muffins as metaphor


    I made English muffins today for the first time since last summer.

    Since classes are over at Duke, my work schedule and location has changed, putting me back on the lunch shift at the Durham restaurant, and making the muffins, which are our hamburger buns. The recipe has several steps that require some attention. First, I mix warm water, honey, and yeast, add some flour and then some more flour, then eggs, oil, and salt. I let it rest for twenty minutes and add more flour and let it rest again, this time until it doubles. Then I roll out the dough, cut the muffins, and let them rest another twenty minutes before I brown them on the flat top and finish cooking them in the oven.

    At least that’s how I did it today.

    We have a handwritten recipe that goes back to the opening of the restaurant and the guy who taught everyone to make the muffins. His notes provide the basic framework, but we have made changes – adjustments – as we’ve gone along, tweaking the recipe to make it work better. For instance, when I first learned to make them last summer I was told to let the dough rest thirty minutes. Today the guy who is the main lunch guy told me he had learned twenty minutes made for a better muffin. At least that’s what works for now. It will change. Trust me.

    As I was dusting my little corner of the kitchen with flour (I’m a joyously messy cook) and trying to adjust my baking ritual to adapt to the new things I had learned, I thought about a passage I read last night in Eat, Pray, Love that talked about the role ritual and metaphor play in faith. Gilbert began by telling the story of a Yogic saint who had a cat that wandered around and disturbed meditation so he tied it to a pole during the practice. His habit of controlling the cat became an expectation of his followers such that when the cat died (after the Yogi did) they didn’t know how to meditate because the cat wasn’t in place. She continues:

    Be very careful, warns the tale, not to get too obsessed with the repetition of religious ritual for its own sake . . . it may be useful to remember that it is not the tying of the cat to the pole that has ever brought anyone to transcendence, but only the constant desire of the individual seeker to experience the eternal compassion of the divine. Flexibility is just as essential for divinity as discipline.

    Your job, then, should you choose to accept it, is to keep searching for the metaphors, rituals, and teachers that will help you move ever closer to divinity. (206)

    Whether a kitchen or a congregation – or any other organization, when we gather ourselves in groups we move toward codifying the way we do things, creating rituals and recipes to make sure we do things right. Often, I think, the things that become written in stone or scripture or on recipe cards began as metaphors of discovery and imagination – statements of faith – but, once passed down, become statements of the status quo because perpetuating the institution rises higher and higher on the agenda. I’m not sure there’s any way around it.

    But we don’t have to succumb to it.

    The basic movements I made this morning matched those I made a year ago, but I had to pay attention to how I did the familiar steps to make them work. There, in the baking of the bread, I learned again that life are faith are mixtures of all that changes and all that stays the same. I don’t allow either to remain vibrant if I hold to close to the letter of the recipe, not allowing for anything new to come into the mix.

    It’s the breaking of the bread that is the vital ritual for me in worship – our most enduring ritual of faith. Tonight we sat with a group of folks from church over coffee and the conversation turned to some of the different ways we celebrated the Lord’s Supper during Lent and the way different people responded to the varying modes. On our walk home, as Ginger and I continued the conversation, it struck me that Communion also needs to be tweaked, if you will, to stay alive. Or perhaps it’s better said that I need my heart tweaked when I come to the Table, since the point is not for the congregation to adjust to me but for me to take my place in the recipe that is my community of faith and adjust to the mix that we might make of ourselves a joyful offering to our God.

    At least that’s what the muffins told me.



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