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.

Learning from Children (and Street Musicians)

It’s a 10-year-old story, but it’s as current as today’s news. For it’s a story about the human condition — about our busy-ness, our need to always be somewhere, and how sometimes, in the process of rushing from one thing to the next, we miss the grace of the moment that is right in front of us.

At 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, 2007, at a Washington DC metro station, a guy pulled out his violin and began playing. For 43 minutes, he performed 6 classical pieces as over 1,000 people streamed by. Hardly any of them stopped to listen. No surprise there; DC commuters experience street musicians all the time.

Except, this was no ordinary street musician. This was renowned violinist Joshua Bell, playing his $3.5 million Stradivarius.

There was a lottery ticket dispenser near where Bell was playing, with as many as 5 or 6 at a time waiting to buy tickets. Not once in Bell’s 43 minutes of playing did anyone in the lottery ticket line so much as turn around to look toward Bell.

The Washington Post, which got Bell to perform, reached out to 40 of the commuters, and asked them if anything unusual happened on the way to work that day. Only one of them immediately mentioned Bell. To the other 39, it was just another commute, just another day of getting to work and doing the next thing.

But there was one group of people who always wanted to stop. Without exception, every time a child walked by, he or she tried to get the grown-up they were with to stop and watch. But every single time, the adult scooted the child along.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are like children (Mark 10.14). In the next verse, he goes even further, and says: only those who become like children will enter the kingdom.

I’ve frequently thought about what this passage means: What is Jesus telling us to become? Certainly, children are vulnerable in a way that many adults are not; they are dependent on the care and provision of others. This would have been even more evident in Jesus’ day, as children were not revered and valued as they are today. And so, to be a child is, by definition, to need others to help you along the way. And so, clearly, one element of Jesus’ call for us to be like children is to assume a position of vulnerability, need, dependence, and trust.

But the story of Joshua Bell shows another element. As someone has pointed out, children have a different view of time than adults. We grown-ups spend much of our time thinking about time. What time is it? How much more time do I have to be doing this particular thing? What time is my next thing? How can I better manage my time? And then there’s the phrase nobody wants to be accused of: Stop wasting time.

I understand that for some Africans, there is a phrase they say to Westerners who come for a visit. You have watches. We have time.

Maybe that’s another lesson children teach us. Kids, especially younger ones, don’t wear watches. They don’t worry that they’re gonna be late. They are more open to what opportunities are available right now. I mean: Why rush to the next moment when THIS moment has a guy playing his heart out on the violin?

If the invitation of Jesus is good news (and it is), then it can’t be just more of the same. It can’t be just more stuff to do; more obligations to attend to. It can’t just be a longer to-do list. It must be something more.

Something more that our children help us see. That God’s got the next day covered. And the next thing. That when we rush madly through life, we often miss life. That’s it okay to stop — to stop and receive; to stop and enjoy this moment, this gift of life, this gift of grace.

So, what are you missing by always rushing? What are you not receiving because you’re so busy going and doing? Where is it time to stop and hear the gentle whisper of God; the very music of creation? Maybe it’s where you least expect it — like on a subway stop in the form of a street musician who just might be a glimpse of grace and wonder that it takes the eyes of a child to see.

 

 

What Do Commencement Speeches Tell Us About the Current Zeitgeist?

It’s graduation season. Time to put on a funny square hat, sit in a crowded room, and listen to someone speak words that are intended to send you off into the next phase of life.

It’s graduation season, so it must also be time for commencement speeches. Now, for most of us, graduation presentations are, at best, mildly interesting filler til they’re ready to pass out the diplomas, and at worst, boring bromides that are an anticlimactic way to end four years of homework and hard work.

But they are also something more. In a study of a hundred years of commencement speeches, Markella Rutherford has learned that we can tell a lot about the direction of society, and what society values, by what people say at graduations. In a summary of Rutherford’s research, the writer Chi Luu puts it this way:

Over the last hundred years, as our sense of individualism has grown and prospered, the idea of moral choice and the public understanding of morality has also become highly individualistic. While this can certainly be celebrated for freeing many from the more restrictive social rules of the past, it also seems to have left a kind of modern malaise, an age of anxiety in its wake. To put it simply, without an “objective” moral authority or rigid social structure, how can we be certain we’re doing the right thing?

What a great question! With moral choice becoming more individualized, how do we know what to do? And thus, how do newly-minted graduates know what to do now that they are being unleashed on the world?

To drill down on Rutherford’s research, Luu analyzed 10 specific commencement addresses to see what kinds of words and themes they frequently used. One word commonly used is “Yes.” Two speeches urge saying Yes as often as you can, while another recognizes that Yes will get you in trouble, while others recognize that ‘saying yes’ will lead you to look foolish. But go ahead and do it anyway.

Here’s the thing: Yes is a great word. In fact, it’s at the heart of one of my favorite passages. But for a Yes to be healthy, it has to be partnered with No. That is: we don’t only say Yes, throwing that word around as if it were confetti. We are only able to say Yes to what matters most, because we first turn away from what doesn’t. We are only able to really embrace the life we are called to when we also put up boundaries. We never just say Yes; we also have to learn to say No.

