Take This Bread

I haven’t baked bread since college, when I went through a brief but intense baguette phase, baking pan after pan of slim loaves, wrapping them in dish towels while they were still hot, cradling them like babies in the crook of my arm, arriving at friends’ houses and neighbors’ homes with still-warm, crusty, golden bread.

This fall, something in me felt compelled to start again. All this talk of bread and wine made me want to knead, bake, break open — steam escaping, crust cracking. It’s fall, which brings out a little melancholy, I think. And it’s a season of great change in our home: our boys are turning from baby to toddler and little boy to big. Mac’s first birthday is this month, and Henry just started kindergarten. one bright Monday morning a few weeks ago, he put on his Superman backpack and climbed up the big stairs of a yellow school bus, and that was that: our boy is big.

Maybe it was the change in the air, or the changes under our roof, maybe it was the nature of writing—so much activity in the mind and the heart and the fingers, and sometimes you have to close the computer and live in the world again: flour, salt, water, roaring hot oven, butter melting into the steaming crags.

I began to bake bread, loaf after loaf, flour in my hair and cuticles, my well-loved red dutch oven put to work for the rising, and the sweet Cath Kidston tea towels we brought home from London this summer pressed into service over the rising dough.

When the first loaf came out of the oven, hot and crusty, the whole house smelling like Heaven, I almost cried. It was the strangest thing. I make plenty of things that are much more difficult, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s the simplicity that got me, not the difficulty.

That first loaf did not seem to be going well — the rising seemed halfhearted, and I had myself steeled for a failure. But when I opened the oven, there it was, a gorgeous, crusty, piping-hot loaf that I showed off, bursting with pride, to my mother and my mother-in-law. I was like a child with a project — I made this! I made it from flour and water! All by myself!

It felt like an epiphany, a discovery. I wanted to tell everyone I know. I started making loaf after loaf, every chance I got. I ate it with butter and jam, with cheddar and Dijon, with goat cheese and honey, and mostly just plain, fresh from the oven, so hot I burned both my fingers and my tongue and kept eating anyway.

I’ve been a self-professed non-baker for a long time, but that’s all over now. The signs, really, have been pointing that way for some time. I told myself that the toffee and the mousse aren’t really baking — more like melting and whipping. But now my once-a-year-only-at-Christmas gaia cookies have started appearing in all seasons, the breakfast cookies have become a staple, and Nigella’s brownies are making frequent after-dinner appearances. And then my over-the-top summer-of-blueberry-crisp forced me out into the open: I’m baking, people, and not occasionally. But this is it: this bread is the final step. This bread has made me a baker.

Baking bread feels so deeply right, on so many levels, like going back to the beginning. I’ve been making risotto and reducing balsamic on the stove, caramelizing onions and whipping cream for mousse, dredging chicken for a curry and shucking corn to be grilled. But before all that, under all that, at the beginning: there was bread. The element, itself, the most basic building block: bread.

While I measured and kneaded, while the dough rose, while the oven reached a screaming 450, I let my mind wander: Why does it matter? Why does food matter? Why does the table matter?

Food matters because it’s one of the things that forces us to live in this world — this tactile, physical, messy, and beautiful world — no matter how hard we try to escape into our minds and our ideals. Food is a reminder of our humanity, our fragility, our createdness. Try to think yourself through starvation. Try to command yourself not to be hungry, using your own sheer will. It will work for a while, maybe, but at some point you’ll find yourself — no matter how high-minded or iron-willed — face-to-face with your own hunger, and with that hunger, your own humanity.

The sacraments are tangible ways to represent intangible ideas: new life becomes something we can feel and smell and see when we baptize in water. The idea of a Savior, of a sacrifice, of body and blood so many centuries ago, fills our senses and invades our present when our fingers break bread and our mouths fill with wine.

We don’t experience this connection, this remembering, this intimate memory and celebration of Christ, only at the altar. We experience it, or at least we could, every time the bread and wine are present — essentially, every time we are fed. During that last meal, that last gathering of dear friends and disciples, Jesus was inviting us to gather around a table and remember, in church buildings and outside of them, during the sacrament of Communion and outside of it.

When you offer peace instead of division, when you offer faith instead of fear, when you offer someone a place at your table instead of keeping them out because they’re different or messy or wrong somehow, you represent the heart of Christ.

