was to show how we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, sharing a bit of our loves with family and friends.  But I wanted something too.

At first, I was going to introduce the picture apologizing that it was not on par with the work of a cousin who is a professional baker.  That would shift the focus from celebrating my wife’s birthday to the cupcake.  Worse, it would make the present of the cupcake to be less than what it was.  No, I could not say that, so off those words went into the ether.

But I could not let go of the desire for people to admire my cupcake, and, by implication, me.  So I tried another tack, attempting to describe my labors as producing something worthy of my wife.  Again, this subtly shifted the focus.   “Please look at my cupcake, and sing my praises for making it.”  A voice cleared in my head.  This would not do.  The focus and the point must be about my wife.  So I simply wrote, “Happy Birthday Dear,” and left it at that.

All of this took little more than a minute in the privacy of my mind.  It seems somewhat contradictory sharing it here, as if trying to draw attention to my virtue.  But I do offer this because I really wanted people to tell me what a wonderful cupcake I had made.  It speaks of the vanity that is in us all, sometimes masquerading as a sense of emptiness that needs filling, and brings me to the point I want to make.

In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul tells us, “Let Christ himself be your example as to what your attitude should be. For he, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And, having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal. That is why God has now lifted him so high, and has given him the name beyond all names, so that at the name of Jesus “every knee shall bow”, whether in Heaven or earth or under the earth. And that is why, in the end, “every tongue shall confess” that Jesus Christ” is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phillips, emphasis mine)

I’m wondering if that is what is meant by “carrying our cross.”  It wasn’t so much that Jesus suffered, though He certainly did.  It is more a sense of forgetting of self, not, as I often do, because of a sense of self-negation and an earnest desire for approval.  Rather, Jesus so thoroughly full of Himself, and understood Himself completely, that there was no need to pay attention to Himself in that way.  The usual ups and downs that so assail us in no way changed who He was.  Secure in that, He could, and did, do anything, and underwent the slings of outrageous fortune in no way changed the fact that Jesus was God, even if no one else chose to recognize Him as such.

As we close out the year, this episode brought to mind that I should work on cultivating that same sense of self-forgetfulness.  That no one will have to ask if the cupcake was good, because the focus is on the recipient, where it belongs.

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Letter 44: The Christmas Earthquake

While stuck in traffic due to highway constructions, I was reflecting on some of the Advent readings my wife and I have done for our morning devotions.

Isaiah 40 is one of the classic texts announcing the coming of Christ, and it is full of terrifying imagery.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:3-5 KJV)

The thought occurred to me that Isaiah is describing an earthquake.  How else might the mountains and hills be made low, and the valleys exalted?  We use bulldozers and steamrollers to make the rough places a plain, forcibly moving earth, conforming it to our will.  This is what God is accomplishing in Christ.

Mary’s song echoes this sense of upheaval:

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. (Book of Common Prayer, after Luke 1:46-55)

 

Old Simeon, too,  senses the turmoil God is unleashing on the world.  ‘And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”’ (Luke 2:34-35 ESV)

In still another Advent reading, John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17 ESV, see also Matt. 3:11-13)

It seems strange that we can read these passages year after year, and completely miss the unsettling message.  God is about to upset everything.  We shall be forcibly reordered to comply with His will.  Christ comes to save, to comfort, to heal, and to winnow.  That we should be brought low for the glory of God never seems to make it to our Christmas messages.   No wonder God intersperses these states with words of comfort, and the exhortation to be not afraid.

In olden times, Christmas celebrations captured something of this tumult.  It was the time of year to remind the world of Christ’s second coming.  The Twelve Days of Christmas were often marked by the rule of the Boy Bishop or the Lord of Misrule, as the last were made first, and the first last.  After Epiphany, the old order reasserted itself, and life went on as it always has, but we were given this glimpse that something could be different, indeed, we were told that one day it would be different.

This sense of disruption carries into the very person of Christ.  He is born King of the Jews, yet there all the power of the universe lay in that manger, helpless and small, soiled in His own excrement, unable to hold up even His own head.  He existed as both God and Man in one indivisible person, an offense to the minds of Greek and Jew alike.  He would, in the end, most greatly demonstrate his power by submitting to the power of others.

This is what He offers us.  Are we willing to be upended?  When Christ came, though much and long expected, most people missed Him entirely.  Would I do likewise?  We pride ourselves on our ability to know all about God, and how to recognize Him.  But are we any different?  He comes to upset the status quo, to shake the earth, and we do not wish ourselves to be shaken.

Christmas is perhaps the most realistic religious holiday of them all.  If the story is told straight, Christmas posits that we inhabit a world filled with profound darkness and death.  For all our yearning for hope and change, they elude us.  But, there is grounds for and unlikely hope.  God Himself has intervened to set the whole of Creation to rights.  Christmas commingles joy and sorrow and invites nothing but trouble because it ends in a world without tears or night or temple, for the dwelling of God shall be with Man.

