Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Salt & Bread

“In Germany,” explained a German member of our congregation, “it is traditional to give as housewarming gifts bread and salt… you know, so that they will always have bread and salt. Get it?” I didn’t get it. Was there something lost in translation?

We were helping one of our dear sisters move into a safer apartment across town. As we worked we frequently shared cultural differences and similarities relating to hospitality, welcome, and friendship. In the southern states of America, we give casseroles when people are moving in. Come to think of it, we give casseroles for just about every occasion in the south. What’s up with that? In addition to a casserole you might also get a pounding—a scary sounding possibility when you first hear of it! Just to clarify, a pounding has nothing to do with the infliction of physical violence. Rather, it involves friends and neighbors bringing you a pound of various staples, such as flour, sugar, and, hmmmnnn…. bread and salt. Maybe the bread and salt thing is not so different after all.

There is, however, no special meaning to these items when given in the US, other than filling your pantry with possibilities for cooking. With the bread and salt in Germany, I would soon learn, there was more to it—something symbolic. When pressed for clarity, my German friends explained bread symbolizes basic sustenance for life. You give bread as a symbol of the hope that this house will never be without food. Salt is flavor. To give salt is an expression of the prayer that those dwelling in this new home will ever have lives full of flavor, fully lived, full of life. Beautiful! What a grand symbol of hope and hospitality, of desiring the best for someone else’s life!    

This also explains why the parsonage pantry was stocked so full of bread and salt when first we moved in! I mean, MAN that was a lot of bread!

While this practice is rapidly dying out on the younger generations, I deeply hope its spirit will endure. At its heart, the bread and salt are about offering blessings. When do we ever say a blessing over another’s life? Symbols or not, most of us living within western culture no longer actively speak blessing on others. Why did this practice ever fade away? Why did a behavior so detailed, called for, and exemplified in numerous biblical stories just up and move away from mainstream culture?

Some may not be into casseroles, shame on you for that by the way. We may not want to vex our friends and neighbors with bread and salt. We may not want to utter some religious sounding “bless you brother” over those we love. We can, however, bless. I think that blessing boils down to speaking words of lavish and idealistic hope into the lives of others. Blessing is when, for no reason and for no occasion, we simply speak words of encouragement and well wishes for a person’s life and future. These good words are good for the soul—both ours and theirs. They remind all of us that part of being human is fearlessly hoping the best for our fellow creatures—for the person beside you in the checkout line, the neighbor, the soul in the next pew, the drunk begging for change on the corner of First and Main.         

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