We tend to believe that what we’ve done is too bad — that our sins and mistakes are beyond repair, and our faults and failures too deep and ugly. That’s what shame tells us. But if we take a chance and come to the table, and if when we are there we are treated with respect and esteem and kindness, then that voice of shame recedes, just for a little while, enough to let the voice of truth, of hope, of Christ Himself, get planted a little deeper and a little deeper each time. The table becomes the hospital bed, the place of healing. It becomes the place of relearning and reeducating, the place where value and love are communicated.

When the table is full, heavy with platters, wine glasses scattered, napkins twisted and crumpled, forks askew, dessert plates scattered with crumbs and icing, candles burning down low — it’s in those moments that I feel a deep sense of God’s presence and happiness. I feel honored to create a place around my table, a place for laughing and crying, for being seen and heard, for telling stories and creating memories.

I do sometimes feel a sense of God’s presence when I write, or when I listen, or when I read the Bible. I often feel that sacred flickering when I hold my baby, or when I kiss Henry’s eyelids when he’s sleeping. I feel it when I look across the lake or when I see the ocean. But more than anything, I feel it at the table.

Body of Christ, broken for you. Blood of Christ, shed for you. “Every time you eat the bread and drink the wine,” Jesus says, “remember Me.” Communion is connection, remembrance.

My friend Shane says the genius of Communion, of bread and wine, is that bread is the food of the poor and wine the drink of the privileged, and that every time we see those two together, we are reminded of what we share instead of what divides us.

In our tradition, we take Communion as a part of the church service every month or so. We pass a plate of bread, and another with tiny cups of wine — juice, actually. The taste of grape juice always reminds me of church, because until I had children, that was the only time I ever encountered it. We also celebrate Communion in less formal places — at a camp, or on a retreat. It isn’t terribly uncommon to take Communion together in a makeshift way, in a home or a backyard or on a beach, one person reading the Scripture, another passing the bread and wine around a circle of friends, a small group, or a team that serves together.

I believe the bread and wine is for all of us, for every person, an invitation to believe, a hand extended from divine to human. I believe it’s to be torn and handled, gulped. I believe that we can practice the sacrament of Communion anywhere at all, that a forest clearing can become a church and any one of us a priest as we bless the bread and the wine.

And I believe that Jesus asked for us to remember Him during the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine every time, every meal, every day — no matter where we are, who we are, what we’ve done.

If we only practice remembrance every time we take Communion at church, we miss three opportunities a day to remember. What a travesty! Eugene Peterson says that “to eyes that see, every bush is a burning bush.” Yes, that, exactly. To those of us who believe that all of life is sacred, every crumb of bread and sip of wine is a Eucharist, a remembrance, a call to awareness of holiness right where we are.

I want all of the holiness of the Eucharist to spill out beyond the church walls, out of the hands of priests and into the regular streets and sidewalks, into the hands of regular, grubby people like you and me, onto our tables, in our kitchens and dining rooms and backyards.

Holiness abounds, should we choose to look for it. The whisper and drumbeat of god’s Spirit are all around us, should we choose to listen for them. The building blocks of the most common meal — the bread and the wine — are reminders to us: “He’s here! God is here, and He’s good.”

Every time we eat, every time we gather, every time the table is filled: He’s here. He’s here, and He is good.

Excerpted with permission from Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist, copyright Shauna Niequist.

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Your Turn

Fall is just around the corner. Kids are back in school. Schedules are normalizing. Wouldn’t this be a great time to plan dinner around the table? With family. With friends. With neighbors. And, even to take communion together and let the wine and bread remind us… He is here! God is here, and He is good. Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We would love to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full

Shauna Niequist

Shauna Niequist grew up in Barrington, Illinois, and then studied English and French literature at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. As an author and blogger, Shauna writes about the beautiful and broken moments of everyday life - friendship, family, faith, food, marriage, love, babies, books, celebration, heartache, and all the other things that shape us, delight us, and reveal to us the heart of God. Shauna is married to Aaron, who is a pianist and songwriter. Aaron is a worship leader at Willow Creek. Aaron and Shauna live outside Chicago with their sons, Henry and Mac.

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