And sometimes that No is hard. Sometimes we say it to our feelings, or to what we desire in the moment. Oftentimes we feel alone in saying No; saying Yes would be so much easier. But a person who can’t say No, doesn’t really know how to say Yes. For both words must be a part of any healthy and whole life.

Or, how about the word “love”? Great word; but even more, it’s an essential practice. Now, certainly, some uses of the word Love are benign, or even good. But in the commencement speeches, there are also quotes like this one: “Make your own hope. Make your own love.”

And this one: “Keep loving what you love.”

Huh? How do I make my own love? Is it a feeling or something I conjure up? And what if what I love is destructive, or divisive, or downright petty? Should I keep loving it?

In comparison to current-day commencements, Chi Luu references a commencement speech from 1923 by a man named R.A. Carter, delivered at Paine College:

Some one has well said: “Everywhere and at all times, the men who have had definite convictions upon the great issues, and have courageously chosen righteousness, are the men who have directed the course of nations.” Also, you must have the ability to go the route morally…. You must not think that you can select the Commandments which you will keep and reject those which you do not like. The moral code of mankind, crystallized into the Ten Commandments by Moses, is the result of the reasoned experience of men who lived ages before Moses. Observation and experience convinced thoughtful men long ages ago that it is harmful to the individual, as well as to the community, to lie, to steal, to kill, and to commit adultery…

Now, I wouldn’t say things the way Mr. Carter does, and my style would certainly be different. But his overall approach, and his underlying assumption that there must be a moral foundation to our choices — well, there’s no denying that.

But commencements like Carter’s are apparently going the way of the condor. In her sampling of 10 recent speeches. you want to guess how many times Luu discover the use of the word “musn’t” in those 10? Zero. Because, I mean, really: Who are YOU to tell ME what I must not do?

The word “must,” however, does appear in the 10 speeches, like in Bradley Whitford’s address, where he says, “You must be your own guide.”

Bradley, I must say: I like you on The West Wing. You’re a very good actor. But I’ve also got to say: your advice undercuts your goal. We already have too many people who are serving as their own guides — leading to a lack of love, a disregard for creation, and the very aimlessness and malaise that is the very issue you are trying to address.

We have plenty of people who are currently saying: Dude, I gotta listen to my inner voice. To which I want to say: Dude, it’s your inner voice, and MY inner voice, that often gets us in trouble. Yes, there are times I need to follow my heart. Yes, there are times I need to do what I love. Yes, I must be an authentic person.

But all of those become aimless aphorisms unless, unless, I have a grounding, a foundation, an understanding of who I am. An understanding that isn’t limited to my own inner guide. For that, I’ve got to know the One who created me; I’ve got to listen to the One who knows me better than I know myself; and I’ve got to find myself in the One who will truly help me commence a life worth graduating into.

Someone I Love Is Turning 49

Gulp! Someone close to me is about to have a birthday — her last one before the 50-mile marker. How did I end up married to — how should I say this? — a woman of such advanced years?

If after that comment, my amazing wife is still reading, I’d like to share with her 13 reasons I love her. In honor of her age, I’ll break it down into 4 main reasons — and 9 supporting ones. Here goes…

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Florida, January 2016

4 Reasons My Wife Is Fantabulous:

  1. She loves her family. Kim is a committed advocate for her kids. She goes to any length to provide for her kids — in ways they don’t even know, let alone appreciate. Hang in there, honey. Some day they will.
  2. She really cares about people. I enjoy watching her in action, as she encourages people who come into our orbit. Whether it’s a child, an older person, someone quirky, or just an average, everyday person, my wife always has time for people. And her concern for them is genuine. Especially if it’s a baby. If it’s a baby, bar the door. My wife has a special homing device for them.
  3. Kim demonstrates her love for God and people by serving. Service is literally wired into her brain; it’s what makes her tick. I have never been around someone who combines skill and desire as amazingly as she does. She is the rare breed that can feed 150 people — and enjoy doing it.
  4. And, of course, she loves and puts up with me. Need I say more?
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25th anniversary, June 2016

Okay, now for the 9 supporting reasons:

  1. She’s an awesome cook! It’s truly amazing that I don’t weigh 300 pounds.
  2. No job or task is beneath her. For example, there was the time she went to spray a wasp’s nest in our back yard. To protect herself from getting stung, she put on a giant Tweety head. There’s a picture somewhere on her facebook page, if you really want to see it.
  3. She is the Queen of Bargains, the Empress of Extraordinary Deals, a specialist at finding special discounts, a veritable garage sale guru.
  4. Related to this: she’s never owned a new car, and doesn’t expect me to buy her one.
  5. She easily forgives. She is simply not a grudge-holder.
  6. We speak the same language, but sometimes she teaches me new ways to say common English words. Thanks, honey, for your creative use of the English language!
  7. Dear, is this a good place to remind you how easily you forgive?
  8. She has a great smile!
  9. She has literally helped me grow, and grow up, and grow in Christ.

Thanks, honey, for nearly 26 years! I love you!