My son and youngest daughter tromp down the wooden stairway perched on a steep, wooded incline in front of their grandparents’ cabin. Buckets and nets in tow, their squeals echo as rambunctiously as their feet racing to the floating dock. They are fishing today, the non-fishing way. No hooks or worms. Just bread crumbs, nets, and long lines of patience.
Depending on the time of day, they may or may not see what they’re trying to catch. My son and daughter lay across the dock’s splintered slats, faces pressed as close to the lake’s mirrored surface as their lifejackets’ bulk will allow. Sometimes they only catch a glimpse of what’s below when a sunfish breaks the surface tension of chocolate gray water.
If, however, the sideways gaze of the rising sun drew my kids down to the dock, they stare into the water’s sepia-infused glow. Scaled bodies, drunk on the morning sun, swim with the music of lakegrass and lilies. Mesmerized by the disco-ball-dazzle of a quartz boulder glittering in the shallows nearby, my kids watch and wait, enchanted.
It’s this kind of enchantment many churches try to create at Christmas. Dazzle! Impress! And maybe, just maybe, some of the people who came because it’s the one time of year they go to church, or because they miss carols and candlelight, or because awhile back the church was their family, or maybe because they’ve never gone and just want to see what this Jesus stuff is all about…maybe, just maybe, some of these people will come back.
This Christmas Eve, I entered the stone archways of a cathedral clad in all its Christmas finery. Candlelight, choirs, brass. Carols and communion. The head priest walked the center aisle, reaching out towards the people in filled pews. He met others’ gazes through round professorial glasses. His gray hair distinguished him more so than his vestments. This was Christmas in all its nostalgic, traditional glory.
And then he preached.
“The woman was so ugly!”
Laughter in the pews from the front and side by the pulpit.
My spine straightened. My skin bristled.
Did he really just say that?
Yes. And not just “ugly woman.”
The “ugliest woman.”
And on it went, spun in ways that confused outer beauty with inner worth. His words twisted one’s God-given goodness from gospel truth into knots beholden to the human standards of male authorities. This ugly woman was exalted as a necessity for shameful men (like him, he admitted) to learn (and now to teach, apparently) that it’s all okay because God needs broken, ugly women (people, if I’m generous) because that’s how God’s light gets in.
I was drowning, thinking of God’s people who had been diminished by ugly name-calling and labeled less-than by people deemed more powerful than them. Many of whom were likely in the pews around me, bracing themselves against the assault from the pulpit and laughter around them. I longed for the sense of wonder found on the dock with my children.
Those moments on the pier weren’t always perfect, or beautiful, or crystal clear. But we knew the fish were there. The light was already there. We waited. We watched. Whether we saw into the depths, or how we perceived what swam underneath, was a matter of timing, opportunity, and the perspective revealed by the angle of light. Not really all that different from Bethlehem so long ago, when a baby came to shift our perspective. To shed light in ways that did not break us more, but illuminate new ways to love and better paths to peace.
My heart breaks for the other priests who had to follow the head priest’s path down the aisle. Priests who because of labels are marked as different, or even ugly. Female priests. Priests of color. Priests betrayed by a head priest’s Christmas Eve message to the masses. I pray that more of these children of God stand proudly in the pulpit. I pray they cast light in the ways only they can. I pray our perspectives shift in healing and life-giving ways. I pray that ensnaring people from pulpits with nets of blame and shame becomes a thing of the past. I pray for a time when all old, white, distinguished, smug men in the pulpit will humble themselves and speak boldly of the beauty found in all God’s creatures.