Growing Grace Podcast: The Longest Night

What if you could step outside your door and find a space for connection with yourself and God — a time apart to center your soul and renew your spirit. This podcast invites listeners to get out of their heads and out into nature by engaging in contemplative prayer practices and meditative activities that support spiritual formation and emotional wellbeing.  Welcome to Growing Grace.

I am your host, Cameron Kempson, a spiritual director, homesteader and contemplative.  Tonight, our topic is the Winter Soltice or even more specifically, the Longest Night.  Several years ago, I attended a Longest Night service at a local Episcopal church. I was moved by the opportunity to step into the darkness of Advent and into my own spiritual “night” and be with others who were seeking a glimmer of light or hope or peace in the midst of pain or struggle or loneliness.

After that moving exerpience, I began leading Longest Night service at my church, only to find that over time, the numbers dwindled.  I know that there are people out there like me, seekers of light in the darkness, and sometimes, it can be a challenge just to show up in order to have our souls fed. 

And so, I’ve chosen the Longest Night service as a way to dive into hosting a weekly podcast. If you have found these words at this time, I hope they move you or touch you in some way that brings you closer to your Creator.  I invite you to just be.

here I am, let it be with me

Mary is my girl. I’ve been sitting with her during Christmas for years now, and each Advent season, I come to learn more about God, her and myself through her story. I’ve preached on Mary as the pregnant teenager in my high school homeroom, as a brave young woman resolute in her faith, and as each one of us journeying into the unknown. I have studied her through art, scripture, and song, and I keep coming back to her like reconnecting with an old friend over a cup of tea.

Several years ago at a church leadership gathering, we were introduced to the concept of “call to serve” by looking at a variety of images of the Annunciation–the announcement of Gabriel to Mary that she would bear the Christ child.

I sat with the various renderings for quite some time but could not move past John Collier‘s contemporary version. It unsettled me. It made me feel uncomfortable. Was it because I saw myself in her at that age, the bookish girl, naive and unsure. Was it because the artist portrayed her as such, rather than as a young woman knowingly nodding at an angel as if to say, “I’ve got this.”

John Collier’s Annunciation

As a part of our leadership activity, we were asked to select which picture captured how we felt about our call to serve. I was so haunted by Collier’s image, I could not choose it, and instead, I selected Julie Vivas’ painting from the children’s book, The Nativity.

Julie Vivas portrayal of the Annunciation from The Nativity

I mean, look at her. Mary as a homesteading woman sitting around her kitchen table sharing stories with Gabriel. A perfect fit!

And yet, for the entire retreat and the Advent season following, I couldn’t move past Collier’s piece and its blatant reminder of Mary’s youth and inexperience.

Why is it that we envision Mary as somewhat older, somewhat more self-assured, somewhat more prepared? Is it because we believe that Mary had to be an “old soul” in order to have that kind of faith in God’s call for her? Is it because we can’t bear to think of a girl in her mid-teen years having to take on such a socio-cultural burden? Is it because it’s more comfortable for us to look up to Mary as a role model if she is stronger or more knowing or more comfortable than perhaps she really was?

The beauty of the Collier’s painting is that it captures the essence of what God teaches us about faith, not only through Jesus, but through Mary as well. We don’t have to be perfect or wise or resolute to ponder what God is calling us to do. We can be uncertain of or intimidated by God’s choosing us. We may even feel unworthy–who am I in all my messy chaos to be chosen for a purpose such as this?

This morning in my Celtic Daily Prayer book, I was catching up on the last few days of scripture and commentary. On December 11, they note:

God is not easily impressed, but then He never asks us to try to impress him. It is as if he turns to us when we are consumed with our own unworthiness and are tempted to avoid meeting with Him, and He cuts across all of our excuses and says, ‘Relax, I already know you.’

I wonder if Mary felt that as she stood there with Gabriel receiving his message–the comfort of being hemmed in by God in preparation for a journey unknown. The expectation, not to be perfect or “just right” but to be faithful and trusting.

The young Mary can be that reminder for us in the story of the Annunciation: God already knows us. We just have to be willing to stand there humbly, meeting God as we are, and say, “Here I am. Let it be with me.”

a psalm of harvest

God of Bounty,

We offer thanksgiving to you

in this season of harvest.

For the food you created,

for the rich soil that sheltered the seeds

for the morning sun that warmed them

and for the gentle rain that nourished them.

We offer gratitude to those

who gathered the crops

with callused hands

and pray for their health and welfare

as caretakers of your earth.

We remember your call for us as

stewards of your creation.

May we offer thanks and praise to you

by caring for land, air and water

and by sharing the bounty you provide

with those who seek a banquet of blessings.

We lift up Thanksgiving in the name

of our Creator and Sustainer.

from Growing Grace: A Book of Psalms Celebrating Creation by Cameron Kempson