As I type these words, sourdough bread is rising in the kitchen. My husband and I have been making our own bread for 12 years. In the spring we decided we were ready to try a new challenge: sourdough. So we ordered a starter from King Arthur—because theirs was started in 1789, the year the American Constitution was signed, and I am geeky enough to think it’s super cool that I have something that old living in my refrigerator.
But having a sourdough starter is a bit like having a cat. It’s mostly self-sufficient, but you still have to feed and water it. Hence this weekly routine:
Yesterday, I pulled my storage starter out of the fridge and divided it. Half I fed with flour and water and returned to the refrigerator. The other half I fed with flour and water and let rise on the counter. Later in the day I fed it again. Before bed I put it in the fridge. This morning I pulled it out of the fridge. And now, I am turning it into bread: I just finished mixing still more flour and water (and a little salt) with the sourdough starter.
In an hour, I will give the slightly risen dough two business letter turns (think of folding a business letter in thirds, and then doing so again) and let it rise for another hour. Then I will rinse and repeat. After that second rise and the third pair of business letter turns, I will let the dough rise for 5 or 6 hours, until it’s doubled. Then I will shape it into rounds and let it rise for another 3 or 4 hours. Then I will bake it.
Every time I make this bread, I think good grief, this is a lot of work. But when it comes out of the oven and I slice through its shattery exterior—sending crumbs of hot crust shooting like sparks all over the counter—and then through its soft, chewy center, and when I slather it with salted butter and especially when I bite into that slice of buttery sourdough goodness, well, I never think man that was a lot of work. I only think how good it tastes. And then I grab my knife and the butter and have a second slice. And maybe a third.
Obviously I think it was worth it because I go and do the whole 36 hour process again the next week.
My weekly sourdough making gives me a small and prosaic picture of my life with Christ. Growing in the knowledge and love of God takes effort. A lot of effort. And a lot of time, too. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of the effort and not seeing a whole lot of baked bread coming out of the spiritual oven, I think good grief, this is a lot of work. And I wonder if it’s worth it because I’m tired and the fruits of my efforts seem pretty slim, like sourdough that’s rising too slowly to see.
But just like the sourdough, something is happening, something small but growing, and eventually it becomes visible—always. Sometimes this takes a long, long time, much longer than the 36 hours of sourdough prep, but it always happens in the end, and I can look back and be oh so grateful that I stayed the course and didn’t quit.
And of course, there are steps along the way when I do glimpse progress, as when I can see the flour and starter of my life get watered by the Spirit and kneaded together to make a lovely satiny dough where before there was only dryness or glop.
Or when I show up in the kitchen after five hours and there is the dough in the bowl, risen all the way to the top and it’s clear that something was happening in all those seconds and minutes after all, even though I couldn’t see it and thought it wasn’t.
The past year and a half have been at once some of the most exhausting and also the most exhilarating months of my life—because I am growing. From day to day I’ve not seen much growth—and some days I feel like I’m shrinking! (Most days I could not figure out why I was so tired; I could not see the growth, so I did not know it was happening, but however interior the work of growth may be, it is still work, and work requires energy.) But over the course of many months, I began to see that God was at work after all, that my new habits of thought and being were (and are) bearing fruit by His grace and with His help.
I have shed much of my habitual anxiety. I know more and more freedom from anger. My desire to be scornful is slowly withering, and I have compassion on people I would formerly have denounced as fools or worse. I pray for people I don’t like, and not in the smug superior way I used to, but genuinely. I don’t do any of this perfectly. At all. Some days I do it very, very badly. But even so, I can sometimes glimpse the person I might become if I keep to this path. I can see that I am becoming a different kind of person than I used to be.
Spiritual growth is hard work. Far harder than making sourdough, that’s certain, but making sourdough has become a metaphor for me.
Making bread each week I am reminded that my smallness is a gift, for the kingdom of God starts small, like those particles of yeast I cannot see, and grows into something beautiful and nourishing and delightful.
Making bread each week I am reminded that working toward a goal with patience and perseverance (“pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”) yields good things—and is absolutely worth the effort involved.
Making bread each week I am reminded that Jesus is the Bread of the World
—and that having Him I have all I need.
Each week, my Lord is made known to me in the making of the bread.