The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, the Revd. Dr. Roger Walton and Rachel Lampard MBE, speak about the Nativity, Syria and unpromising situations in this year's Christmas Message.
The full text can be read below:
The shabby collection of rooms was perched on the edge of a steep hill above Amman in Jordan. We were visiting a family of Syrian refugees who had just had a baby, and were being helped by funding provided by the Methodist charity, All We Can.
A woman, who we assumed was the grandmother, answered the door and invited us in. We sat on the floor, along with a local health worker. The father appeared with the baby, Yosra, and three other small children. It turned out that the woman was not the grandmother, but rather the mother of the family. She was just in her 30s, prematurely aged by the privations and stresses of recent years. They had left Syria four years ago, and now lived in a couple of basic rooms. The three children were similar ages to my own, but were tiny. As a refugee the father was banned from working and the family was reliant on support from a charity in order to be able to survive.
What an unpromising situation they were in. The family were underfed, with very little prospect of being able to improve their circumstances. They were desperate to go back to Syria, but recognised that this was unlikely any time soon. And their tiny baby, who slept in my arms, faced growing into adulthood in a foreign country, in poverty.
And yet. When we asked the father of the family what he wanted for the future, instead of talking about better housing, more food, or even a return to Syria, said "I want my children to be the best people that they can be". It was breath-taking. A family were facing immense poverty and dislocation, yet had the highest hopes for the character and contribution of their children.
A similarly unpromising set of circumstances surrounded another young family less than 50 miles away in Bethlehem two millennia ago. A young girl had given birth to a baby, far from her home and her family, in an outhouse, shared with animals. She had become pregnant outside marriage, and was only rescued from shame and rejection by her fiancé taking on a baby that wasn't his. Ahead lay real danger, as the ruler of the area would soon order his soldiers to slaughter all the baby boys. A dirty, shameful, dangerous situation. An unpromising set of circumstances. And yet. This is exactly the place the Messiah, the son of God, was born into.
But should we really be surprised? This is a God who said that the kingdom of heaven belonged, not to the rich or powerful or religious, but to little children. This is a God who chose women, tax collectors, fishermen to begin a worldwide movement for the salvation of all people. Unpromising is not a word which seems to put God off; on the contrary the Bible seems to suggest that God seeks out the unpromising, the weak, the outcast in order to build his kingdom. The apostle Paul, when writing to the Corinthians, said "But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God." (1 Corinthians 27-19)
We are living in times which might be described as unpromising, or even "interesting" according to the old Chinese proverb. We face great uncertainty in our politics, our economics, our relationships with one another. Around the planet there is apparently relentless violence, and the poorest, as ever, bear the consequences of our inability to restrain our use of resources. Our own Methodist Church is seeing a continuing decline in members and a shortage of ministers for the churches we have. The future is surely unpromising.
And yet. Our faith surely prompts us not to turn away purely because any situation looks unpromising. This doesn't mean facing it with blind and passive optimism. Instead we have a hope which is grounded in the foolishness of God, which is wiser and stronger than wisdom and strength of the world. And God is at work in our world, and invites us to join in. As the theologian Ken Leech said: "hope isn't a state of mind; it's a piece of work". In the unpromising situations in our world, where is God inviting us to join in? Where is God asking us to see the treasure that is hidden within the clay jars? Where is God asking us, not to be optimistic, but rather to be hopeful?
We would like to suggest that you do three things over this "unpromising" Christmas season.
Firstly, the Methodist Church, together with the United Reformed Church, the Baptist Union and the Church of Scotland, have produced a short film, "A Very British Nativity", which suggests how Mary and Joseph might have fared arriving in the UK as asylum seekers. Why not watch it, share it and perhaps show it as part of your Christmas celebrations at church - and reflect on what this unpromising small family might mean for others, asylum seekers and refugees in particular, and how we can make their future more hopeful.
Secondly, we invite you to reflect on something that initially appeared unpromising. This might be something in your own life, the life of your church, or in the wider society or world. How was the potential or transformation within each situation revealed? What was the treasure in the clay jars?
And thirdly ask yourself: what is unpromising in your life or church or community at the moment? What might God be doing there already - or what might God do if only you would join in?
In this season we pray that you will have a happy and peace-filled Christmas, and that you will know the love of God who acts through the most unpromising things and people to bring about his kingdom of holiness and justice.
The Revd Dr Roger Walton and Rachel Lampard MBE
Wonderful to see more than 130 adults and children fill Church for our annual Nativity Service yesterday. And 120 for our Carols by Candlelight. Do join us on Christmas Day at 10am and remember to bring your Christmas gifts for Rev'd. Andrew to play with!!
Just a few pictures from our Christmas Tree Festival 2016 to keep everyone in the festive spirit. What a wonderful event and so good to see so many people there.
A big thank you to the very many people who helped to make the Christmas Tree Festival such a success. Particular thanks to Jean and her team of ladies in the kitchen who worked so hard in keeping up with the demand for turkey barms, Beryl and Maureen for organising and running the raffle, Andrea for organising the children's activities and Rob and Roger for organising the electrics. Hundreds of people visited the church over the weekend, and there were lots of lovely comments. We raised over £1200 which will be divided between church funds and the Boaz Trust. Thanks, Carolyn.
A big thank you to everyone who collected milk containers. As you can see they made a fabulous igloo!
Members of our Church were delighted to be able to give a 'host’ of knitted angels to the Runcorn and District Food Bank, who have been collecting them from far and wide.
They said, “On 11th December the angels will be released around the town. We hope that they make a real impact and cheer people’s Monday morning, putting a smile on their faces, giving them an angel to take away with them and reminding them of the true message of Christmas. Each angel has a label attached with Christmas Greetings from Runcorn Foodbank. The label also invites the finder to take the angel home and we have added the Keep Britain Tidy logo as we are eager not to be guilty of littering. Indeed a week or so after the release we will retread our steps and remove any abandoned angels, although we hope that there will not be any.”
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