I have the best parents.
Not only did they bring me into this world 26+ years ago, but they have constantly supported me, encouraged me, and loved me—despite my many quirks. For instance, when I got permission from my school’s principal to take home my Latin book to study over the summer after 6th grade, they didn’t tell me that was weird (although, let’s be honest, that was pretty weird). When, at the age of 8, I decided I wanted to be a Broadway star, they enrolled me in singing lessons (though I later learned that they were mainly afraid of my embarrassing myself with my absolutely terrible voice). And when it came time for me to get my license, they patiently taught me drive our stick-shift Volvo. But as wonderful as all these parental kindnesses have been, none of them even remotely compares with the greatest gift my parents gave me:
No, I don’t mean that in a genetic sense, such as “my parents have nice smiles, and they passed this trait down to me.” Nor do I mean it in a sappy, emotional sense, such as “my parents are wonderful people, and they taught me to love life, to be joyful, and to smile.” While both of those explanations are true, my appreciation stems from something far more important—and expensive:
I first visited Dr. Toombs, my orthodontist, when I was in 2nd grade. Born with an under bite, a cramped upper jaw, and hopelessly gapped and crooked teeth, I was well on my way to appearing on the Hillbilly version of The Bachelor.
I first became a “metal mouth” in third grade, when Dr. Toombs installed a lip bumper to fix my under bite and a palette expander (complete with a key for my mom to crank nightly… Don’t mind the sound of my bones crunching.) On the upshot, the lip bumper made me quite the hit with the popular kids, who took turns daring each other to touch it. However, in retrospect, this might explain why I had so few friends.
Following the lip bumper and palette expander—which had made the preexisting gap between my two front teeth so wide that I could fit my pinky finger inside—I got my first set of braces in 4th grade, this time only on my four front teeth. Fortunately for my elementary-school social life, these braces made me seem older and, therefore, cooler. Within a few months, the atrocious expander-induced gap disappeared, and an adorable 10-year-old smile had taken its place.
But although my mouth seemed nearly perfect, looks can be deceiving; there was still a lot of work to be done. In 8th grade, Dr. Toombs installed my second set of braces, this time on all my teeth, not just a select few. And to make my middle-school social experience even better, these braces were soon accompanied by rubber bands. Intended to speed up the tooth-straightening process, these demon-possessed bits of latex conspired to torture me by always popping at the most inopportune times, awkwardly coming undone in the middle of conversation, and being absolutely impossible to put on. In short, they were AWFUL. Even after I quit using them, they continued to haunt me, appearing in my backpack, pockets, and bedroom for the next two-plus years. *involuntary shiver* I’ll never forget the time that my mom took me outside to see the end of the dryer vent, where a veritable rubber-band graveyard had formed. Disgusting.
I got my second and last set of braces off during my freshman year of high school (exactly one week after school picture day. Go figure, haha.) But at long last, my teeth were finally free! Now I could eat popcorn and caramel apples, take less than 5 minutes to floss, and not have to worry about orthodontia ever again! From here on out, my teeth would be absolutely, positively, 100% perfect! Yayyyyyy!!!!!
… Or not quite. Because if you’ve had braces, then you know the #1 rule after you get them off: if you want your teeth to stay perfect and not revert to their natural Ozark-esque state, then you have to wear your retainers. If you don’t, then all that lip-bumping, palette-expanding, and rubber-band-wearing will have been for naught.
It’s been almost 12 years since Dr. Toombs took off my braces, and I’m proud* to say that I still wear my retainers every night (*although I recognize that my continued retainer-wearing may seem weird, haha). When I visited Dr. Toombs last summer for my biennial checkup, he was pleased to see that my teeth hadn’t budged at all. My diligence and consistency had paid off, and my very expensive smile was still exactly as it should be.
So why am I telling you this story? Is it simply to heed my mom’s (joking?) admonition that I need to inform prospective suitors that my future children will likely be buck-toothed? Did I just want an excuse to show off my elementary-school pictures? While those are both valid reasons (after all, aren’t my pictures precious?), I’m sharing my oral history because I think it sheds some valuable light on my—and our—walk with Christ. Let me explain.
I began following Jesus when I was 14 years old, and I experienced a dramatic and rapid internal change. For the first time in my life, I wanted to read my Bible, I eagerly memorized Scripture, and I prayed earnestly and honestly. The “spiritual orthodontia” worked, and for the next few years, God used these spiritual disciplines along with difficult circumstances to make me more like Him. Since high school, the pattern has repeated: Whenever I go through challenging times, I find myself growing closer to the Lord, as I am prompted to rely on Him. Like a set of spiritual braces, the hard times close the gap between me and my Savior, and in the process, He brings my life, perspective, and desires more in line with His.
As I write this, I am wrapping my third year of graduate school, which turned out to be a braces-like experience. While studying for exams, teaching my own class, and defending my dissertation proposal, I faced intense academic, mental, and emotional pressure. As in the past, God proved Himself unbelievably faithful throughout, and thanks to His help (and the support of many dear friends), I made it through with flying colors. The next few months will be ones of rest, recuperation, and celebration. As I look ahead, it could be tempting to become complacent in my relationship with Him. After all, I’ve made it through the hard stuff. Now I have finally earned a spiritual break, right?
Wrong. Instead of taking a break, it’s time for me to put in my “spiritual retainers”, or in the more elegant words of the Apostle Paul, to “live up to what [I] have already attained.” In times of well-earned rest, God calls us to consistency, not complacency. For it’s through the morning Bible-reading, the praying as we brush our teeth, and the thoughts of gratitude as we fall asleep that we continually realign our hearts to His. We never get past our constant need for Him, even when the “braces” are off and the pressures have temporarily subsided. It’s in these times that we must continue to seek Him, asking Him to draw us ever nearer to Himself and His heart.
Well, that’s enough writing for today. I’m feeling hungry. Caramel apples, anyone? 😉