The Altar at the Manger

IMG_0017Every Christmas growing up, my family and I would make a little altar on Christmas Eve and hold a short midnight service together before going to bed.  The altar was really just a red tablecloth over the coffee table with some candles, some evergreen boughs, and a Bible.  We’d sing carols and take turns reading the Christmas story from Luke.  After so many years observing this tradition, we could recite our parts by memory. And there were in that region, shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night.  She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn.  And there were with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace and goodwill to men.”  To which my mother would usually add “and to the rest of us girls, too.”

And so, for this Christmas video, I thought about reading some of the old, familiar words that we hear every year at Christmas.  They are comforting and encouraging and remind us that extraordinary things can happen in the most ordinary times.  One minute you’re just sitting there, doing your job on a night like any other, and the next minute, God takes you by surprise and tells you that everything is about to change.  That you have new work to do, that you must stand and leave the hillside and walk to a new place, a humble place, and kneel at an altar of wood and straw and worship something smaller and incomprehensibly greater than yourself. It must have been tremendously humbling, walking down that hill, knowing that the miracle you’ve just experienced is nothing to what you are about to see.  I imagine the shepherds looking at each other, thinking “Me? In the presence of a king?  Look at me!” And making futile efforts to prepare themselves to approach this little manger with no gift but their own adoration.

And that image brought a completely different scripture to mind:

It’s from the book of Mark:  If you are offering your gift on the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

What a powerful, uncomfortable, amazing thing to hear.  Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled. But what does it mean to seek peace with God if we’re not willing to seek peace with anyone else?  It’s like mixing today’s banquet with last night’s leftovers. I don’t think that those words appear in Scripture to make us uncomfortable.  I think they are there to make us free.  To come to the altar with a heart that has emptied itself of hate or resentment is to come ready to be filled with something new and beautiful.

I made a list of relationships in my life that need some degree of reconciliation.  It’s not a long list, but it matters.  The burden of it lingers everytime I come to the altar.  I have asked God too many times to change those situations without asking Him to change ME.  Without being willing to humble myself, see the dirt on my own robes, so to speak, and be the first to seek a loving solution.  This year, before Christmas is over, I want to do what I can – whether by a phone call or a letter or in person – to apologize – or to forgive  – and be ready to approach the Christmas manger with a gift that only I can give – just a little more peace on earth, a lot more goodwill, and more glory than ever to God in the highest.  And if you want to join me there, God bless you.  You will be in my prayers, as always.  Merry Christmas.

Love, Martha

Post Script

This Christmas Martha Williamson made a list of relationships in need of reconciliation – either to forgive – or to apologize – so she can approach the Christmas altar with a heart emptied of hate or resentment and ready to be filled with peace, love and goodwill.

Martha Williamson asks: Will you be home for Christmas?

Will You Be Home For Christmas?

Martha Williamson asks: Will you be home for Christmas?One of our family’s favorite movies are actually TWO movies, Father of the Bride One and Two starring Steve Martin.  There’s a scene in the second film that never fails to choke me up – Steve Martin is playing one last game of one-on-one in the backyard with his all grown-up and married daughter before he hands over the keys to the family home to its new owner.  Every time he looks at his twenty-five year old daughter tossing the basketball, he sees the child she was.  The toddler, the ten year old, the teen-ager in braces.  It is a beautifully heartbreaking way to show us how many memories he is leaving behind in this house and how much his daughter will always be his little girl, no matter how old she gets. 

I thought of that scene the other day when I heard a friend of mine bemoan the fact that her family was getting together again for Christmas  and that every time they spend a holiday together, they all treat her as if she’s still a kid.  Doesn’t it seem that as much as we may love hearing the song “I’ll be Home For Christmas,” sometime actually BEING home for Christmas can be far less than harmonious? 

It’s not always easy spending a week or so with the people who know you best and somehow at the same time know you least.  Christmas at home with the family can be wonderful or awful or both.  So often it’s the time that secrets get told and surprises get announced and old frustrations get vented, not to mention the pressures of travel, too much food and not enough sleep on the pull out couch or the blow-up mattress. 

