God as Dentist

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dentist-toolsSince I was a boy, I’ve had an aversion to dental work. I have avoided dentists as much as possible—probably why I need to see them more than I do. My last couple visits were beyond my control: one was to replace a twenty-year-old crown that broke, and the most recent was to repair a tooth that had chipped.

As the doctor explored that great chasm that is my mouth, his light, mirror, and pick inspecting each stalactite and stalagmite of my upper and lower jaws, he would occasionally stop to tug at some sharp edge. Sometimes the tugging was so fierce I thought he might pull loose an old crown or filling. Other times I figured he’d found some natural jag—like the nooks and crannies in a cave’s walls—that I would need to remember to floss better.

But those weren’t jags weren’t natural, and they weren’t rough edges left by some previous oral explorer. No, they were deposits of calcium or plaque that had attached since my last cleaning—”like barnacles,” my dentist said, graphically. And they needed to be removed.

Some of my barnacles broke off easily. Some needed more coaxing and a bit of filing. But some took a lot more work, more care, more powerful tools, and that dreaded whirring noise.


This morning I was praying a dangerous prayer: that God would transform me; that he would conform me into the image of Christ. As I prayed, I thought about my time in the dentist’s chair as a lesson for my spiritual life.

God and dentists do two types of work: they transform us and they conform us.

Spiritually, God transforms us by cleaning our lives, renewing our minds (to borrow Paul’s words from Romans 12:2). He picks off the plaque and files down or grinds off the rough edges – the barnacles, as my dentist called them. He finds the cavities, then cleans and fills them. (Let’s not even get into root canals here!)

Conforming is different. It’s a reshaping of our lives; it’s the process of molding, shaping, sanding, and polishing – like the dentist did when he had to build up and shape the enamel he used to repair my chipped tooth. Just as our teeth were once new and beautifully formed, so our lives were once an exquisite “image of God.” And just as years of eating and drinking not always healthy foods wears down, discolors, and damages our teeth, so our sin nature and the unhealthy choices we make mar that original holy image. God wants to restore it.

When I was looking for an image to accompany this post, I noticed that all the patients in the dentists’ chairs had beautiful looking teeth! I would love to have such a perfect mouth, I’m just not as excited about the work it would take to get there.

I also want to look like Jesus, but that, too, takes hard, slow, sometimes painful, work as God patiently conforms us to the image of Christ. The results will be worth every moment.

Get Out of the Tar Pits

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USA_tar_bubble_la_brea_CAIn the heart of Los Angeles, California, in the shadow of towering skyscrapers and next to the very 21st-century Museum of Art, a geologic phenomenon bubbles up from deep beneath the surface of the earth: black asphalt. Trapped in the asphalt are thousands of years worth of fossils: bison, wolves, mammoths, and sloths; spiders, insects, and birds; sticks, leaves, and grasses.

Visitors to the La Brea Tar Pits and the George C. Page Museum are treated not only to well-preserved skeletons and archaeologists at work on active digs, but also to the pungent aroma of the tar that seeps up in the middle of the otherwise-green lawns of the surrounding park. It is a sticky and stinky museum!

The tar pits that so easily trapped unsuspecting animals offered a poignant metaphor recently as I prepared to preach on Colossians 3. In this compelling passage, the apostle Paul urges his readers—already convinced of their salvation through Jesus—to live in light of that salvation. Look up!, he says. Keep your hearts, eyes, and minds fixed on Christ.

But then he adds these words of warning: “Put to death whatever is earthly in you….”

Paul knows we can’t keep our eyes on Jesus when our noses are filled with the stench of death – when we’re walking through the tar pits.

What are some of the tar pits that entrap us? “Sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. … Anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language [and lying].” It’s a comprehensive list, but by no means exhaustive.

When I was in training in the Air Force, i had a roommate who used to read two things every night before bed: Playboy and a Bible – in that order, at first. But as the weeks of training went on, the order switched. By the end of our two months, the Bible no longer sat on his nightstand but was tucked away in a drawer; only the magazine remained.

As my roommate learned, it’s hard to stay focused on life when you’re walking in a graveyard; it’s hard to keep your eyes up on heavenly things when you’re constantly looking down at what’s “earthly.”

You died with Christ, Paul says, but you’ve also been raised with Him. So put to death what belongs to death, and live a life of life.

 

What about you? Have you been raised with Christ? Then what do you need to put to death so that you can live with your eyes up, on Christ?

Keep your head up!

Life Matters

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In my ninth grade Social Studies class I wrote a paper arguing that abortion should not be legal in the US. It was Spring 1979 – just six years after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. I was 15 and had grown up as a Christian. That God was “pro-life” seemed prima facie long before I knew what that Latin phrase meant. After all, wasn’t “thou shalt not kill” one of His Top Ten rules for living?

But there was a problem: The more I researched constitutional law, the harder it was to find a compelling legal argument to overturn Roe v. Wade, much less to adopt a constitutional amendment banning abortion.

That paper forced me into the dilemma of arguing for a law that fit my faith, but not my citizenship. It was one of my earliest shifts away from a black-and-white, right-and-wrong mindset.


Last week, the ugly reality of our nation’s ongoing struggle with race again came to the forefront. The facts in the incidents are more than any of us will ever know or comprehend, but that won’t stop most of us (me included) from forming uninformed opinions. Just take a glance at social media and you’ll see what I mean.

Black lives matter. Police lives matter. White lives matter.
Babies’ lives matter. Women’s lives matter.
All lives matter.

Well, of course. But when we hear one of those lines—Black lives matter. Women’s lives matter—and respond with another—All lives matter. Babies’ lives matter.—we’re just using our mouths instead of our ears… our heads, not our hearts. We’re not listening.

