I was at the dentist earlier this week, and I have to say, it kind of sucked. I don’t have any cavities, but still, the high pitched scrubber thing, the scraping, the woman holding my mouth open too wide, all of that was basically horrible. The whole time I was worried about whether the hygienist’s scraper tool would slip and cut my gums.
And I thought well, dentistry – Is dentistry a gift from God?
Yes, of course it is.
Without it, our teeth would rot. We’d have untreatable toothaches. Instead of novocaine or laughing gas, we’d get sachets of herbs to suck on for pain control and the dentist would yank out our teeth with pliers. In comparison to that, modern dentistry is definitely a gift from God. And so is dental insurance.
As I lay there, that cliched phrase floated into my head: What would Jesus do? I’m not sure what to make of Christianity, or of Jesus, but I’m open-minded and I can think about it as one of the foundational texts of our culture, in many ways, our creation story, and make use of the Bible stories without the absolute certainty that seems to be the hallmark of American Christianity.
I imagined Jesus as a modern-day Portland bro, with a man bun, and a flannel shirt and slim cut dark blue jeans and expensive tennis shoes. I imagined the hygienist holding his mouth open too wide and scraping his teeth with a needle-like tool. I imagine his man bun crushing uncomfortably against the back of his head and him wishing he’d taken it out before lying back in the seat.
And I thought, with indignation and self-pity, Jesus never had to do this! And then immediately answered myself, Yes, Melissa, because he was killed. He died young. They hadn’t even modern invented dentistry yet.
And I think even Jesus, the modern Portland man bun Jesus, would not like going to the dentist.
But this is a mistake I make about spirituality: I fall into the thinking that if I was just doing my spiritual practice RIGHT, I’d be fine in all situations. Happy. Joyful and content. No pain.
In this frame of mind, I think, Well, if Jesus was here, he’d be fine with this. But he wouldn’t. No human would. Or, oh, the Dalai Lama would just smile and laugh through this. But probably not. Or, Thich Nhat Hanh would meditate through this. Well, maybe. A meditation on unpleasantness, sure.
This is what I love about the Christian story of God coming to earth as a human. Even in the Bible, the official account of this story, God in human form, as Jesus, gets angry. Jesus gets scared.
My husband and I went to mass in Mexico once and the priest raised a baby high, a real live baby. He walked around the entire cathedral with the baby, and we remembered that in the Bible story, God comes to earth as a real baby. A real human life, a real human body, real human emotions, that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about Jesus.
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus goes and prays in the Garden of Gethsemane and begs to be let out of the next step, begs to not be crucified. Even Jesus is terrified of what’s coming next sometimes.
Jesus’s first public miracle was turning water into wine for a wedding, but what often gets left out of that story is that he doesn’t want to do it. His mother, Mary, the blessed virgin, the saint, keeps asking him. Jesus! I imagine her whispering out of the side of her mouth like mothers do, Help them! They’re running out of wine.
And Jesus keeps skating away, like, Oh, Um, I don’t know what you mean. That’s nothing to do with me. He’s embarrassed. He doesn’t want to do it.
But his mother keeps asking him to fix it, to do his thing, and finally he says, fine. We can hear the exasperation in his voice. Fine, mother. Fine. Even Jesus gets guilted into doing things he doesn’t want to do out of love for his mother.
So, go easy on yourself, this holiday season. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, whether you take his whole story as metaphor, or as literature, or as a text that’s crucial in our culture, or whether you take Jesus literally, let’s take what we can learn from this idea of what becomes of God in human form.
God in human form: gets scared, gets angry. Does things he doesn’t want to do sometimes out of love for the people he loves. God in human form befriends people who betray him at times, or disappoint him or lie to him. His friends are not always awesome.
People don’t like this God in human form sometimes. They find him overbearing, and obnoxious. They think his manners are poor. And that he seems poor, and, we can imagine, tacky. Shabby. He hangs around with people they don’t approve of. Even his friends don’t always understand him, or think his ideas are dumb.
Even Jesus didn’t do everything “perfectly” in the way we often imagine perfection – utterly steadfast, no emotional ups and downs, so perfect everyone loves them, always.
In fact, the story of Jesus was nearly the opposite: People got so angry with Jesus that they eventually killed him. And he was Jesus. So what chance do the rest of us have to get out of having people be angry with us at times?
How easily I can fall into the idea that if I was doing everything right, no one would ever be angry with me. I’d always be socially graceful. But the Jesus story offers me a different notion of what it looks like to be a perfect human.
If even Jesus, as God in human form, had these experiences, how would we get out of these human traits? How can we expect to live a life of no fear, no anger? Of never being betrayed by a loved one or of having no one get deeply angry with us? This is it. This is part of the human experience. That’s one lesson I take away from Jesus.
If even God came here and was appalled at the behavior of the rich and powerful, how would I not be? How can I expect myself to be more loving and tolerant than God? Or, if even God has people so angry with him, how would I not have people angry with me at times? If even God is occasionally irritated by his family members’ expectations, how can I get out of that?
So, be patient. There will be great moments in the next week, and there will be annoyances and there will be boring moments, as well. The full range of a typical human week.
And even Jesus would not love lying in the dentist’s chair. Even Jesus might be annoyed at the mandatory fun of a work party. Even Jesus would be overwhelmed at the mall at Christmas time. Even Jesus would be frustrated and disgusted with his racist uncle at a family dinner.
These aren’t signs that we’re judgmental, or too negative. No, this is part of the human experience, this range of awfulness. And yet, and yet, there is beauty too. And goodness.
We can be glad to be here in life anyway. This human life, with all its inconveniences and disappointments, is still a beautiful thing. When I am squeezed into bed for a family slumber party between my husband and my son, all three of us reading, there is still no place I’d rather be.
Out with friends for dinner, I’m grateful we have so many friends we can go to dinner with, so many friends who can afford a dinner out. As I turn on the Christmas tree lights each morning, I wish the tree was up all year.
So, love to you. Whatever holidays you celebrate, or none. And think of the radicalness of this idea – what if God came to earth and was truly human? What if all the human experiences you had were experiences God had had, too? Loving and annoyance, and anger and boredom, and liking and delight.
How would that change things for you? How does that change things for me?
When I think of Jesus as God in human form, it makes me realize that this life truly is “as good as it gets,” that no amount of spirituality is going to get me out of the experience of being human. And I realize that everything is essentially ok for the moment. There’s no need to wish for this to be different.
This is it: This is dentistry at the forefront of it’s advances.
So I may as well be grateful. I may as well be in this life, with a curious and open heart. See what is to be learned and experienced in this human form.