The Elements

This post is part 4 in a 7 part series of relflections as I turn 25 years old. I’m convinced that to be human is to struggle and to struggle with God. This series serves to honor the difficult questions. I don’t know if everyone has questions their mind continually turns over while they walk the dog, shower, drive to work, but these are mine. I’m hopeful that in 25 more years I’ll have more compelling, more faithful answers to them than I do now – or that I’ll have moved on to more interesting things altogether. Either way.


This whole world is always changed,

Every time we draw a breath,

Coming up and out of dust,

We’re children of the elements,


Communion Table is a painting by Nigel Wynter

The elements are the parts used in the Lord’s supper, the bread and wine. People argue about whether they’re symbolically or literally the body and blood of Christ. What does it mean to take them? What are they?

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6)

The ending of this essay is a poem I started writing back in February. I’ve only just finished it. This essay is my way of exploring what the elements mean. It is an essay intertwined with a poem. It is a bit long, but I hope you might stay with it.

It is my own rule of thumb to smile and nod uneasily whenever anyone has a good grasp on what it means to be saved and on who is being saved and who isn’t. The shortest way to say what I will say below is what Thomas Merton has said.

That which is essential never imposes itself for love is always offered, it’s never
imposed, and that which is unessential is constantly imposing itself.

I was born in the house of God,

Scraped my knees on the alter steps,

Cut my teeth on the bread and wine,

A child of the elements,

Jesus told us it is those who eat his flesh and drink his blood (take the elements) who have eternal life. If we believe our Father desires all to be saved, as he says he does, it seems to me he offers these sacraments, this flesh and blood, the place to believe and be changed, to all his children. He offers it to those born in the church, and those born outside – in what Marilynne Robinson (borrowing from Ezekiel) calls a “field of blood.” I think we’re are all born in a field of blood. There are a lot of fields of blood, and they look pretty different from each another.

And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. None eye pitied thee, to do any of these unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, to the lothing of thy person, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live. (Ezekiel 16)

Some of us grew up going to church every Sunday. That doesn’t mean we’re not in a field of blood. What does it mean for us to recieve the elements – to take the bread and wine, the flesh and blood?This is a deep mystery. Thomas Merton once said, “The next time you receive the Eucharist, you should realize someone’s taking perfectly good care of you.” Well that’s not so hard to say for us who grew up in church and filed through a communion line every week, or at least a few times a year. What about those born outside?

You were born in a field of blood,

To bear the storm where the earth was bent,

Your mama drowned in a sea of pain,

A child of the elements,

When I was about 18, I read a book called “One Thousand Gifts” by Ann Voskamp. I really liked the challenge of listing out a thousand gifts, and I think I even made it to about three hundred and fifty. But I was deeply unsettled by some of the other things she said. Essentially, she claimed that all was gift. Whatever happened in life was a gift from God. She even told a story about a boy getting his fingers whacked off in a farming accident, and she searched for a way to see it as a gift from God. I found that a bit troubling, and I still do.

It seems she’s claiming that bad things are actually good things if we can be grateful for them. That seems a bit crude, a bit masochistic even, to me. Still there is the question: is God holding himself out to us in suffering? I’ve been listening to James Finely, a spiritual director who studied under Thomas Merton, and he says this.

As true as this is, and it is true, it is true, but it doesn’t mean when we’re suffering that we’re not really suffering. It doesn’t mean that the risks aren’t real. It doesn’t mean by human standards everybody makes it. As a matter of fact, many people don’t. And so, there’s the raw reality. See, there is a way we don’t transform trauma. There’s the brutality which trauma transforms us in really brutal ways. It’s like being burned alive, but it’s not just terrible, see? God writes straight with crooked lines. And out of the suffering deeply walked with patience, and courage, and the givens out of it, the miracle arises.

A few weeks ago, I was part of a small group playing a game where we were given cards which had prompts related to our faith on them. And a student was asked on his card if he believed in miracles, and he told us he was Catholic, so yes he did. He told us that he saw two miracles every week when he went to mass and took the Eucharist, when the blood and wine transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ.

And on his water bottle was the word “timshel.” I asked him about it, and he began explaining to me what the word meant. I replied that I knew what it meant, but I was curious why he had it. His preist, he said, had told him about the word and about the passage in Steinbeck. Remarkably, I reached down and pulled the very text, East of Eden, out of my bag. Timshel. I suppose it is timshel whether or not to choose to believe that very occurance was a miracle. Much like taking the eucharist I think.

The passage in Steinbeck is as follows: [‘Why is this word so important?‘ Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. ‘Don’t you see?’ He cried. ‘The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel – ‘thou mayest’ – that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘thou mayest’ – it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not,’ Don’t you see?’…Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and through their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.’ Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.”] (Steinbeck, pg. 303).

And here is where I disagree with Ann Voskamp. The tradgedies which befall us, and the horrible sins we commit against each other, these are not gifts. Yet they do meld together with everything else to create our situation, and it is here we may choose to meet God. I think he is ever present, ever offering us the elements, if only we would receieve them and meet him at the table. What it means for me and for my neighbor to do so may look widly different.

When, long ago, a rather hard hearted people stumbled around in the desert turning their back on God, God gave them a miracle so they could receive the bread. It seems the Old Testament God always gets typed as the more stern God when we get down to it. And it seems to me that if God made it rain bread in the sand so a stiff-necked people whom he loved could receive the eucharist, there is little reason to suppose he cannot and would not and does not offer the bread to every other whom he loves. And does he not love us all?

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11)

The elements which he gives us – that we may recieve them and live – who is to say what they look like? Perhaps it is today and always timshel. Always, the bread is set before us. Always, we may choose to take it. Always, we may expect it. And never, never are we to know what form it may take – whether bread raining down into the sand, or unleaven bread baked and plated in tupperware, or plasticky wafers in small plastic cups, or the love of a stranger, or a cup of warm coffee, or a sunrise. Always. If only we would recieve it.

And these elements never impose themselves on us. Nor can we ever impose them on one another. When Christopher Columbus came to America and converted the natives to Christianity, killing most of them in his wake, that wasn’t God reaching out. That was a sinner imposing his religion. That which is essential never imposes itself.

Peace and wrath,

Storm and calm,

The field of blood,

The alter steps,

All of these,

The elements,

We shall take,

And resurrect,

Would you like to know what I find very odd? It is that at the same time we believe God loves all people, desires all to be saved, and yet we still believe folks have to follow our formula to receive eternal life. It really makes God into a rather stern old fellow who must only be bent on saving the folks like me; folks who take their body via wafer and blood via Welch’s.

We so often fall into believing that to be saved means to ask Jesus to come into your heart. And to do this, you naturally need to be in church and hear a plan of salvation and repeat a sinner’s prayer. And, if possible, it would be really good if you walked down an aisle and then wrote the date down in the front of a KJV Bible. But has it ever occured to us this isn’t really possible for most people who have ever lived on earth? For some, this compels them and their Christian brethren to get on with it! Start getting red carpet aisles built in China, and translate our sinner’s prayer into Hindu, teach every tribe and tongue how to do VBS!

Once I heard these very well meaning folks present at church about how they’d been courageously taking Christianity into an Asian country and come upon a city with a lot of Buddhist temples. After some prayer, they left the city. When returning later on, they were amazed that an earthquake, or something, had taken out much of the city and destroyed many of the temples. This they thought was a powerful act of God decimating the Buddists due to their Christian presence there! It’s a bit like that terrible children’s song: I’ve got the belief that will baffle the best of the Buddists down in the depths of my heart. I think there is a really strong possibility that isn’t what God is up to.

I wonder what if we actually believed the elements were already offered to all God’s children? That maybe they too were able to meet him outside the context of padded benches and ugly carpet. Could it be that Jesus loves the children of this country and all the other countries enough that he actually made a way they could reach out and find eternal life?

These to us are all familiar,

Tastes of life, the taste of death,

Not our first time, nor the last,

Children of the elements,

I was practically born in church. My first memory of communion is driving home from church with my grandparents and snacking on the leftover unleavened bread in a tupperware container. I remember being about 4 years old and giving powerful sermons from the pulpit to an imaginary congregation while my mom cleaned the church. It makes me shudder to think God loves me so much more than most of the other kids in the world that he put me in a church and put them in places where they don’t know they’re supposed to make unleavened bread and drink it with Welch’s.

I don’t exactly know what the elements mean. Does it become Christ’s blood and body in my mouth – is it just a symbol done in remembrance? Does it need to be plasticy wafers and juice? What about the kids whose parents make them live on their own? If we’re all born in a field of blood, and it’s up to the Lord to rescue us out, how come he only chooses the kids with churches in their neighborhoods? Or maybe that isn’t really what it means to be saved at all. Maybe we’re all children of the elements, maybe we meet Jesus in mysterious ways. He certainly didn’t come to us as anyone expected the first time – I don’t know why he would now.

“Elements”

This whole world is always changed,

Every time we draw a breath,

Coming up and out of dust,

We’re children of the elements,

I was born in the house of God,

Scraped my knees on the alter steps,

Cut my teeth on the bread and wine,

A child of the elements,

You were born in a field of blood,

To bear the storm where the earth was bent,

Your mama drowned in a sea of pain,

A child of the elements,

Peace and wrath,

Storm and calm,

The field of blood,

The alter steps,

All of these,

The elements,

We shall take,

And resurrect,

These to us are all familiar,

Tastes of life, the taste of death,

Not our first time, nor the last,

Children of the elements,

References:

East of Eden – John Steinbeck. 1952.

Lila – Marilynne Robinson. 2014.

Turning to the Mystics (Podcast) – James Finley. 2020.

Published by javenbear

Javen Bear is 25 years old and lives with his beautiful wife Aleisha in Phoenix, Arizona. He recently entered a mental health counseling graduate program at Grand Canyon University where he also works as an admissions representative. Javen’s super-power, if he had one, would be the ability to press pause on the world and catch up on reading. He enjoys talking walks with his wife, playing guitar, and always uses Oxford commas.

2 thoughts on “The Elements

  1. Hey! It’s interesting to hear your thoughts as you mull about on this topic. I am curious what you believe the role of Scripture is? I see a lot of conjecture from very few verses… how does the rest of Scripture agree or disagree with your stance? Do you believe that we are to take Scripture as a whole? If so, what about verses like John 14:6 and Romans 9:18,22-24? Just a few thoughts…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, purelily. You point to a tension – how can God desire all to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and still chose to harden some? It is a difficult thing.

      Still, if you read a few lines further in Romans 9, you see this: even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? 25 As he says in Hosea:

      “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;
      and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”[i]

      26 and,

      “In the very place where it was said to them,
      ‘You are not my people,’
      there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’”[j]

      While these things are hard to understand, it seems clear to me that when we’ve so clearly defined who is saved and how to get there that only folks in certain areas, of certain skin colors, speaking certain languages, etc could possibly be saved, we’re missing it.

      What I’m getting at here is the revelation of God from himself to the world. Could it be he presents himself to us (and others) in unexpected ways? Could we (and others) receive and meet him in unexpected ways? I think so.

      From Romans 2:

      They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

      Like

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