LAST WEEK the YMCAs in the Liverpool City Region gathered for a carol service in the city’s Parish Church, opposite the world famous Liver Building.
As the chaplain for YMCA Liverpool, and just starting as chaplain for the YMCA in the neighbouring town of St Helens, I gave a reflection on the Christmas story and what it means for the mission of the YMCA:
Welcome into the Christmas story. It’s a story of the unexpected. It flips the world on its head. It turns the outside in.
At this time of year, we hear again the story of Christmas – maybe we’ve heard it so often that we haven’t noticed – it’s full of unlikely characters.
Those on the edges keep finding themselves at the centre of the action. The unimportant get starring roles. The forgotten are the first to know.
The story begins in an obscure little town, where a girl called Mary is getting ready for her wedding. Then a visitor brings life-changing news.
A teenage mother? A fatherless child? Welcome into the story!
Joseph is a good man afraid of what others would think. He doesn’t want to embarrass Mary in front of everyone, so he decides to quietly call off the wedding.
Broken-hearted with shattered dreams? Welcome into the story!
Mary and Joseph face their fears and go together to Joseph’s home town, where Jesus is born.
In a backwater town, from nowhere special? Welcome into the story!
While the town sleeps, angels appear to men sleeping rough in the fields. Their work and way of life means their society treats them as ‘unclean’.
Overlooked and excluded? Working hard to make ends meet? Welcome into the story!
Far away, scholars watching the skies see something remarkable, and have to explore for themselves.
Hopeful travellers, looking for answers? Welcome into the story!
Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise travelers – none of them are obvious choices to witness God-with-us in Jesus. But they’re not random either – nothing here is accidental.
From the first Christmas to today, Jesus turns the world upside-down – outside-in. Everyone is invited. Everyone is included.
With God, there are no outsiders. We are all welcome. We can all find ourselves in Jesus’ story.
Welcome into the story!
Today we also heard Ste Foley’s poem about being on the outside, sleeping rough on our city’s streets, until the Whitechapel Centre and the YMCA brought him in from the cold. Together we helped him rebuild his life on the foundation of the rock-bottom where he waited in hope for a better future.
This is where the YMCA welcomes people into the story.
In September, I spent three days at the UK Unify conference, where YMCAs meet to reflect on the Christian mission of what is now the largest and oldest youth charity in the world.
A common theme was how we put the ‘C’ back in YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association). While the YMCA is no longer just for young men, or Christians, some felt it was not clear that YMCA was, and is, a Christian organisation at heart.
It always has been – the ‘C’ has not gone away. Since 1891, the YMCA logo has incorporated a triangle, to reflect its aim to support each person holistically in Spirit, Mind and Body, recognizing that all three are essential for the health and well-being of every one of us.
If you look closely at the YMCA Liverpool building on Leeds Street, you can see the red triangle, a symbol of the charity’s commitment to the well-being of everyone, in Spirit, Mind and Body.
Sometimes at Christmas we hear a reading from the first chapter of John’s Gospel which starts ‘In the beginning was the Word’. There’s a modern translation of that chapter that goes on to say:
‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.’ [John 1:14 – The Message]
In Jesus, the spirit of God became one with us in mind and body, and became our neighbour, to show us a way of peace, justice and love.
For me, the heart of the YMCA’s Christian mission is about being true neighbours by showing compassion for those our society considers to be the least, the last, the lowest and the lost – children, young people and young families, rough sleepers, addicts, sex workers, people seeking refuge or asylum, survivors of abuse and violence. We welcome them in, not to mould them in our image, but to include and empower them in ways which help them know the image of God in which they are created, so we can all be changed for the better in that encounter.
In the play Soul In The Machine, about the life of the YMCA’s founder, Sir George Williams, Sir George says:
‘You are more, you can be more, you are not alone.’
So together, this Christmas and every day, let’s show the truth of this to those our society considers the least, the last, the lowest and the lost – to welcome them into the story, so each and every one of us knows and trusts this message for ourselves.