Ye Merry Gentlepeople
In my boyhood, the members of my father’s church put a lot of effort each year into their presentation of the congregation’s crèche.
“Real hay!” marked the best nativity scenes in the area. Having all three wise men was another sign of a quality Christmas in the pine-straw frost of South Carolina. And what kind of revisionist delusions had possessed that Baptist parish a few blocks away with just two wise men and only one shepherd?
Bonus: if you positioned your wise men so that they arrived from the fabled East—because they three kings of Orient were—your sanctuary might be thought to hold out special cleverness to worshippers, a slightly dashing sense of internationalism.
Holly-and-ivy Protestants that we were, we’d stare, scandalized, at nearby Catholic churches which had some very uptown-looking crèches, indeed—”real sheep!” doing real damage! to the church lawn—but with Mary looming over everything as an oversized figure. Rome’s emphasis on her, full of grace, held no sway in the Methodist mind. No, our focus was on the offspring, pa rum pa pum pum, and parents bringing children to see the crèche gently worked to get the kids to notice the baby.
Girls were quicker to get down to talking about the swaddled icon. Boys tended to like the animals much more than the kid: while wishing for camels, it was at least a plus that at this time of year, you could get away with saying “ass” in reference to the donkey.
It was while watching the Adoration of the Southerners one year that I noticed the infant in the manger had blond hair and blue eyes.
Granted, one of the three wise men was black, another token of Methodism’s worldly perspective, surely. But the unthinking dodge of those golden locks made it easier finally to get away from the crèches of organized religion and walk, solo, out into the spacious mystery of personal inquiry.
Jesus and I now have a winking relationship.
And that’s not the disrespectful thing it might sound. Being a minister’s son, I understand the church as a family business, a service of services. My father was good at what he did, and I honor this, especially because he had a rich sense of humor and bona fide dedication to his ministry in the Deep South. He knew that political correctness meant picking his battles and that sometimes you needed buy-in to fix a crèche.
During this tortured year, we’ve heard a lot about being “too politically correct.” What does it mean to your work? That’s my provocation for you today.