'An unpromising Christmas' - The Presidential Christmas Message

The President and Vice-President of the MethodistConference, the Revd Dr Roger Walton and Rachel Lampard MBE, speakabout the Nativity, Syria and unpromising situations in this year'sChristmas Message.
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Full text below:

The shabby collection of rooms was perched on the edge of asteep hill above Amman in Jordan.  We were visiting a familyof Syrian refugees who had just had a baby, and were being helpedby funding provided by the Methodist charity, All We Can. 

A woman, who we assumed was the grandmother, answered the doorand invited us in.  We sat on the floor, along with a localhealth worker.  The father appeared with the baby, Yosra, andthree other small children.  It turned out that the woman wasnot the grandmother, but rather the mother of the family.  Shewas just in her 30s, prematurely aged by the privations andstresses of recent years.  They had left Syria four years ago,and now lived in a couple of basic rooms.  The three childrenwere similar ages to my own, but were tiny.  As a refugee thefather was banned from working and the family was reliant onsupport from a charity in order to be able to survive.

What an unpromising situation they were in.  The familywere underfed, with very little prospect of being able to improvetheir circumstances.  They were desperate to go back to Syria,but recognised that this was unlikely any time soon.  Andtheir tiny baby, who slept in my arms, faced growing into adulthoodin a foreign country, in poverty.

And yet.  When we asked the father of the family what hewanted for the future, instead of talking about better housing,more food, or even a return to Syria, said "I want my children tobe the best people that they can be".  It wasbreath-taking.  A family were facing immense poverty anddislocation, yet had the highest hopes for the character andcontribution of their children.

A similarly unpromising set of circumstances surrounded anotheryoung family less than 50 miles away in Bethlehem two millenniaago.  A young girl had given birth to a baby, far from herhome and her family, in an outhouse, shared with animals.  Shehad become pregnant outside marriage, and was only rescued fromshame and rejection by her fiancé taking on a baby that wasn'this.  Ahead lay real danger, as the ruler of the area wouldsoon order his soldiers to slaughter all the baby boys.  Adirty, shameful, dangerous situation.  An unpromising set ofcircumstances.  And yet. This is exactly the place theMessiah, the son of God, was born into.

But should we really be surprised?  This is a God who saidthat the kingdom of heaven belonged, not to the rich or powerful orreligious, but to little children.  This is a God who chosewomen, tax collectors, fishermen to begin a worldwide movement forthe salvation of all people.  Unpromising is not a word whichseems to put God off; on the contrary the Bible seems to suggestthat God seeks out the unpromising, the weak, the outcast in orderto build his kingdom.  The apostle Paul, when writing to theCorinthians, said "But God chose what is foolish in the world toshame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame thestrong; God chose what is low and despised in the world,things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, sothat no one might boast in the presence of God." (1Corinthians 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, ourrelationships with one another.  Around the planet there isapparently relentless violence, and the poorest, as ever, bear theconsequences of our inability to restrain our use of resources. Ourown Methodist Church is seeing a continuing decline in members anda shortage of ministers for the churches we have.  The futureis surely unpromising.

And yet. Our faith surely prompts us not to turn away purelybecause any situation looks unpromising.  This doesn't meanfacing it with blind and passive optimism.  Instead we have ahope which is grounded in the foolishness of God, which is wiserand stronger than wisdom and strength of the world.  And Godis at work in our world, and invites us to join in.  As thetheologian Ken Leech said: "hope isn't a state of mind; it's apiece of work".  In the unpromising situations in our world,where is God inviting us to join in?  Where is God asking usto see the treasure that is hidden within the clay jars? Where is God asking us, not to be optimistic, but rather to behopeful?

We would like to suggest that you do three things over this"unpromising" Christmas season.

Firstly, the Methodist Church, together with the United ReformedChurch, the Baptist Union and the Church of Scotland, have produceda short film, "A Very British Nativity", which suggests how Maryand Joseph might have fared arriving in the UK as asylumseekers.  Why not watch it, share it and perhaps show it as partof your Christmas celebrations at church - and reflect on what thisunpromising small family might mean for others, asylum seekers andrefugees in particular, and how we can make their future morehopeful.

Secondly, we invite you to reflect on something that initiallyappeared unpromising.  This might be something in your ownlife, the life of your church, or in the wider society orworld.  How was the potential or transformation within eachsituation revealed?  What was the treasure in the clayjars?

And thirdly ask yourself: what is unpromising in your life orchurch or community at the moment?  What might God be doingthere already - or what might God do if only you would join in?  

In this season we pray that you will have a happy andpeace-filled Christmas, and that you will know the love of God whoacts through the most unpromising things and people to bring abouthis kingdom of holiness and justice.


The Revd Dr Roger Walton and Rachel Lampard MBE