During the first Melbourne lockdown around Easter 2020 I began baking bread. One of the first items to start disappearing from supermarket shelves was bread (after toilet paper…) and with shops overwhelmed by panic-buyers rushing in to get everything they needed for the apocalypse it was generally easier to make do with what we had at home instead daring the crowds. So I started baking.
Soon it became a regular part of my week. My boys devoured bread and it saved us money to make it ourselves instead of buying it. I also enjoyed the challenge, and for me bread-making became a kind of lockdown therapy. This year, I expanded my repertoire to include sourdough – something of a COVID-era cliché, but I’m okay with that. The whole process of making sourdough is a delight and a fascination, and the bread I can make now is far better than any that I ever made with regular yeast. It also gives scope for so much spiritual reflection: the slow process that we simply need to trust; it happens, with remarkably little interference from us. Even the making of the starter culture is simply a matter of patience and perseverance: knowing what to do, keeping on doing it each day, and trusting that one day it will work.
But recently it prompted a new reflection. I joined a Facebook community of amateur sourdough bakers called “Daily Bread” and this made me think, of course, of the line from the Lord’s Prayer, “give us today our daily bread”. This is particularly pertinent for me at the moment, because my three boys are growing in body and appetite and so I really am baking a loaf of bread every night for the day ahead. What, I found myself wondering, does this mean for the prayer for my “daily bread”? I am making it myself, after all. So what does it mean to pray for it nonetheless?
Well, obviously I know that Jesus was not only talking about bread. “Daily bread” means the things we need to sustain us through the day, and it must also make us think of the verse in Deuteronomy 8:3 that Jesus quotes back to the devil in Matthew 4:4 – “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” But there is also a very real sense in which He was talking about bread. Bread, after all, was a staple food in the ancient middle eastern world, much as it is today in many cultures, and to pray for your daily bread meant a recognition both that your bread came from the hand of God and that you were to rely on Him for the day’s provisions and not fret about the days beyond.
So, when I pray for my daily bread, I am not denying that I have a responsibility to procure that bread. If I can work, then I should do so, and then I must either buy or make the bread. The process of making it myself does not place me in a position of lesser reliance on God; it simply makes me a co-worker with Him. He gives me what I need to make the bread, and He could take it away any time He chose. I am dependent on Him each day for the very basics of my survival.
Yet it struck me, as I thought about my own bread-making, that Jesus originally spoke these words to a people who would always have made their own bread. There would have been no Baker’s Delight in the ancient world – no news-flash in itself, but not something I had ever given careful thought to. If you lived in their day, your daily bread would always have come from your own oven, your own fire, your own hands doing the kneading and cultivating the yeast. Every step, perhaps even the growing and grinding of the grain, would have been your own work. And yet Jesus taught: ask God for the day’s bread.
In modern Western culture we are undoubtedly cut off from the processes of food production. We go to the grocery store and buy bread that someone else has baked, from flour that someone else has milled, from wheat that someone else has grown. In baking my own bread, making my own sourdough culture, I am more aware of that process. Yet I am no more in control of it. The time that I accidentally left the culture fermenting in the oven after I turned it on to bake bread, turning it into a burnt-out jar and a strangely shaped crust at the bottom of the oven, reminded me of how easily the work of my own hands can be destroyed. When my children throw their bread on the ground outside, I am reminded again. I make the bread, but I am not in control.
So when I mix up the flour, salt, water and culture each night, I can remember: God has given me everything that my hands are mixing. When I place it in the oven in the morning, I can remember: God has given me this new day, and the opportunities that it presents; He has given me the family to feed; He has given water to the crops that have given me the flour. All things are from His hands to mine.
But I can also remember: God has called me to use my hands to participate in His work. When I ask for my daily bread, God provides, and then He calls. He gives me the opportunity to be part of the process, to feel His creation at work, and to participate in this symbol of the kingdom of God slowly at work, like a tiny bit of leaven working its way imperceptibly through the dough…