J.S. Bach concludes his Christmas Oratorio with a stirring chorale, “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen.”  The music is triumphant with trumpets sounding and tympani’s thundering, echoing the words of victory and vengeance.  As you listen closely, the tune is familiar, and entirely out of place.  It’s the “Passion Chorale.”  This is the point of Christmas.  This is the foundation of our Hope.  Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  Amen.

Bach: Christmas Oratorio Finale

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Link: On Sanctified Sentiment

The author below takes deadly aim at the abundance of sentimentality in the Christian subculture.  Indeed, much of it is treacle.  However, methinks he stray too far into snobbery, mostly by failing to consider approachability.  Yes, nearly all of George Herbert and John Donne can be read, understood, and loved by the ordinary person.  This is not always true of either TS Elliot or Gerard Manley Hopkins, both of whom I have struggled to understand.  If you need extensive commentary or annotation to be able to understand it, the ordinary person never will unless begrudgingly compelled.

 

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Letter 43: A Prayer for Election Day

Almighty God-

We acknowledge that you alone are sovereign, that all power and authority are yours.  You have established governments here on earth to better order our public lives by upholding justice.

You have blessed us with the opportunity to choose our governors.  Guide us to choose wisely, seeking to do justice, not just to ourselves, but also to others.  May we consider our neighbors, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and those yet unborn.

Help us to see past the claims, to discern the truth about our circumstances and those who would see to lead us.  May we not be swayed by honeyed lips and silver tongues, speaking words we want to hear.

For our land struggles, the abundant riches You have given us.  Too often, we yearn for a King, a man on horseback to lead us, to solve our problems, to make us great.  We forsake You.

We pray, too, for those would will govern us.  Endow them with wisdom and courage to do justly, and to love mercy.  May they be humble, knowing the limits of their power.  May they seek to unite, for the public good.

Finally, we pray for each other, that we would see our fellow citizens as our fellows, and men and women made in your image, and dearly loved by you.  May we work together for the shalom of our city an our world, until such time as You come again and claim the kingdoms of the earth for thine own, that peace would reign in our streets, and want shall be no more.

Amen.

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Letter 42: Interlude

Since Sunday, this hymn has been playing through my mind.  We live in a world that wishes to alarm us at every move.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

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Letter 41: Can I Get a Witness?

For the past several years, I have attempted to grow herbs for my wife to use in her cooking.  I have had mixed results.  We had some early success with basil, but then it abruptly died, and last year’s crop was wiped out, twice.  The parsley grew, but never became bountiful.  Our chives took over a year to amount to anything, and my wife often forgot that they were available for use.  I killed our first attempt at rosemary.  Our thyme flourished late last year, but has either died or gone dormant.  I am not sure which.  Only the oregano has flourished.  I am hoping for better results this year.

It has been a humbling lesson.  I have some control over the process.  I can water the plants and do my best to see that they get sufficient sun, but that’s about it.  Pests, drought, torrential rains, and cloudy days are outside my power.  Then too, the seeds might be bad.

Our pastor has been urging us to be seeking souls to win to Christ.  Echoing the prayers of one “Praying Hyde,” he has exhorted us to implore God for “Just one soul, Lord, just one soul.”  He points us to Jesus’ command to go and make disciples.  Preferably we would then prevail upon them to worship with our congregation.

But how do we do that?  I am aware that we are supposed to attest to the truth of the Gospel in our lives, and share this good news with others.  The hidden implication is that without the Gospel, those around us are condemned to an eternity in Hell.  Thus, by not winning their souls, we are damning others.  But I can’t bring myself to go out and start telling people about Jesus.  Whenever I’ve come across people with such a focus, I am generally repelled.  I try to avoid them when I can.  If I can’t stand such people, why should I wish to become one?

I wonder if I am a bad Christian for failing in this missionary mandate.  I mean I certainly don’t wish to condemn anyone to Hell.  I do believe in the life-changing power of the Gospel, but I want people to be interested in it of their own accord.  What if they’re not interested?  I will not force it down their throats.

In I Corinthians 3:5-9, Paul draws on an agricultural image to describe the process of evangelism and discipleship.  One plants, another waters, and God gives the harvest.  We are each responsible for our part in the process, but only our part.  God is ultimately responsible for the harvest.

I take great encouragement from this.  It is not incumbent upon me to bring in souls.  I am responsible for keeping my eyes and ears open for the opportunity to bear witness to God’s work in Christ.

This requires, I think, some sensitivity to the people we encounter.  The path to faith is not the same for everyone, nor do we experience God in the same way.  For example, God drew me gradually, over the course of a year.  There was no point at which I “made the decision and came on down.”   If you hit me with the Four Spiritual Laws, I think I might have fled.

All of this is a long way of saying that your witness depends much on your relationships.  It is the people you see every day to whom you will most often witness, if only unconsciously.  The better you know them, the more you can share, and the more they will invite you to share.

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