In my small hometown, the 4th of July was a big deal.
Baby parades. Talent shows. Carnival games. Soft pretzels. And fireworks that ended with a sparkling American flag, while the national anthem blared over the park loudspeakers.
The real high point came at dusk with the Queen of the Candles Pageant.
Each spring a dozen senior girls were chosen by secret ballot. On the 4th of July, the one with the most votes was crowned with a floral wreath. Thousands of candles were lit along the stone-lined stream that ran through the park, as the queen remained onstage, beaming. Around her stood her court, the other eleven girls, their eyes wet with unshed tears.
Chosen, but not crowned. Pretty, but not pretty enough.
I watched the pageant unfold every summer of my childhood and imagined myself in a long gown, wavy hair piled on my head. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t queen material, but maybe I could be a member of her court? Just one of the twelve?
My hopes began to fade as the seasons passed and reality set in. By my senior year, I knew the truth. I was popular with the girls in my class because I was funny. But I would not be strolling across the amphitheater stage on the 4th of July. No way.
As voting day approached, my father assured me, “Don’t worry. You’ll be in the pageant.”
I knew better. I didn’t have the right hair, the right shape, the right look.
When a dozen of my smiling friends lit their candles on stage that hot summer night, I was the one fighting tears.
Probably because of that disappointment and many more like it, I spent the next ten years desperately trying to find a man who would call me beautiful. (What I didn’t understand? Some guys will call a woman anything just to get her in bed.) It was a long, lost decade, full of poor choices and sad excuses.
Then I discovered what beautiful really means.
After years of feeling less than, I met a God who called me more than.
A God who “rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
A God who “crowns the humble with victory” (Psalm 149:4).
A God who “saw all that he had made” and called it “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
In Him, I found a different kind of freedom.
The freedom to stop worrying about whether or not people like me, and simply love them.
The freedom to accept whatever God has given me and use it for His glory.
The freedom to stand in front of a mirror and say, “Ta-da!”
I’ve also learned what makes us beautiful to God and to others: the light in our eyes, the glow on our faces, and the warmth of our words.
If our eyes shine with Christ’s love, people are drawn to us. We know it’s not our doing. Since “the eye is the lamp of the body” (Matthew 6:22), clearly the Holy Spirit is our light source.
A radiant complexion? Also an inside job. We’re “transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). When His love pours out our pores, people see Him shining through us. Amazing, right?
And those warm words, that tender voice? They demonstrate “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:4). Even those of us who are loud by His design can let God’s love infuse our words, turning them into a joyful noise.
If you were a pageant girl, your sisters love you. We do. Honest.
Okay, maybe not back then, but now, absolutely.
If you weren’t selected for Homecoming Queen, Prom Queen, Queen of the Candles, or any other royalty, rest in knowing you, too, are chosen and “loved by God” (1 Thessalonians 1:4). The One who sets you free. The One who calls you beautiful…and means it.