Wednesday, June 6, 2007
A few weeks ago I went to the dentist for the first time in about 2 years. My dental coverage through the church finally came through and I was able to get in. The dentist was delighted with my teeth. Straight despite never having braces. No wisdom teeth to fret with. No cavities. “The easiest patient of the day.” Sweet. The dental hygienist, however, was not so delighted. She did not like having to deal with two years of plaque…not like I blame her. She was a fun and energetic woman, a professed Christian and we had a good time talking with one another. She is a PK (a.k.a. pastor’s kid) and was thrilled that I was so young and a pastor—she thought it would be great if I could come and talk to her women’s group. And despite her enthusiasm toward me, or maybe because of it, she was also firm about the whole flossing every day bit. LOL. I do my brushing regime, don’t get me wrong, my dental hygiene is good, just not big on the flossing thing, I’ve never gotten in the habit. But she dug around and scraped and was insistent that I floss and that I change the way I brush. She wanted me to start with the inside lower gum area and then move to the visible parts. I have heard the flossing bit, oh, every time I have visited the dentist, but never the brush inside bit. And because I liked her, I didn’t want to return not having done what she asked. I was ready to follow her instructions. Flossing every day (or two…) and starting on the inside lower gum. Check!
And being the theologian I am, I couldn’t help myself. I immediately started thinking of the parallels to the spiritual life. It dawned on me, I have always brushed the outside/visible part of my teeth first and more furiously—that’s the part people see. That’s the part they notice first. I don’t worry about the very back part of my last molar, and I have never even thought to worry about the inside lower gum. Not until the hygienist mentioned it that is. And more than that, I never would have known that I had ‘black tartar’ in the way back of my molars if I had not made myself vulnerable to the ‘experts’. Now for the parallel—I think our spiritual life often functions the same way. We take care of the visible parts—the parts people see (Sunday morning worship, mass, temple) maybe even the parts we feel something stuck in (daily prayer, mission) but then there are the “way back there” parts—the parts that collect tartar. The parts that need an expert to examine them to know what is really going on. And not just someone who can examine, but someone who can help scrape off the plaque, the build up, and who will be honest with you and day, “you need to do a better job at this, this is what you ought to do.”
There was one other catch I thought was apt in all of this. I was talking with D the other day and it has been 6 or 7 years since D’s last visit to the dentist. After hearing about my visit, D was less than excited to book one—it’s not going to be good. That too sounds like our spiritual lives—if we don’t do the maintenance we know we should, we know that plaque builds up, that cavities (read: spiritual wounds) develop, our “gums” get raw—all of those things, and the longer we wait, the more painful we know the exam and cleaning will be. And yet, all the more necessary they become. If we allow our spiritual “mouth” to go unchecked for years, we know problems will develop—even for the most faithful flosser and brusher. Check-ups are part of the deal. We need experts to take a look in the dark crevices and let us know what plaque has built up there, to scrape it off, and to give us a fresh start—with some added instruction for how to take better care of ourselves. We need all of those things. But they won’t just happen for us. We must make the appointment, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and we must follow the directions of the experts when we receive it.