 


When I was writing that abortion paper, I learned about something else that matters: words. You see, I called myself pro-life, but people on the other side called me anti-abortion; they were pro-choice, but my side would call them pro-death. We said we cared about life, yet too often showed little concern for the life of the mother; they said they cared about the woman, yet showed no concern for the life—or even potential life—growing inside her. It was a war of words.

“Black lives matter” began as a rallying cry but turned into a movement. Like a lot of movements, it’s not all simple and pure. (Didn’t the non-violent civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., in some way spur some of the violent actions of the time – even while not condoning the violence?)

Whatever you think of the movement, the words themselves matter: black lives matter. And, with help, I found that when I would respond to that cry with a trite, “all lives matter,” I was only proving that black words didn’t matter to me. And that meant something needed to change: me.

Saying “black lives matter” shouldn’t just mean that cops need to stop killing black people.
Saying I’m “pro-life” shouldn’t just mean that we need to stop killing babies.

If lives matter…if life matters…then we should value those lives, their worth, their joys, their pains, their struggles…. If words matter, then maybe we need to start listening to them.

Just Listen

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park-bench-seated-web1

© Steven Secon, Architect

Words cannot express the tragedy that has torn at our nation in the past few days.

We have watched a distraught Diamond Reynolds pleading with God for the life of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, who had just been shot multiple times by a police officer.

We have witnessed a desperate struggle between black Alton Sterling and two white officers, ending with Sterling’s point-blank shooting death.

We have seen five Dallas police officers gunned down by snipers during a Black Lives Matter protest.

And these are, we know, not isolated incidents. We have seen too many black men killed by officers sworn to keep the peace, and too often for reasons that seem to be little more than the color of their skin. We have seen too many police killed, apparently for no other reason than that they wore a uniform.

It seems almost impossible to write of these tragedies—this national tragedy—in words that are balanced and avoid assumption. Indeed, perhaps the most accurate assumption any of us can and should make is that in most cases (not all) there is both guilt and innocence on all sides. Yet even that statement seems to be a desperate stretch for balance in those instances where balance is clearly lacking.

In the midst of all this, social media lights up with hashtags and memes, opinions and arguments; some crying out for the innocents on their side and others shouting for judgment for the guilty on the other side. Pastors call for peace, politicians call for prayer or gun reform or immigration laws, mothers call for justice. And some, like me, feel that we ought to say something, do something… and yet we—I—feel helpless, impotent.


Yesterday I sat across a restaurant table from a young black man, just the second time I’ve met him. I realized (among other things) how much I have missed, having relationships almost exclusively with white people like me. And I realized how helpless I feel to do anything that might make a difference to the racial divide in my community, let alone my country.

Several times, as we talked about these killings and what it’s like growing up as a black man in America, my friend apologized for “bringing me down.” He needn’t have; I needed to hear him. It reminded me of my disabled friend, through whose eyes I have begun to see disabilities in a new light.

As I’ve reflected on our conversation, I’ve realized something else: can do something. I can keep listening to my friend. And in the listening, I will learn, and that may be most important – at least for me. But in the listening I also give my friend a gift: the gift of being heard.

In times like this, it’s easy to jump on the hashtag bandwagon, to spout opinions, to show support for one side or another. But making a real difference isn’t easy, and it’s not accomplished by changing your profile picture.

If you’re wondering how to make a difference, then maybe the best thing is to find someone to talk with, to listen to—someone not like you: someone with different skin, a different religion, different beliefs; someone, perhaps, whom society says you should be at odds with. Go sit at a restaurant, a coffee shop, a park bench, and listen.

No Pain, No Gain

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Broken Leg XRay - C TurnerMaybe you’ve heard the saying. Maybe you’ve seen it on a t-shirt. Coaches shout it to their exhausted players in the middle of a hot, hard practice. Parents use it with their kids who complain about homework or chores or any other difficult task they don’t want to do.

No pain, no gain.

Most of us don’t like pain. Whether it comes from soccer practice, mowing the grass, or getting a shot in the doctor’s office, we try to avoid or—if we can’t do that—at least minimize pain. But pain has an important and very necessary place in our lives.

When I saw the x-ray image above, I cringed. When I read my friend’s account of how the injury happened, my toes curled, my stomach tightened, and I knotted up inside as a mental video played in my mind. And then I remembered something: my friend didn’t feel it. Nothing. No pain. No sensation of both her tibia and her fibula fracturing.

You see, my friend has a lower spine injury. A freak accident more than 25 years ago left her paralyzed from the waist down. And though I’ve known others with various disabilities, it’s only been through this woman’s friendship that I have begun to understand the impacts.

A few times in my life, I’ve been sick in bed or on the couch just long enough that parts of my body feel sore. For my friend, that’s daily. Except for one thing: she doesn’t feel sore…at least below the waist. And because of that, the sores she gets could get infected and she’d never know it.

A few years ago while hospitalized for one of these infected sores, a new doctor came in to examine her. Apparently not familiar with her condition, he asked the typical doctor’s question: “What’s your pain level?” My friend just stared at him in disbelief before finally saying, “I don’t feel any pain. I can’t feel anything.” She was dumbfounded by the unexpected ignorance of this medical professional.

Most of us try to avoid pain; my friend wishes she could feel it – because pain is a sign of life. 

The next time you get hurt… the next time you stub your toe or hit your head or are hurt by a friend’s careless words… say a prayer of thanks to God that your feelers work. Thank Him that He’s given you life.

Then go get a bandaid for your toe, an icepack for your head, or a cup of coffee and a dose of forgiveness for your friend.