Monday, March 01, 2021

sourdough at the end of the world: a contemporary missiology from Ecclesiastes

I attended a workshop on Sunday. With a rapid change in lockdown levels announced overnight, the workshop began with reminders of 1-metre distancing, hand sanitiser and contact tracing.

The workshop was about growing your own mushrooms. So following the health and safety was a whirlwind tour through lifecycles, Latin names and local varieties. After an hour and a half of mycelium and mushroom substrates, it was time for a break.

sourdough as mission The workshop facilitator announced cheese, sauerkraut and bread. “Homemade and sourdough” he announced, proudly whipping the tea towel of a loaf of beautiful bread. Despite the vulnerability of life in a lockdown, he’d still found time for sourdough.

Later, as the event was closing, the facilitator was asked if there were plans for a future workshop. “Next month,” was the reply, “unless the world ends first.” It was a window into the widespread anxiety being generated by this global pandemic.

The making of sourdough at the end of the world makes sense of some reading I was doing today. John Prior served as a Jesuit priest in Indonesia at the turn of the 20th century. The unravelling of a military dictatorship had resulted in acute economic distress, widespread social disruption and a rise in ethnic and religious tension. Prior observed a church that in response to polarisation, was becoming insular and ethnocentric. In the face of such widespread instability, it was easier to tend to their survival as a small sub-group.

Prior writes of his surprise at finding wisdom in the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is the “bleakest of the canonical wisdom books” (11). Yet Prior found important insights for being church today – a contemporary missiology for a church facing unpredictability.

It is a complicated article, so let me summarise under three headings – who are humans? who is God? how then to live, especially in times of rapid change and increased polarisation?

Who are humans? In Ecclesiastes, humans are caught in a “precarious, bewildering world” (19), in which new technologies and rapid changes have rendered “a world populated by mono-dimensional beings” (11). The result is widespread feelings of powerlessness in a somewhat arbitrary, rapidly changing world. Prior finds resonances between the themes in Ecclesiates and the poor and marginalised in Indonesia. And as I read Prior, I found resonance with experiences of COVID – our sense of bewilderment amid ever-changing lockdown levels, our sense of being powerless in the face of a virus that can’t be seen, the shifts online that seem to zoom-ify humans as “mono-dimensional beings.”

Who is God? The God revealed in Ecclesiastes is an elusive God of surprise. God is beyond human conceptions, not bound by religious conventions and human prejudices. Yet despite the unpredictable of life, trust in God is not misplaced. Life might be chaotic, but this God is not bent on harm.

How then to live? Prior finds in Ecclesiates a “survival ethic” (17-8) which is good news for those who feel powerless. We remain alive to the world. Work is to be valued, yet we refuse to be defined by our jobs. This comes as we enjoy every scrap of life and value a creation ethic in which all that live “under the sun” have worth. We find wisdom through our shared and sustained human reflection on experience.

The result, says Prior, is that Ecclesiastes offers “a modest, guide to mission” (21). This modest mission finds value in every small action. In the wonderful poetry of Ecclesiastes 9:4 “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” This result is a “transformation of powerlessness into creative activity” (18).

Which suddenly made sense of sourdough, that joyous murmur among us all as the teatowel was removed, the loaf revealed. It makes little sense to bake if indeed our world is ending. Yet the simple act of making is work that offers dignity, hospitality and the value of life.

Importantly, Ecclesiastes provides a way to live with difference. For Prior, Ecclesiastes chooses to “negotiate, think through and dialogue with opposition view points” (18). This comes through dialogue, the affirmation that two are better than one. The aim is a “sympathetic co-existence” with those with whom you differ (Prior, 19).

I’ve simplified what is a close and detailed article. You are welcome to find it – John Prior, 2002. “When all the singing has stopped” Ecclesiastes: A modest mission in unpredictable times. International Review of Mission, 91(360), 7-23. Or, you are welcome to simply enjoy the power of making sourdough as an act of mission. Not to impress, or convert, but to modestly affirm the value of life, amid the exhausting vulnerability and increased polarisation so common to our pandemic human experience.

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Posted by steve at 05:20 PM

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