This Sunday morning began as many have since the start of our COVID life: me in the kitchen, greeted by the sweet and yeasty smell of bread dough left out to rise overnight; bread dough that now begs to be punched down and formed into new shapes for a second rising. I pull out my bread pans, deciding what shapes and forms this batch will take, wondering just how many rolls I can measure out from the dough, weighed against how much time I have to spend with the dough this morning. Rolls take more time to weigh out and form and place in the pan.
The rhythm of working the dough is never identical but includes the same asynchronous steps. The wet dough is sticky and clings to my fingers as I pull it from the bowl and drop it on my floured work surface. There will be working more flour into the dough until it feels right, rolling it in my hands to take the measure and feel of it before deciding if it still has too much air or not enough flour in it. Then I shape it and add it to the greased pan. At different intervals I’ll have to wash my hands clean of the dough that can’t bear to be separated from me. Other times, I’ll smooth my hands against each other to free them of the smaller bits that have caked themselves like beggar’s lice after a successful hike.
As I choose the pans and forms and begin, I think of the people I will encounter during the week and who I’ll have the joy of giving a loaf or round of rolls to. Who have I not given bread to yet? Where am I going this week and whom am I seeing? I can’t help but smile as I think of the faces of my future, those friends and family members, some coworkers and some not, who will cross my path and share with me their lives. I see them and their families. I see their work and their play. I see their gifts and talents as well as their struggles.
That’s where the prayer begins to pour out as a song to the rhythm of my work. I decide who I’ll be taking dough to in the week ahead and give thanks for their lives. I think of how we know each other, what we’ve done together, what we’ve dreamed for each other, what has passed between us for better or worse.
This Sunday I saw the two faces of dear friends and fellow priests with whom I have the honor of working. One has managed leading our church family through these COVID times with great grace, humility, and humor. The other began her much-deserved sabbatical on Monday and so has begun her own new journey of study, rest, and self rediscovery. I saw the face of a woman I’ve known most of my life and whose boys I’ve watched grow up in our church. She shares her gifts to create innovative formation and learning opportunities for everyone in our church family and I give thanks for her vocation and dedication. She was charged with filming me ramble on about God and grace and unconditional love and the murmuring in the wilderness, ramblings that I get to justify by labeling them a “sermon.” What an amazing job I have!
I also saw the face of my brother, with whom I’ve spent my entire life and owe more than one scar to as well as plenty of memories of laughing until it hurts. I saw his wife and precious children and lamented that we don’t get to see each other often enough but such is life in these COVID times. I also rejoice already for the times that we will have in lighter days to come.
It takes hours, depending on how many rolls I choose to roll and form versus full loaves. The music plays over my thoughts as my thoughts become prayers and my prayers lift with the smell of the yeast and sweetness and eventually with the baking as the dough transforms into bread.
I’ve learned not to rush this process, especially the baking. I might think the loaves are done because there is a light brown tint to the tops, which look firm enough. But if I remove them too soon, they’ll collapse into a mess, truly half-baked and not ready for the world.
So too with my prayers. If they are rushed they will collapse just as quickly and bring as much dismay and frustration. These prayers are the scaffold of my spiritual life. Speed up the process and there won’t be enough fortitude to them to hang even a hat on. Wait for the right moment, for the sense of beautiful completion, and they can hold any manner of things.
The best moment is when I can smell the bread and know it’s done. Same with cookies and other things I bake on a regular basis. No timer needed nor will it help. There’s a moment when the aroma escaping from the oven hits just the right notes on the nose, on the spirit, and I know it’s where it needs to be.