I became an ordained minister this past Sunday. While it is not always the tradition to do I decided to speak at my own ordination. The preparation for this ‘sermon’ was different than how I had prepared for a sermon in the past. My guiding thought was not about communicating the meaning of some particular text but in communicating a sense of how I understand my role and my calling. As such the sermon developed more along the lines of ‘imagination’. It was, I guess, poetic. I sat somewhat uneasy with that direction. I became concerned that it was too pious or was just some pretty window dressing. My hope was that it was an inhabitable imagination that would draw, challenge, and invite change for those who heard it.
Well, in any event, here it is. Based on Psalm 42:1-2, 7-8.
During the act of ordination this morning you will hear the language of call and calling being used. In the Mennonite church we hold a high view of how the community of believers helps to recognize the gifts and abilities of each other and how God is calling each of us to use those gifts and abilities in the world. And without question there have been many people who have encouraged, supported, and guided me in my sense of calling. These words of support and affirmation can come as surface breaks of how God is calling from the cavernous and deep spaces below and within us. And when we talk about calling we can hardly think about it apart from language. Calling must come in a recognizable form, right? But listen to the writer of Psalm 42. The writer begins in the soul.
My soul thirsts for God
When shall I come to behold the face of God?
And how does God speak?
Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your waterfalls
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me
This is one of humanity’s many expressions of encountering that which cannot be controlled, examined, or articulated in its immediacy. It is rendered, second-hand, by the image of the waterfall that speaks its own language or power and presence. Perhaps this imagery should be lost on a land-locked prairie boy but it reminded me of walk I took out on a field in winter. At one point in the walk I lay down on the hard tilled ground and looked straight up. It was literally a crystal clear day. I could see no trees, no clouds, and no birds, not even the earth beneath and beside me only endless cool blue light. If my eyes focused at all it was on the tiny specks of dust that floated on the thin layer of moisture coating my eyes. Looking up was not so much a sight but an experience of being engulfed.
So while individuals and circumstances have helped shape many particular decisions in life these decisions have almost always been towards this other type of calling; this call to the spaces where the internal language of the deep moves within and around us. I have come to believe these can be holy spaces.
This morning I want to share two images that have shaped my understanding of deep calling unto deep. The first image names that reality that this call is often muffled and strained through thick darkness. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness is set at the turn of the twentieth century as the British Empire expands its trade reach into Africa in search of Ivory. The story unfolds as a sea captain named Marlow travels deep into the Congo to help a crew investigate some mysterious disappearances. Conrad explores the corruption of power and greed within the mysterious darkness of then unknown Africa which culminates in Marlow’s meeting with Kurtz, a rogue Ivory trader. In the story Kurtz symbolizes one who has seen and experienced the darkness of humanity. By the time Marlow reaches Kurtz, Kurtz is already ill and dying. Marlow is mesmerized by this dying figure who manifests the struggle of the soul to comprehend unspeakable tragedy. And as Kurtz dies he breathes his final simple words, the horror, the horror. Marlow travels back out of Africa and returns to Europe where he pays a visit to Kurtz’s fiancé. She is still grieving and is eager to hear anything she can about Kurtz. Attempting to comfort the woman, Marlow accidently mentions that he was present to hear Kurtz’s final words. The woman begs to hear what those words were. Marlow could not bring himself to speak his words and tells her instead that Kurtz’s last word was her name. Though the woman appears to be comforted Marlow is shaken by his inability to tell her the truth. He goes on to say,
It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark – too dark altogether.
We know there exists in moving and shifting shadows a darkness that can haunt us and take destructive forms. This is part of life and I hardly need to give examples of the manner in which this darkness descends onto lives, families, communities, and nations. When deep calls to deep it can be unintelligible because these calls exist in places too dark for our comprehension, too inscrutable for our language, and too bound by our fears. So we, like Marlow, sidestep those spaces propping ourselves up with pat answers, pacifying distractions, deflective humour, or emotional withdrawal. And life is such that many days we could hope for little more. But our faith asks that we learn, not how to name that darkness, but how to gather around it so that the Spirit of God might speak, might call from it. It is from darkness and chaos that God speaks the world into creation in Genesis. It is into a cloud of darkness that Moses enters as he ascends Mt Sinai. And it is into the darkness of death Jesus descends at the crucifixion. These are spaces where the echoes of deep calling to deep often resound.
So while our faith teaches us not to fear the darkness of trauma or despair it also calls in other places. It calls to us so that we might give shape to things not yet unrealized; it is a call to possibility, to creation. There is beauty, joy, and surprise in being attentive when deep is calling to deep. The second image is from the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where James Joyce invites us into the experience of a young man named Stephan Dedalus. One scene provides a striking imagine of Stephen wrestling with something that he cannot see or understand but something that remains not only present in his life but something that also demands his attention, something that appears to be calling to him. Joyce writes that as Stephan,
brooded upon her image, a strange unrest crept into his blood. Sometimes a fever gathered within him and led him to rove alone in the evening along the quiet avenue. The peace of the gardens and the kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence into his restless heart. . . . He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other . . . perhaps at the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured.
This scene begins with unrest. Something in the current order of things does not satisfy. There are forms and images within him that call for new expression. But how? He doesn’t know. He believes though that the unrest itself is faithful and will in fact encounter him if he attends to it; if he gathers himself to it.
In the same way that we avoid aspects of trauma or despair lingering in the deep we also, perhaps surprisingly, often stop short of gathering over the spaces of longing, desire, and possibility. Too often we place those desires on the shoulders of our spouse, our children, our work, our tradition, our status or some other expression that was never built to carry such a call. And when those forms no longer feel adequate for our desires we want to move on to another form that was also never meant to hold the breadth of our desire. When deep calls to deep it will not be satisfied until it is allowed expression on its own terms and this often comes with a particular vulnerability and openness to what is new. But when it comes and is allowed its own fidelity then perhaps, as Joyce writes, in that moment of supreme tenderness we would be transfigured.
I wanted to share these two images of deep calling to deep because I see in them spaces for us to gather so that we might hear God’s call and give shape to God’s vision. I share these images now because as a church you have called me to a position of leadership both locally and with ordination also in the wider church. And so I wanted to share with you my hope of learning more of what it means for us as individuals and as a community to gather around these spaces of deep calling to deep. We do this so that,
our suffering might find comfort,
our artists might find inspiration,
our families might find joy,
our poverty might find justice,
ours wars might find peace,
our struggles might find hope,
and that our deepest desires would be birthed in new forms of love.
It is my prayer that this time of worship, this act of ordination (which is an act of the church), and our taking of communion would form such a gathering so that God’s call would be formed and take shape in our lives. Amen.