14 December 2017
The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, The Revd Loraine N Mellor and Jill Baker, have released their 2017 Christmas message on the subject of visitation.
Visiting is at the heart of Christmas. In the birth of Jesus, God became a guest in God’s own world - what an amazing truth that is! The familiar Bible stories which will be told and re-told again this Christmas in churches, schools, homes and on television and radio will remind us of many other visits too; Gabriel visits Mary, Mary visits Elizabeth, the angels visit the shepherds, the shepherds visit the Holy Family, the magi come from distant lands, following a star to visit the new-born King... some of those visits were long-planned, others happened spontaneously. Whether or not we feel organized and “ready” for Christmas now, there is a place for everyone at the manger.
In these first six months in our roles as President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, Loraine and I have also been doing lots of visiting. Between us I think we have been in around 25 different districts for one reason or another, Loraine has also been to Fiji and Uganda, I have been to Ethiopia and, earlier in the year, to Russia. We think we have slept in around 50 different beds in total! We are both so grateful for the hospitality shown to us and the generosity of individuals, churches, circuits and districts who have always made us welcome – who have always ensured that there is “room at the inn”. Often there have been special little touches to make us feel at home; decaffeinated coffee for both of us, for example!
Already during this year we have made new friends, spoken with many of our Methodist people, had some challenging and wonderful conversations, visited churches and cathedrals, holiday camps, food banks, palaces, new buildings, historic buildings, homes, shopping centres, new urban villages, rural villages, and so much more. Very recently we joined in with the brilliant3-Generate weekend in Southport. I loved every minute and learned so much about how our children and young people, all 1200 of them, from all around the Connexion, have so much to offer us and how they want to change the world. They were ‘wonderfully prophetic’ (which was the theme of the weekend) as they made their voices heard and talked about the things they believed God was calling them to and how God was moving through them in the world today. They were truly inspirational; I stood in awe and admiration; that visit has changed me.
So we want to reflect a little further on this idea of visitation as we share greetings with you this Christmas.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Coggan said, ‘When God intends to make something wonderful he begins with a difficulty. When he intends to make something very wonderful, he begins with an impossibility. I often think about the visit which started off the whole story; Gabriel being sent to Mary in Nazareth and wonder what it might have been like from Gabriel’s point of view:
On a very dusty humid day in late April I found myself standing outside a simple home. As I just sort of landed in front of Mary she looked nervous and afraid and backed away. ‘Do not be afraid, I bring you greetings’. I sounded a bit like a taped message so I lowered my voice and changed the script a bit, ‘Mary love, you are going to have a baby… now I know this is a bit of a shock. She looked horrified! ‘This baby is very very special and it's God's son’. By this time she was as white as a sheet; I ploughed on, ‘Mary you have been especially chosen’; I knew what that felt like! Boy was this hard; I was beginning to wonder if she would ever speak to me. ‘God has chosen you to give birth to his Son, you are a special person, you are precious to God’. At that moment the whole atmosphere changed, and at last she spoke, this young girl, this vulnerable, frightened person spoke and her voice was soft and gentle, ‘Me chosen, why?’
Of course we know how the story continues; that visit changed the course of history as Mary found the courage to accept her role. Praise the Lord!
Perhaps not quite so dramatically, but at a different level, every visit has the potential to change things. Making each visit count, making each visit special, learning and sharing something significant in each place, is part of the joy and challenge of our year, but perhaps also part of the joy and challenge of this season for all of us. As we receive visitors, can we show the grace and openness that Mary showed; and as we visit others, can we do so with the care of the magi? Christmas might also be a good time to make an unplanned visit – perhaps to someone who will be spending time on their own, or in hospital – let’s do that with the enthusiasm of the shepherds!
As we all reflect on the visits we have made in this last year in the light of the Christmas story, I find myself thinking about a shepherd I met on a remote mountainside in Ethiopia in August. Through the work of All We Can and their partner organization on the ground, he was now rearing a different breed of sheep, which was more profitable. This meeting had a timeless quality about it. It was not difficult to imagine angels appearing, good news being announced, a journey into the nearest town ensuing and I again felt wonder and joy at the ordinariness which runs through the extraordinary story of the birth in Bethlehem. No-one was excluded then. No-one should be excluded now. The shepherd, Gretachew, told us that he was also a part-time priest in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. "You're a shepherd and a priest?" I asked; he nodded, “A bit like Jesus?" I suggested; he beamed.
This Christmas our prayer is that you might visit the manger once more and know in your hearts the coming of the Christ child, to worship and to hear again this fantastic story of incarnation, of joy and of wonder and give thanks for this marvellous gift and that we might all, through the visits we make and receive, change the world.
O come all ye faithful joyful and triumphant.
Come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him, born the king of angels;
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
For an audio only version of the message, please click here.