Removing the Plaque

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“While I was at the dentist,” my wife informed me, “I figured I would set you up for an appointment. I hope that was okay?” On the outside I heard myself sayng, “Thanks!” On the inside, my inner Third Grader was shouting, “No! No! No! That’s not okay!” It had been ages since the last time I had submitted my chompers for a full scale check-up. If there was a DFS for orthodontia, I am convinced that my teeth would have been placed in the custody of some non-procrastinating, real adult who would have cherished and cared for my coffee-stained chompers far better than me.

When the dreaded day arrived, I stepped through a door jam that cordons off the normal world with its wholesome sights, sounds and smells, from that other world that smells vaguely of cloves, mint, latex, and rubbing alcohol. As I checked in, a guilt-inducing, raised receptionist eyebrow let me know that my moral lapse of more than four years had not gone unnoticed. The subsequent smile that stretched out across her Nurse Ratched—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next–face wordlessly communicated, “You’d better get used to the idea that, for the next hour and a half, your mouth is mine!”

I was escorted into a small room where I settled into a seriously firm recliner. I began to study the ceiling tiles. I struggled to keep my eyes focused above to avoid unconsciously examining the poking, prodding, whirring, sucking instruments of torture that laid just below that weird little fluorescent light on a rocker arm. A gregarious, middle-aged dental hygienist entered the room with an apparent mission to anesthetize my anxious mind. With her hands into my mouth up to her elbows, she laid out a thorough philosophy on raising children, the proper way to maintain an atmosphere of safety on a school bus, and what she thought she would do during her lunch break on that day. With all but my vocal cords out of commission, I responded with the pre-verbal barks and groans of a seal.

After forty-five minutes of scraping, and poking, and X-raying, while I clutched the chair, I found myself setting up another appointment so that I could get scraped and poked more thoroughly. My dentist practiced great self-restraint. I guess he figured that by the time a guy is in his fifties, he probably already knows that he ought to get to the dentist more frequently than sesquicentennially.

It is hard to believe it, but Lent has arrived again! I am convinced that Lent was devised for procrastinating pseudo-adults like me. This is the time when people like me get to discover where some spiritual plaque may be accumulating. Because it cycles around once a year, Lent provides a yearly check-up that helps us take inventory of our spiritual hygiene. This season offers an opportunity to examine how we’re doing with those daily practices that prevent decay in our relationships with self, others, and God.

If you’re like me, you pay lip service to New Year’s resolutions. People like me make superficial promises alongside the rest of our culture knowing full well, that the substantive inner-house cleaning will take place like it does every spring for forty days and forty nights.

Lent doesn’t wait for me to act like an adult, and make an appointment. Every year, when the days start lingering a little longer, and the breezes blow slightly warmer, a season of renewal shows up right on time. There is a comfort to the rhythms and rituals of a faith tradition. Lent brings with it a kind of Springtime excitement that says, despite how much I have procrastinated, despite my many mistakes of the year, “God isn’t finished with me yet.” As our windows and doors open to the fresh air over the next few months, Lent is that time that promises that all things can be made fresh and new.

A Lenten Exercise for Procrastinators Like Me that Takes Less than Five Minutes

Rather than wait for a once-a-week spiritual check-up, try out this brief daily check-up created by Saint Ignatius Loyola, several hundred years ago. He called it, “The Examen.” It was at the heart of his “Spiritual Exercises.”

·On the way home from work, turn off the radio, and surface memories throughout the last day when God’s grace has been present to you or present through you to another. Look for very specific times when you experienced kindness, friendliness, or any other form of generosity. Look for a sparkling moment when care was exchanged. Search for a moment when you delivered kindness or care.

·When an experience surfaces, step back into it, and re-experience it with a smile. Savor it before moving on. Should you encounter a way in which you were oblivious, or closed to God’s grace in a moment of your day, take time to have a compassionate laugh at yourself. Often examinations of conscience degenerate into the psychological equivalent of a spiritual dental chair. With the poking, prodding instruments of perfectionism, and self-excoriation, people torture themselves with the false belief that this somehow makes them more presentable to God. The focus here is on savoring grace, well-being, and goodness.

·This same exercise can be done at lunchtime. After looking back over your morning prayerfully, one can survey a schedule of afternoon events, and add to this, “Where will there be an opportunity to open myself to joy, kindness, creativity, service, and well-being this afternoon?” Next, resolve to be open to that grace when the time comes in a very specific way.

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