I couldn’t figure it out. Recently, my dental hygienist scraped, poked and dug around my teeth for at least an hour before she even began cleaning them.
“What’s up with my teeth?” I finally asked.
“You have gingivitis.”
“It’s an inflammation of the gum tissue.”
“Really? I’ve never had that before. Where does it come from?”
“That’s not all. The inflammation around your teeth can also affect your heart, as sticky bacterial plaque can get into the bloodstream and injure major organs. You need to start using Sonicare. It’s an electric toothbrush that works much better than a regular toothbrush.You also have to start flossing daily. Not flossing daily can take ten years off your life.”
My hygienist put the fear of God into me, but I wasn’t 100% convinced. Just then my dentist came in to give my teeth a once over. “Jeff, I’ve never had gingivitis before. Where did it come from?”
My teeth gave me away. According to researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan, emotional factors experienced in the previous twelve months play a significant role in the development of adult gum disease. The stress that we experience because of financial pressures, job loss, overwork, depression or relationship difficulties has to manifest itself somewhere, and it’s often in our body.
I ran across an Advent prayer this week that went like this: “Lord, even though I am under a lot of stress during this season of Advent, help me to just buck up.” Has anyone ever told you to buck up: to “deal with it,” “grin and bear it” or “just get over it”? Can you imagine telling John the Baptist to buck up when he announced to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Or Jesus when he said, “Woe to you, scribes and hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
I have a new mantra for Advent. “No more bucking up.” No more pretending that all is well during Advent or any other time. No more allowing stress to destroy our mental, emotional or physical health. No more refusing to deal with difficult issues until they explode. No more acquiescing to those who would diminish, oppress or squelch the spirit of others.
The intensity of the stress in our country from decades of ongoing and unaddressed tensions between police departments and African Americans has escalated dramatically in the past few months. Regardless of the circumstances of the recent deaths of blacks by white police officers, what we are recognizing is a mistrust between community police departments and the people they serve. It also highlights the tension that builds when the make-up of these departments does not reflect the communities they represent.
For decades African Americans have been told, in effect, to “buck up” as America has attempted to live as one nation “with liberty and justice for all.” Protests and demonstrations have erupted all over the country in response to several grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers for deaths of African Americans. And on November 24, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer when all he had was a toy airsoft gun.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has a 17-year-old African American son, said at a news conference hours after the decision was announced, “I’ve had to worry over the years… Is Dante safe each night? … Is my child safe, and not just from some of the painful realities of crime and violence in some of our neighborhoods, but safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors? That’s the reality.”
Ferguson, Cleveland and New York City are stark reminders of our call as disciples of Jesus Christ to admit the truth of what is happening in the streets of our country, recognize the ongoing challenge of racism, and commit ourselves to work for racial equality in every corner of the world. No more bucking up.
We find similar stress in the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations, all of which are struggling to reinvent themselves in a changing world. In The United Methodist Church we haven’t yet found a way to honor the global nature of our church by claiming a common theological heritage and at the same time allowing for varieties of biblical understanding and differences around social issues according to cultural and geographical contexts.
The fact that there is no body provided for in the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church where American United Methodists can make decisions about their own polity, structure and social principles mitigates at times against church vitality and effective disciple-making. In addition, we have not always been able to respect differences of faith and practice by seeking common ground. One consequent stress to the system has resulted in ecclesiastical challenges to our polity by those who decide to “buck up no more” by performing gay marriages. The result? Painful church trials and a “gingivitis” of the spirit that inflames rather than consoles.
We’re now in the midst of the season of Advent. It is not only a time of waiting and longing for the coming of Christ, it is also an occasion for repentance for the many ways in which we insist that others “buck up” when they don’t feel the joy of Christmas or think like we do. Some experience despair over race, immigration, health care inequities and poverty. Others are struggling with the stress of mental or physical illness, worry about friends or family members or dis-ease with the commercialization and misplaced expectations of a sacred holiday. “Buck up. Get over it. Don’t be a Grinch!” we are told.
How can we celebrate Christmas in a way that offers hope for our world instead of trite expressions of Christmas joy, mounds of stuff that no one needs or family customs that focus inward rather than extend Christ’s love into the darkest corners of our world? Instead of just bucking up, how can we transform our stress into positive actions that make a difference in the lives of others as well as bring health and wholeness to our own lives? I invite you to consider these suggestions.
- Recognize how stress affects your physical, emotional, spiritual and dental health and dare to simplify Christmas so that you can truly enjoy the season.
- Empathize with those who struggle at Christmas instead of providing glib solutions or insisting that they buck up.
- Go deeper into the wilderness of your own life by a countercultural waiting in the embrace of darkness as you move through Advent.
- Move beyond yourself this Advent and align your energies with those living on the margins or those who have been rejected, oppressed and need others to advocate for them.
- Consider attending worship services such as Blue Christmas or Longest Night services that intentionally minister to those for whom this time of year evokes pain, grief or hopelessness.
As Mayor de Blasio wrote in an open letter last week, “Finally, in recent weeks, protesters and activists have adopted a phrase that should never have to be said, but that the stains on our country’s history demand we say: Black Lives Matter.” He also wrote, “There is much to be done.” No more bucking up.