By Elena Johnston
I’ve been doing a lot of sourdough baking lately. It’s become something of an obsession. I tend to do that. I’ll latch onto an idea, and go a little crazy with it. The idea just grows and grows until it seems permeate everything. And then, while I’m busy marvelling at the wonderfulness of my latest obsession, I’ll burn the supper. Knowing this about myself, I try channel my enthusiasm in useful directions. Hence the sourdough. Sourdough pancakes, sourdough pizza, sourdough biscuits, sourdough muffins, and even sourdough tortillas. The muffins need a little work, but sourdough corn tortillas are surprisingly good.
I suspected that good would come of this hobby, but I had no idea just how much good. I expected to make some yummy bread. I didn’t expect to find a deeper understanding of the gospel.
But there you have it. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a sourdough starter.
When Jesus compared the Kingdom to a tiny bit of leaven that leavens the whole lump of dough, I guess I always pictured a pinch of baking soda. All I heard Him saying was something along the lines of “a little goes a long way”–true, but rather trivial.
But of course there was no Wal-mart in first century Palestine where a housewife could buy a tidy little tin of baking powder, or single-use packets of dry active yeast. Just sourdough.
And a sourdough starter really is rather like the Kingdom of Heaven. Living and active, permeating the inanimate dough around it, infusing it with its life and unique character, so that when it has all risen, any reserved pinch of dough is sufficient to carry it on to another lump of dough. Infectious.
And the leaven of the Pharisees… oh, beware the sourdough starter of the Pharisees! For bad ideas are this way, too, spreading rapidly, persistently popping up where you least expect them. Beware the sourdough starter of the Pharisees.
I’m starting to understand a little better, too, why leaven would play such a crucial role in the Feast of Unleavened Bread. I always pictured Jewish wives preparing for Passover by throwing away their jars of baking soda, and it never made much sense. Why would it matter, and why would this be associated with spring cleaning? Why do you have to clean your whole house to get rid of the leaven, and why would a leaven-free house be particularly clean anyway?
It makes a lot more sense when you consider that leaven isn’t a neatly contained substance–it’s an infection. A very valuable and useful infection indeed, but it really does take on a life of its own. And so it was that once a year, the Israelites were to disinfect their homes, to begin anew, fresh and clean.
Getting rid of the sourdough starters must have been a profound sacrifice, a very genuine starting over. San Fransisco sourdough has endured for the last 150 years or so, and bakeries today still use and preserve the same wonderfully distinctive sourdough colony first cultivated by miners in the Gold Rush. There’s a strong element of continuity and tradition involved in the baking of sourdough bread, but the Children of Israel started over every year. A powerful lesson in living lightly, I think. When God says it’s time to go to the promise land, you just get up and go. You don’t wait for the bread to rise, you don’t worry about how you’re going to transport your starter. You just go. You pare things down to the bare essentials, and follow the pillar of cloud. Don’t bother about the sourdough. Just eat matzo.
More and more, I’m discovering that so much of the gospel is built right into the structure of the world, into the way things work. All nature is God’s handiwork, and His truth is embedded deep within all that He has made.
Jesus said to consider the lilies of the field, and sure enough, the more I consider the lilies of the field, or the wildflowers of the bayou, the more I come to understand how to trust in God. Likewise, motherhood has taught me what it means to wait for Christ’s return as a woman in labor waits for her deliverance. And this year I’m starting a garden, partly because I want fresh veggies, but mostly because I know I’m not grasping the full impact of Jesus’ planting analogies.
In our society, we have the option of insulating ourselves from almost every experience of the world. And oh, it’s so very tempting. There are a lot of important reasons to resist the urge to live in an increasingly virtual reality, but I think that one of the most important reasons is that if we only have man-made experiences, we cut ourselves off from God’s truth. Scripture makes very heavy use of nature analogies. Can we really access its full meaning if we’re cut off from the experiences that form the basis for its metaphors?
When we thoughtfully engage with the created order about us, we give the living and active Word of God opportunity to permeate every part of our being.
Like a sourdough starter.
Elena Johnston is an alumna of Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute. She writes church music and obsesses about philosophy of education in Houston, TX, where she lives with her husband, Andrew, their four children, and her sourdough starter. ‘