What My Visit to the Dentist Taught Me About Church

I went to the dentist last week for my twice-a-year checkup. For some people, those 2 times a year are to be avoided. But not for me. I don’t mind going to my dentist. Really.

One reason: I’m a dedicated flosser — something only my hygienist truly appreciates. But I also don’t mind going to the dentist because, as I was reminded this past week, there’s a lot I can learn. About church. About faith. About life.

For example, on Thursday when I was scheduled to go to the dentist, about 10:30 that morning I happened to look at the calendar on my phone. It reminded me I had an appointment at 9am. Oops! I promptly called, and they graciously rescheduled me for later that day.

So, even though it was on my phone, and they had sent me a postcard, and they regularly call to remind me, I still forgot. So, lesson 1: communication is important, but even with it we still forget stuff. So, keep communicating, but let’s make sure we show each other grace.

Julie and Bea are the two hygienists who work on my teeth. Bea has gotten good at remembering my name, that I serve at a church — even remembering where I serve. She recalls all this even though she must have hundreds of patients, most of whom she only sees twice a year.

Which makes me wonder: how many folks treat Church like the dentist? Show up when you’re supposed to, go when you have to (because that tooth isn’t getting any better on its own), and generally only do as little as possible. I can understand that attitude about the dentist, but not about Church. We need to worship, to share life together, and to go through good and bad as a family. And besides, in the Church, we never pull teeth (though we do sometimes step on toes).

At times, when Julie was cleaning my teeth, it hurt. There’s one tooth in particular that is really sensitive, and I’m really not a fan of Julie messing with it. But I’m reminded that pain has a purpose. It shows me, and those taking care of me, where some attention is needed. It reveals what isn’t healthy. Without pain, I wouldn’t know what’s wrong.

I was talking with a friend today. He’s been having a rough year health-wise. It’s forced him to adjust his schedule and his life. As we talked, I realized: pain has helped him change his life. I wouldn’t wish pancreatitis on him, or anyone. But that bout with pain has led him to re-evaluate and reassess what he’s doing and why.

Simply put, it’s just a daily and dental reality: pain teaches us, and changes us, in ways that the pain-free life never can.

Also: going for my semi-annual checkup (and the pain involved) is a much better experience because I know Julie & Bea, and they know me. We talk about family. We talk about sermons. (Weird, I know.) We even talk about the challenges we face. It’s not that we’re just filling roles: you clean, I’ll sit and occasionally spit. It’s that we have gotten to know each other. And that’s from only seeing them 1 or 2 times a year; imagine what it would be like if I interacted with them weekly. It’s really true: dentists, like church and life, are better when it’s not something you go to, but about relationships you have.

Even so, it’s hard to talk with your mouth full. I love how my hygienist will ask me a question while she’s picking at my teeth, the suction thing is in my mouth, and all I can say is, I’b fide. How bou chu? Still, I’m learning to never stop laughing, even when your mouth (or life) is full.

One of the dentists in the office is 78. They said he’s not going to retire. While I’m sure at some point he’ll have to hang up the drill, that’s a good reminder for all of us: we don’t retire from faith, or from our purpose.

Speaking of my dentist, the truth is: I only see her (or him) for maybe a minute. And that’s during a long visit. (Two visits ago, I did a running count in my head while she was in the room with me: it was about 37 seconds). 98% of the help I get is from the hygienists and the frontline people. I think that’s a helpful reminder about how Church functions: Most of the encouragement and support you’re going to get isn’t from the people with the titles, from the ones in charge. Your faith will grow most through relationships with the folks you spend time with, and who are able to spend time with you.

My dental visit reminds me that it’s good to have a regular checkup. Even with faithful brushing and flossing, plaque and other gunk begin to build up on my teeth. Even with faithful worship, Bible reading, prayer, and sharing with others, spiritual plaque and gunk begin to build up in my life. I regularly need others to take a close look at my life, and help me clear away that stuff that I simply cannot see on my own. The truth is: we simply will not be able to see all of our spiritual blind spots — that’s why they’re called blind spots.

