By Ella deCastro Baron
Three years ago, in October, I happened to be at the receiving end of a group e-mail when the prayer request was sent. A couple at a local church was pregnant and just found out their baby had been diagnosed with a fatal kidney disease. As I hit ‘reply’, all I knew to do was ask, “Will they let us pray with them?” The father of the sick baby boy let me call him on the phone that night. His answer to my question was, “Yes, the more people, the better.” Two dozen believers from different churches crowded into their condo the first night of prayer. And God moved in a mighty way to love baby Jacob and his parents, Rob and Kelly, by calling His people everywhere—traversing mountaintops to valleys, denominations all over California, the United States and around the world in South America, Africa, Israel, and Southeast Asia—to contend for Jacob’s full life here on earth, God’s will as it is in heaven.
We organized weekly prayer and intercession and directed this young family to healing rooms in San Diego and Redding wherever their faith and courage (and often, sheer desperation while we stood in the gap with our faith and courage) navigated. We met and prayed for over four months—while Jacob was in his mommy’s womb—beseeching the Lord for full healing and wholeness over his broken physical body. It culminated in the hospital delivery room several hours after Kelly went into labor.
I was led to share this Life story because this experience connects so clearly to Lifestreams Ministries’ Core Values of God’s presence, deep relationships, revival, transformation, sharing life, and Kingdom causes.
I’ll let you read what happened in the poem below, how God showed up to love this family in a Kaiser Hospital L & D room.
I wrote this poem, “Transubstantiation,” as a creative response to the wonder, joy, awe and mystery it is to join, arm in arm, and approach a loving, healing, all-powerful Father with the grace to say, “Here we are, needing all of you to cover all of us.” One of the images in the poem is the Communion elements, the bread and wine. Even before Jesus, in the Old Testament, the Israelites were offered bread for sustenance, manna. The literal meaning of manna is, “what is it?” When the Israelites were wandering towards the Promised Land, they had a daily choice to take the mystery of their life circumstances, the unknown before them, and accept it. Eating the manna each day was their Communion, their Eucharist, a thanksgiving, because in essence they were saying, as they took the manna into their bodies, “I accept this mystery, this place of not knowing what is happening or even if I can survive—this ‘what is it?’—and trust it will sustain me because you, God, are good and provide my every need.” Eating the bread and taking the wine, in Communion, is an act of giving thanks for God’s love and provision. Despite what we see and feel in the moment, God is enough. El Shaddai—the All Sufficient One—is always enough.
As you will notice, poetry is sparser than a short story or essay, and with intention. Since we will be launching Creative Writing workshops this summer as part of our values at Lifestreams, I thought it might be an interesting exercise for some of you to read the poem first, then the literary notes provided after, and then re-read the poem to see if you can hear, receive, and react to different levels of it.
For what it’s worth, when I do public readings of my writing to secular audiences, I don’t analyze parts of my faith like I did above. I want to respect the audience (who doesn’t know me personally) and am careful not to openly proselytize. I prefer the writing itself to create that space and urgency for conversation and engagement with sacred encounters. I believe it is a goal we should keep in mind as we share our stories with the world—to honor the listener’s right to receive what we are offering in a way that stirs their spirits organically—and the Holy Spirit discerns this and convicts so unfailingly! I do, however, always give brief intros/context to each piece. Here are the few notes I give before I read this piece:
This poem, “Transubstantiation,” is about a baby boy I had the honor to pray for. It is a journey from symbolic Communion to the possibilities of actual unity with God. I mention “lightning” in this because one meaning of intercession in Hebrew is paga—lightning. It translates as the part of intercession that is violent, that hits the mark. It is the powerful bolt of truth. Lightning also happens to be, as I found, both a solid and liquid in form; in other words, it is a state of plasma. Other forms of plasma are found in the spaces between planets; it is other worldly! Isn’t this so true about prayer?
Finally, the baby’s name is Jacob Emmanuel. The name Jacob means, “one who strives/wrestles with God” and Emmanuel, “God is with us.” This poem is a testament to what it feels like to wrestle with the elements of Communion, and how we don’t always feel grounded as we take in the bread and wine. This is faith. It is my small gift of manna offered to Jacob Emmanuel and his family.
for Jacob Emmanuel
Jacob, if this is what you choose, your mom will continue
to watch your skin bloom, newborn cries amplify
now exceptional lungs, your broken body mend
before our eyes, everything missing,
incarnate, rebuke medical prognosis
you are ‘incompatible with life.’
In the fourth hour, your mom and dad left
the decision up to you and Jesus. You could stay
with him—face to face—they trust you both.
Or you could join them here, in this life,
do Kingdom work together. You already surpassed
what doctors disclosed early on: he may not take
his first breath.
My Protestant aunt insists on this as heresy:
Catholics who dare declare transubstantiation;
bread and wine actually become blood
and flesh of our savior. What entitlement,
she resolves. Why would Jesus literally show up
when we need him most? We should live
in metaphors instead—incomplete
representations of what our deep spirit knows
as truth. If that were so, then all we do
to contend for your life are mere facsimiles:
sanctified sinners sing, pray and worship in dim rooms,
stand on scripture across continents, press
petitions into the Wailing Wall, fast (from food, water,
unbelief) make pilgrimages to healing rooms,
prophesy visions of you—a curly, dark-haired toddler,
words in white block letters, This baby will live.
