This one comes to us from Jesse Pirschel.

While driving my boys to school, we were listening to an episode of the podcast Snap Judgment entitled “12 Pageant Queens, 10,000 Snakes.” In a car full of boys there were mixed emotions about the prospects of this episode. The podcast features several teenage girls from West Texas who are entering a beauty pageant. Normally, this sort of topic would get low marks from the carpool in question, but these beauty contestants are all fighting for a chance to be crowned Miss Snake Charmer. The winner of this tiara will not only preside over the world’s largest Rattlesnake Roundup but will wade into a kiddie pool overflowing with rattlers. So while beauty pageants may not be our thing, this combination of beauty pageant mixed with possible death sounded like a recipe that makes for great radio. Spoiler alert! We got just what we came for: a snakebitten beauty queen writhing in pain before the watching world. We also got broken hearts.

In the small west Texas town of Sweetwater they hold the “Annual Sweetwater Jaycees World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup.” (A documentary on the roundup is currently making its way through the festival circuit.) While the roundup has gained far-reaching notoriety, for high school girls in Sweetwater, what matters most at the Roundup is the chance to be crowned Miss Snake Charmer. It doesn’t take long to realize that these girls want a lot more from this beauty pageant than a title and a chance to walk among the reptiles. This fight for the tiara is a fight for their very lives.

When introduced to the pageant contestants, we find the usual suspects: There’s the wealthy cheerleader whose childhood dream was to win the pageant she grew up attending. There’s the girl whose mother won the pageant in her youth and is now reliving her former glory through her offspring. But the contestant we get the most insight into is contestant number 5, Cheyenne Hamilton. The first time she speaks we hear of her poverty and her need to borrow clothes for the event. The first time we hear a physical description we find her sitting atop a convertible, traveling the parade route wearing ripped jeans and a flannel shirt, hardly the formal wear that is customary for a West Texas pageant parade. Her self-description both endears the listener to her and causes low-grade anxiety. She immediately shares that she is a former powerlifter, a hobby she took up because she is “too big for running.” She continues, “I’m not the cutest, I’m not the smartest, I’m definitely not the sweetest.” While you can’t help but love Cheyenne’s humble self-awareness, you also can’t help but wonder why, in the name of all that is good for one’s mental health and self-esteem, she would enter herself into a beauty pageant at all, much less one in Texas!

We aren’t left to wonder long because she tells the interviewer exactly why she entered, and we learn there is a lot more on the line than a cute crown and the prospect of being queen for a day. “I want to do something different, I want to be something. I want to prove to everybody else that I’m actually, I guess, somebody.” Cheyenne’s life has been a difficult one. She hasn’t lived with her biological parents for years and has a history of depression that externalized in cutting. She eventually became suicidal and was committed to a mental health facility. For her, this pageant is not just a contest; it’s a quest for a new life. “I just want to start over and turn over a new leaf … leave … whatever it’s called. I’m working on my twelfth second chance.” When asked what worries her most about the contest, she answers, “Impressing my parents, cause I always wanted to hear, ‘I’m proud of you.’” With the weight of her whole past resting on her broad shoulders, this young woman comes to this contest—where girls are judged on their beauty, poise, and talent—in the hopes of finding the acceptance she desperately craves and needs.

And as I, a 40-something-year-old father of four, listen to this teenage beauty pageant contestant I realize I am her and she is me. We all want a do over, don’t we? We all want another chance in hopes that this time, somehow, we just might get it right. We all want to feel the loving gaze of those dearest to us and to hear them utter the words, “I am proud of you,” and mean it. The problem for Cheyenne, and for us, is that her hopes of being “somebody” are now dependent on a pageant that judges by criteria that she, according to her own admission, has in short supply. This contest, using its weights and measures, has no power to gift any of these longings to Cheyenne. It can’t. The law doesn’t change, even when you’ve received a raw deal and you just want a new start. It doesn’t relax when you are longing for somebody to see you, know you, be proud of you, and tell you that you matter. We know enough about Cheyenne to see that her quest for meaning, acceptance, and a clean slate cannot and will not end well.

And it doesn’t. The day of coronation comes. The whole town is there gathered and staring at the girls like a judgment scene in a Flannery O’Connor story. The kiddie pool, into which the Queen will wade, has been filled to the brim with over 1000 rattlesnakes. That doesn’t scare Cheyenne one bit, but this contest is about talents and gowns. Unfortunately, Cheyenne the Powerlifter is wearing a dress she just purchased at Goodwill on her own, while the other girls, with money and doting mothers, don evening wear more fitting for nights like these. The results are in, and, unsurprisingly, Cheyenne doesn’t place.

“What happened?” the interviewer asks.

Cheyenne simply responds, “I didn’t get anything.”

When asked why she thinks that is, Cheyenne’s reply is unexpected: “They know people. I don’t know anybody.” Then, in her frustration, she mutters one of the best curses this pastor has heard in a while: “Son of a biscuit eatin’ bulldog!” And with the timing and pathos of the great poets she confesses, “I wanted to win something. Anything. For once. I wanted to be a winner.”

The law has done its job—she is crushed, bitten by that snake of old and left for dead. The law in all of its measuring, evaluating, and point-tallying can never pronounce anything over our life except what we already confess, “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” Under the law, we remain unloved and unlovely, and all the twelfth second chances in the world can’t change it.

Yet in Cheyenne’s frustrated reasoning about her loss, she unwittingly uncovers her deepest need: She needs to know somebody. The only way for people like Cheyenne, like us, to win the pageant is to have the right people on our side. And that is what the Gospel gives us. In the Gospel, God comes to rescue all the husky, depressed, forgotten ones and to offer them beauty for their ashes, not by giving them a new chance but by giving them a new identity that has nothing at all to do with their own successes or failures or the quantity of sequins on their evening gowns. It gives to them a beautiful Savior who can look them in the eye and say, as he places a crown on their head, “You are somebody, and I am proud of you.” And he really means it.

Photo credits: Carl Albert Research and Studies Center