Finally, I was told once by Bea that every mouth has a story. Since she’s a hygienist, she spends a lot of time on people’s mouths. But each mouth isn’t just a pile of teeth; it’s a part of a person. And though she works on all kinds of mouths, each one belongs to a person with a life full of dreams and disappointments, hopes and hangups, gunk and grace. Bea isn’t just cleaning teeth; she’s sharing life, if but for a moment, with a unique creation of God. And each person who sits in her chair shares something in common with every other person who sits in that chair: a need for a check-up, offered with a smile, and a healthy dose of grace.

What are the odds?

I write 3 days before the Kentucky Derby (and 2 days before the Oaks, for all you Louisville-area readers). Earlier this week, my middle child was at Churchill Downs, where she got to spend some quality time with a Derby horse. Of course, that horse IMG_6574(along with every other one that will run for the roses) gets odds assigned by people whose job it is to guess how fast a particular horse can gallop 1.25 miles.

That’s a job I would not want, nor would I be any good at doing. But it got me thinking: what areas of life do I know about where I could assign odds? So, in the tradition of the Derby, here are odds on things I DO have a clue about. (Note: odds are for entertainment purposes only).

Odds that…

  • I will take a nap tomorrow, on my day off? 2 to 1
  • I will eat too many Qdoba chips now that my son works there? 1 to 2
  • I will make Qdoba my go-to place for Tex-Mex, now that my son works there? 75 to 1 (500 to 1 on Moe’s Monday)
  • When my wife turns 50 next April I will do something more sinister than write a blog about her? 1 to 3
  • I will jump out of a plane again? 300 to 1 (because, really, isn’t once enough?)
  • I will use the word shalom in my next sermon series on Genesis? 1 to 2
  • Campfire Conversations will be one of my coolest-ever summertime church ideas? 4 to 1
  • I will finish my doctorate? 2.5 to 1
  • I will finish my doctorate next year? 12 to 1
  • The horse my daughter is posing with will actually win the Derby? 50 to 1 (The horse’s name, by the way, is Fast and Accurate. Sounds like the oddsmakers disagree.)
  • I will begin working on my Spanish again, even if just the Duolingo app? 4 to 1
  • I will get our kitchen wall fixed this year? 6 to 1 (really needs to be 1 to 1)
  • A cat will make me cry? 10 to 1 (Not because I don’t like cats, though I’m certainly not their biggest fans. The simple fact is that I’m allergic to cats. It’s not good. Trust me.)
  • I will cry at my daughter’s graduation next month? 15 to 1 (Not because I’m not one of her fans. Really. The simple fact is that I’m just not allergic to her.)

Ok. Enough on placing odds on the less-than-essential stuff. Let’s talk about things that really matter. What are the odds that, five years from now…

  • Sunday morning will still be the most segregated hour of the week? 20 to 1 (wish I could put these odds much lower than that)
  • Divorce will be less common in the Church, as we get serious about marriage, faithfulness, and commitment? 4 to 1 (Isn’t it time we got real about love and grace in our homes?)
  • The American Church will be known for love more than for anger or partisan politics? 3 to 1 (Isn’t it time we got real about love and grace in our world?)
  • Christians will need grace in every aspect of their lives? 1 to 1 (I mean, what else would you bet your life on?)

I Belong

I have a friend who once gave this advice: Don’t tell someone: “You need to go to Weight Watchers.” Clearly, my friend is very wise and insightful. Saying something like that isn’t very kind. Plus, it’s a good way to get slugged.

Instead of telling someone to go to Weight Watchers, my friend suggests making healthy choices in your own life, and when people say: You look good; have you lost weight? – you can reply: Yes. I go to Weight Watchers. Wanna join me?

Now, you still might get slugged, but after they walk away, they’ll at least realize: You’re in the same boat as they are.

You see, when it comes to navigating the sea of life, we ARE all in the same boat together. Nobody is in a position of dispensing answers from a lofty perch of “I’ve-got-this-figured-out, what’s-wrong-with-you?”