Tribes converge at the hospital on Zion Street,
dedicate, petition, beg, war, shepherd, submit,
adore, flood your delivery room with ten thousand
years, bright shining as the sun. Your dad anoints
your head in oil, tears baptize soon after. Your mom
arrays you with the whole of her, wraps a prayer
quilt around your shoulders as you finish
the race, climb the ladder
towards your coronation.
You are sent to eternity with the profound sense of being
loved and wanted. Your parents know this best.
How could all this striving
be only symbolic? We neither
claim our blessing nor see goodness
in the land of the living? Everything in me says
it is not enough. We are made for more
than this. We are not like something
else. We are these clay jars,
filled and poured,
since your homecoming this prayer can’t hold still isn’t solid doesn’t fill a container like a liquid won’t disperse into the atmosphere as a gas. somewhere in between. a “both/and” state buckling and bowing. a plasma. maybe it will assume
the shape of this page
might slide slip wriggle yield from these stanzas. the pauses and periods. Paga, a Hebrew word for prayer—“lightning.” this—the violent part of intercession—to strike and fall upon. to reach the mark. did you know that lightning is plasma? other plasmas formed in earnest entreaty: the space between planets between star systems between galaxies. a bit closer to home (in case faith radiates terrestrial) there’s aurora borealis where this substance pours back into the atmosphere, just above true North, transubstantiated.
These are our prayers.
Unlike your transition, our wrestling
persists, hip sockets capitulate, feet
lose bearings. We find ourselves
prostrate on level ground. Eyes
stunned shut by stardust, our fingers
strain, perceive the risen
dough, the cup.
Here are a few notes on reading poetry (and reading this particular poem) that may help you receive this in a new/different way than when reading a personal essay or short story:
Poetry focuses on a refinement of language, form, and structure to use each word (and each space on the page) in the service of creating an image (or images). In more traditional poetry, we have been taught that the ends of the lines rhyme. This is not true in this poem, but the language does include a lot of lyrical and metric rhythm and rhyme. After reading these notes, if you read the poem again, try it out loud. Listen for internal rhyme (“dare declare…”) for couplings and small group of words that ‘sing’ together (are staccato, smooth together with “s” sounds, create a certain cadence, etc). Notice the images show vs. tell you what’s happening in the room (what song did we sing to Jacob? How do you know?)
You’ll notice line breaks and stanzas. These, too, serve a purpose. When the line ends, your brain processes a short pause, an anticipation of the next word, the next image, on the following line. Sometimes the next line is not what you expect or want (what do you do with that? Can you still receive it?). The stanzas (groups of lines) organize and pace thoughts in the same way paragraphs in essays do. Images offer a chance to provoke your senses, call forth an emotional reaction, and hopefully, make a profound connection to your mind, spirit, even body.
In this case, we know the narrative (story) is about a sick baby we prayed for. The prevailing image in this moment at the hospital becomes, “transubstantiation,” a belief in Catholic tradition that the bread and wine of Communion are not just symbolic but the actual body and blood of Christ. As you may sense, the narrator (in this case, me, an eye witness) is in a “both/and” space between heaven and earth, as this is often how it feels when we experience the miracle of labor and childbirth. It is the same “in between/straddling” feeling when we witness a death and Homecoming. Let yourself encounter this naturally supernatural space when you read the poem again. Let your spirit receive the images as you read, and see if your mind will be able to engage with the wrestling that takes place as our brains try to keep in pace with the realness of what’s happening before our eyes.
Another dominant image comes towards the last half of the poem with the help of form and structure. Notice one stanza has no line breaks and offers little punctuation. That is an intentional restriction of punctuation and line breaks (there are no breaks except for the one line that is actually trying to fill the width of the page as it says—like molecules spreading out). Read it as you see it: all in one breath if possible, only pausing briefly when there’s an actual period or extra space. This is how it felt to go through the revelation of praying in the paga form of intercession—a flash of power, hitting the mark, while also knocking us from this world to the next and back. In this quickening, there was no way to slow down the tumult of thoughts.
After that fluid-solid (plasma) stanza ends, we return to land. The line breaks become shorter so you, the reader, can slow down too, even to resting pulse. The narrator has become plural, the “we” instead of “I,” as it is in community. After all, “These are our prayers” is the only way we ended up on this holy pilgrimage together. We are still “stunned” by the journey (blinded by glory actually—“eyes stunned shut by stardust…”), now on our knees. We find ourselves back to the basic elements of life, the literal bread and wine. It is another moment of faith, to finger the manna in hand, to realize perhaps that it is no longer the mystery soul food, no longer a “what is it?” in the wandering but a deep knowing, an honest partaking of the body and blood. This, a thanksgiving.
The poem, “Transubstantiation” can be found in a publication of many poems by other Christian writers called, From Glory to Glory: An Anthology of Poetry in the Cathedral (Vol. 1) by Christopher Carstens. You can order a copy from Amazon. Here is the link:
For more reflections and wisdom on thanksgiving as Communion (eucharisteo), please read the book, A Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp.