Recently I began listening to Owl City’s new album, Ocean Eyes, which includes the horridly hilarious song, “Dental Care”. I resonate with lyrics like “I’ve been to the dentist a thousand times so I know the drill… but somehow I still get a chill,” especially when my tongue hovers over that hole in one of my back molars.
I last went to the dentist (this is my sad confession) when I was living in Vancouver several years ago. Before going, I sat down with one of my more insightful friends, who pointed out the real reason I was hesitant to go to the dentist. “It’s not the pain, Matt, it’s the guilt.”
How right he was! That trip in Vancouver seemed to only confirm my fears. When I walked in, the dental assistant gave me a questionnaire, which included the dreaded question, “Most recent visit to the dentist?” With a horrid sinking sensation, I wrote, “Ten years” (please don’t judge me!). When she read that, the assistant looked at me with a look of indignant shock, and began to interrogate me with increasing aggravation, “Do you brush twice a day? Do you floss? How can you not go to the dentist in ten years if you do not floss?! Do you eat sweets? Chocolate!? You eat CHOCOLATE?!” Ugh…
The big thing for her, of course, was the ten years between visits. When she asked why I hadn’t been in so long, part of me wanted to answer, “Well, because of people like YOU!” It’s a vicious cycle: I don’t go to the dentist, because I feel guilty; a year goes by, and now I feel more guilty, so I don’t go… and on and on it goes.
The thing is, in my experience, many people dread going somewhere else I know, and for similar reasons: that place is the church. Their memories of church are just a heavy dose of guilt – and often about why it’s been so long since they last came. To cite an oft-quoted statement by the great comedienne, Cathy Ladman, “All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt, with different holidays.”
Certainly, I think this fear can be a little over-exaggerated, and most of the churches I’m familiar with don’t glare narrowly over attendance lists every Sunday. Nonetheless, I want to validate those who have had a similar negative experience, and assure them that if anybody is annoyed by that attitude of superiority over others in church, it’s Jesus.
Jesus hated that kind of attitude, that judgementalism, that exclusivity. He saw it in the Pharisees in His day, who complained that He ate with tax-collectors and sinners. Curiously, He used a different medical analogy to deal with this issue: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” The term “righteous” there is largely sarcastic – as Jesus would frequently indicate, those with a reputation for being righteous were really not that righteous at all. None of us, least of all those in the church, should be making comparisons between others and ourselves.
But two other things come out of Jesus’ statement. The first is that there are people who feel the pain of their mistakes, like an ache. That happens in lots of contexts, including the dentist and the church, but also the school, the workplace, and even the clothing store. World Vision Australia’s Tim Costello once wrote, “there has been a new definition of sin… sin is now to do with not having the right body shape or not wearing the right clothes…. Without them we are flawed, failing and incomplete as persons.” Many of these conceptions of guilt are of course misplaced, but even when they are correct, expressing them is not the issue – the issue is that so often any hope of resolution for them is sorely lacking.
But the other great thing about Jesus’ statement is that He is the doctor. A good doctor is never like that judgmental dental assistant (even though, okay, I deserved it!). When we go to the doctor with an ailment, and they tell us why we feel so bad, it actually liberates us. Naming the cause seems to take away some of its power. But Jesus does even more. He brings hope by offering a cure – namely, Himself.
The last point to make is this. Christ called the people within the church community to be His Body, to corporately incarnate Him into the world now. That means we must stop being dental assistants, throwing away all pretensions of having it “all together” – we are sinners in need of grace like everybody else. Instead, we must be like the Good Doctor Himself. Great churches help those plagued by mistakes and inadequacies, to find hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, through offering them understanding, compassion, and Christ Himself. That might not have been your experience so far, but believe me, the best churches I know do just that. They’re out there, which is a relief, because they are where true healing can often begin.
 Mark 2:17
 Tim Costello, Tips from a Travelling Soul-Searcher (Allen & Unwin, 1999), 191.