That is one of the reasons I love the Church. We’re all in this together. We need each other, because we all have the same need: for God, for grace, for purpose, for life.

This Sunday at Fern Creek Christian, each person who will be there will have an opportunity to say: I belong. In what I hope will be a simple, but meaningful, expression, we’ll add our names to the names of others who are also saying “I belong” – forming the shape of a cross. The visual of belonging will become clear as we see the different crosses take shape. That’s fitting, for it’s the cross that calls us to belong, it’s the cross that is the way we belong, and it’s the way of the cross that shows us what belonging looks like.

So, if you’re a Fern Creeker, come Sunday ready to say: I belong. (And if you’re not, make sure you do the same where you worship.) For in our belonging – to Jesus and to each other – we find who we are. And we find it together.

The Power of Belonging

Belonging matters. For belonging shows what matters to you. And belonging helps shape you into what matters.

Tell me what you belong to, and I’ll tell you who you are. What you commit to – whether it’s a political party, or the Kiwanis, or even Weight Watchers – is about more than what you are a part of. It’s a glimpse into who you are.

This is one reason I am serious about the Church. Despite the fact that Church can be difficult at times, belonging to a church family reminds us that the most important thing is the journey. And necessary to the journey are folks on the same path, as we encourage each other, challenge each other, love each other – and the world.

So, I believe that belonging to a church matters.

One of my seminary teachers, Bruce Shields, tells of preaching at a country church while he was in college. In that congregation, there was a woman named Carrie. She was dirt poor, and lived in a little shack halfway up the mountain. One Saturday afternoon, after she was absent for a number of Sundays, Bruce went to visit Carrie in her home. When he knocked on the door, he heard her moving around inside. It turns out, when Carrie realized who was at the door, she had gone into the back room to wash her mouth out – so her preacher wouldn’t see her with snuff.

When Bruce finished his ministry at this country church, he noticed that nearly everyone was there on his last Sunday. But not Carrie. After the service, when the church was having a party for Bruce and his wife out on the lawn, he happened to catch sight of Carrie. She was limping down the road carrying a big bucket full of ripe huckleberries that she had picked off the bushes high up on the ridge.

Bruce describes it this way: “No gift has ever meant more to me than that one – not only the berries, but the burden. I recall only one gift from that farewell party – it came from a dirt-poor, lame, uneducated, snuff-dipping, loving servant of Jesus Christ. She taught me that everybody has something to give.”

Because, you see, the Church is a place where all of us are invited to belong. And in the belonging, we are changed.

Bruce goes on to describe a number of other regular folk in churches where he has served – and the lessons they have taught him. God, in His great wisdom, knew we needed a place to belong. It’s not a perfect place, because everyone is welcome – and, well, we people tend to be messy. And it’s hard, because, as people, we tend to have opinions, feelings – and sometimes we just get grumpy. But at the end of the day, when we set down roots in a church family, and commit to knowing this particular group of folks, and growing with this particular group of folks – well, something amazing happens. We are changed. And Jesus is made known, as His perfect grace flows through His very imperfect people.

So, I’m grateful for the Church. I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather belong.

If you’re reading this, and you are a part of the church where I serve (which is probably 80+% of you), here are a couple of things coming up at Fern Creek where you have the opportunity to say: I belong. Here.

  1. This Sunday and next (Feb 19 & 26), we are looking to get a number of video clips of people in our church simply saying: I belong. Let me encourage you to take a few seconds to say that very short phrase in front of the camera. We plan to take these clips and make a collage of folks saying, in their own way, “I belong.” On Sunday, follow the signs to the “Living Room,” where we’ll have a video team ready to record you. And don’t be afraid of the camera. Because, remember, we’re with you in this – for we belong together.
  2. Sunday, March 5, will be I Belong Sunday. This will be a day for all of us who call Fern Creek Christian our church family to simply, but powerfully, commit to being a part of what God is doing at Fern Creek. Mark March 5 on your calendar, and plan to belong.