In one relative’s house, I know I’m expected to help with the dishes.  In another, I’m not supposed to touch anything in the kitchen.  Ever. Actually, that rule may have been created after I left the carrots in her pressure cooker too long one year. Boom. Now, I know that whenever we get together, my sisters will always have something to say about my hair or my clothes that will make me crazy and feel like I’m still the baby of the family.  And I know that by the end of the night we three will be singing three part harmony to every Christmas carol we know and feeling like we should be getting together and doing this more often!

So, whether you’re coming home from college or taking the family to grandmother’s house or if you’re the only single person at your sister and brother-in-laws condo, here are a few thoughts to prepare you for a family Christmas.  Genuinely pray for a good time before you go.  And expect to have one. 

Remember, it really isn’t the gift that counts. It’s being there. And I’ve found that a handwritten note and a photo from the old days that brings back a happy memory or two is worth a dozen “store-bought” presents. “What can I do to help?” is a great question to ask every couple of hours.  Looking at old family photos will remind you that we were ALL kids once and still being seen as a youngster isn’t always such a bad thing.  And, when all else fails, see if anyone is up for a game of Scrabble.  Or maybe a little one-on-one. 

And Merry Christmas!    

About Letters

“A letter can restore a relationship or change the world. Half of the New Testament is made up of letters, mostly from Paul, but also from Peter, James, John and Jude. Letters are forever.”
– Martha Williamson

Remembering Della Reese

“When you walk down the road

Heavy burden, heavy load

I will rise and I will walk with you

Walk with you

Til the sun don’t shine

Walk with you every time

Believe me I will walk with you…”

“Touched By An Angel” theme song



      Della Reese was a brilliantly funny and profoundly moving actor, an unforgettably talented, mesmerizing singer, a savvy talk-show host, a dedicated minister, and the star of a top-ten television hit.  But most of all, she was an undeniable one-woman enterprise selling one precious product – the fierce love of an ever-loving God whom she lived to serve and share.  And she shared that unshakeable faith of hers wherever she walked – onto a film set, into an elevator, down an airport concourse or a grocery store aisle.  If you saw Della Reese heading your way, you knew something was going to change.

       It’s the way she walked into a room that I will remember most.  There was the room before Della entered.  And then it was us in Della’s room.  If the sheer magnitude of her powerful presence wasn’t enough to announce her arrival, there was always the liberal bestowing of hugs and blessings. “God bless you today.”  “God bless you today.” “God bless you today.” And when Della said it, it wasn’t a greeting, it was a command – an exhortation to stop and acknowledge that you were, in fact, blessed, so you’d better shape up and live like it.

        Once, on the set of “Touched By An Angel,” a guest star found himself unable to continue shooting an emotionally-charged “revelation” scene in which Della’s character, Tess, reveals herself as an angel with a message of forgiveness from God.  When I took the actor aside, he broke into tears and said he’d just spent two years writing a play to promote atheism, and in the space of twenty minutes performing one scene on camera with Della Reese, his entire belief system had been shaken.  “I may have just wasted two years of my life.  That woman really believes.  And I’m starting to believe her.”

        Della Reese stepped into the role of Tess with the natural ease that the rest of us step into a favorite pair of slippers.  Sharing the good news of God’s love was as comfortable and familiar to her as walking and talking and breathing. And yet, her pitch-perfect portrayal for nine years of a no-nonsense, straight-talking, uncompromising angel was formed over decades of struggle and sacrifice and single-minded determination to beat the odds.

        During a career that spanned seven decades, through wars and civil rights, hardship and success, she survived. She survived the days when a black woman could sing in a luxury hotel but wasn’t allowed to stay there. She survived life-threatening injuries and a devastating stroke.  She survived heartbreaking personal and professional loss.  And through it all, she steadfastly held to her faith that she was born with a purpose to fulfill and that each step she took in this life would never be taken alone.

       What a blessing that for nine years we got to walk along with her as she and her beloved angel daughter Roma Downey reminded the world every Sunday night that excellence isn’t easy, that love is a choice and must be fought for and defended with truth and integrity and faith.  And, of course, that God loves you. 

        “God bless you today” as you remember Della.  And know that even now, she is walking where she was always planning to walk forever – alongside her Creator.

                                                                        With love,

                                                                        Martha Williamson