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Dental divinity

My dentist loves me.

Maybe don’t tell him I said so, though. After all, we’ve only just met.

After my regular dental practice closed, I had to find a new caretaker for my teeth. A practice near my work had room for a new patient, so scheduled a visit.

The man who shook my hand the day of that first appointment didn’t act like a dentist. We talked about aspirations, and beliefs, and life goals. He told me about the day he took typical dentistry in hand, looked it over, and decided that wasn’t how the job should be done. Not if he had anything to say about it.

I nodded and leaned in to the conversation, captivated by my new dentist’s unorthodoxy and his philosophical bent.

In the presence of that positive force, I found myself wanting to be not just a better flosser but a better person.

A person who takes responsibility for her decisions, who is deliberate in her choices, who remembers to use the mouthwash instead of letting it sit on the counter for a month before hiding it in a cabinet where it could conveniently be forgotten.

“Now,” he said. “If you’ll permit me, I’d like to take a look in your mouth.”

My insides cringed.

The last thing I wanted was that nice man, with his inspiring words and optimistic view of what a person can be, to look inside my mouth.

The thing is … things aren’t so perfect in there.

The sins of my youth have descended upon my squarely middle-aged muzzle. I don’t remember being a bad brusher as a kid, but the many silver fillings flashing from my molars attest that I used to be delinquent with a toothbrush.

I’ve had more advanced dental work done than I care to admit, none of which makes me look too good as a human being who is supposed to be able to manage basic self-care.

Most of the time, I can hide the flawed teeth that give evidence of a flawed human.

But that day in the office, someone I respected — whose good opinion, I admit, I instinctively craved — wanted me to open up and let him see the unmistakable evidence that I am, at least dentally, a failure.

It’s not that hard to show people our good side. Put on the right outfit, some kicky boots or a killer jacket, and you can walk down the street feeling pretty darn good about yourself.

Make small talk, make eye contact, make someone laugh, and the world gives you a solid thumbs-up and says you’re OK, you’re likable, you’re doing good.

It’s another thing, though, to open up and let someone look inside.

I don’t want people to know I’m weak. I don’t want them to see my mistakes, my incompetencies, my petty envy and noxious undercurrent of pride. I don’t want them to see that I haven’t kept myself clean, that I’ve let destructive habits and hurtful actions settle in the cracks and hide there, eating away at what I pretend is white and pretty.

Now and again, if you’re lucky, you meet someone you like enough to let look at the hidden parts of you, the gunk under the jacket and boots.

If you’re really lucky, they like you anyway.

And, if they love you, they help you do better.

One by one, as his assistant took notes, my new dentist detailed the flaws in each tooth, noting the cracks, the stains, the proof that I messed up in the past and am maybe still not doing so great, teeth-care-wise.

He took a good, long look at that which I wanted to hide. And then he patted me on the shoulder, gave a little speech about the importance of flossing, and then invited me back to see him again. We would talk about steps I could take to have the mouth I wanted.

And, he said, he would help me.

Our Creator doesn’t need a dental chair to see our spiritual plaque. Unhideable in His gaze, our flaws are on full display, even as He pleads with us to brush, to floss, to cut it out with the bad habits already and take care of the precious lives and hearts He gave us.

I wouldn’t blame Him if He shooed us out of His office in exasperation.

But that’s not His way. He’s a do-something God, a God who took a good, long look at us and still loved us enough to come to be one of us, to be a sacrifice in our place, knowing we’ll never get life right on our own.

He’s a do-something God who is there in our daily battles, listening, supporting, guiding us from the inside, offering His Words and the shoulders and arms and ears and hearts of the humans around us, the people He has given to prop us up and prod us to be more than self-absorbed lumps.

When you love someone, you help them do better.

May God give me people who love me enough to remind me about the parts of me I ought to fix. And may He give me a do-something heart that loves enough to look at the gunk of my fellow man, like them anyway, and, as best I can, help them do better.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.