Almost every Christmas for 30 years of marriage, Dian and I have put up the Angel Tree at Christmas time. On it, we hang angel ornaments we have collected or have received from friends over the years. It’s a tree crowded with memories.
Topping the tree this year is Pearl. Pearl is nearly 16 years old and is named after my Aunt Pearl, who died many years ago.
We named her Pearl because she bears such a striking resemblance to my Aunt Pearl, now deceased. She has a commanding presence and is sumptuously and carefully dressed, just like my Aunt Pearl.
As is often the case, being on the top exposes you to greater scrutiny. This additional level of scrutiny accentuates Pearl’s deficits—ones that are not readily apparent when you only casually look at her.
Not So Bright & Shiny
For example, she’s missing the back part of her head. You wouldn’t know it by looking at her now, but Pearl used to have a fairly large and ornate halo plugged right into the back of her head. Pearl’s halo was very pretty and glittery and filled with curlicues. It made her look simply majestic.
Eventually, though, as halos are wont to do, Pearl’s halo came loose. I tried to glue it back on. The glue didn’t hold and ultimately pulled off the whole back of Pearl’s skull leaving a rather gaping hole. I couldn’t find a replacement. Making a halo from cardboard seemed tacky, so, Pearl has no halo.
Pearl is an angel whose wings are missing, a truly glaring omission for an angel! Her wings suffered a similar fate as her halo. The resin wings were quite large and fanned out expansively. They were very impressive with their shades of white, gold, and blue, but, like the halo, they were not affixed well. I tried everything I knew to re-attach those wings. I re-glued them, but the heat of the attic cracked the glue. I tried wiring them on. That looked tacky. The wire wouldn’t hold them on straight and they wound up slumped crookedly on her back like our dog’s ears when he’s been scolded.
Pearl’s hands are empty where she originally held a golden lute. I never liked it much because it was disproportionately small for her size and always looked like an afterthought. I wasn’t sorry when the little lute was lost.
And finally, there is the unfortunate matter of Pearl’s face. The heat in the attic is ferocious in a Houston summer, and Pearl simply melted a little. She’s got huge bags under her eyes. One side of her face droops a little. She’s, perhaps mercifully, missing that self-satisfied little simper that angels seem to stereotypically have. Instead, Pearl just looks sullen—not joyful at all. It’s not a face that says Glory to God in the Highest.” It’s more a face that says, “Oh Geez, is it morning already????”
A Symbol of Honesty
So here Pearl sits atop our tree: wingless, sans halo, empty handed, and more than a little droopy looking. Yet, Dian and I are proud of Pearl and find that she’s a real inspiration. With all her deficits, Pearl absolutely commands the top of the angel tree.
And why shouldn’t she? Clearly she has seen more action than those wimpy little cherubs rollicking on the lower branches of our Angel Tree. With their clueless little smiles it’s obvious that they have seen little to no hardship and have no war stories to tell. Consequently, they stay close to the floor where the dog can lick them and where, if they fall, they won’t get hurt very much. Pearl stands fearlessly upright at the top. She’s seen it all and lived through it all. She’s still standing. “What else you got?’ she seems to say.
Pearl, with all her deficits, has a message for you and me on this Christmas.
A Symbol of Grace
She reminds me that halos are not all they are cracked up to be. They make us look good, but they are generally very poorly attached and can be lost in an instant. If put under enough stress, our halos can pull off the backs of our heads right off, causing us to lose the ability to think straight. Big halos keep us from stooping down to go through low doors like servants of Christ are supposed to. Prominent halos make people look at us funny. They keep people away because our halos are just too bright or are too big to be practical.
Pearl reminds me that wings are fun for a while and are often expected as standard equipment on us Christians, but such imaginary wings can lead us to feel that the normal rules of gravity and aerodynamics limiting other mortals don’t apply to us. Imaginary wings tempt us to try things that God never intended for us to do and venture to heights that God didn’t plan for us to scale. Our imagined wings generally just get us into trouble.
And Pearl does not need a lute to perform her way into God’s good graces. How many of us have pegged our divine worth to some skill we think we have. We learned early to identify our “shtick” and then try to be good enough and perform well enough so that God and our friends will accept us. Well, Pearl lost her lute--and I say good riddance. These days, she doesn’t perform any more. She doesn’t put on a show. She has only herself—Pearl. “Take me or leave me,” her lute-less presence declares.
Pearl’s sad and droopy face reminds me that at Christmas, when everyone else has a happy face on, God takes us just as we are each moment. God does not require a happy heart during this season of comfort and joy. Many of us, when we get home and we are alone, feel free to drop the smiley face that we use when we are in public and, like Pearl, can let the corners of our mouths turn down. Some of us, when we are alone these holidays, let our eyes well with tears remembering times that were happier or when things were going better for us.
Pearl reminds us that God accepts our grief and sadness and regret and anger—just as God accepts our joy and thankfulness. She reminds us that God loves us just the same no matter how we feel or how we look. Pearl is a reminder that our standing with God is neither performance nor appearance based.
Pearl is a reminder that God loves you—not a made up facsimile of the self you hope to be or dreamed you could be. God loves you.
So here’s Pearl—this year’s Queen of the Angel tree at the Kidd House.
Saggy eyed & sad faced.
And she is lovely.
And I have it on good authority that God thinks you are lovely, too.
Robert Kidd serves as Director of Spiritual Care & Values Integration for the Methodist Hospital System in Houston.