My father is a brilliant pianist. He was one of those kids who just had a miraculous natural ability, and by the time he was sixteen, he could hear a song for the first time and sit down and play it. He needed no sheet music. Yet, in college, he composed huge musical numbers and scored all kinds of classical pieces, just for fun. (He was a government major.)
Basically, he was a prodigy, sprung up right there in his humble hometown, and his piano teacher had planted seeds in his long limber musician’s fingers that had grown into an unusual and beautiful talent.
Enter me, many years later. I began taking lessons from the very same teacher who had seen my dad flourish right there in her living room many years before. His little red-headed daughter was sure to possess a similar ability, the piano teacher must have thought to herself. At my first practice she examined my small freckled fingers and praised their shape and reach across the keys.
We started small, with the classic piano basics books that everyone uses. Gradually I moved up to slightly more complicated pieces. Before long I was playing hymns from the hymnal, almost as if I were being trained to be the ultimate Southern Baptist pastor’s wife. I was…. mediocre. I played the music, somewhat haltingly. I didn’t practice enough. I didn’t understand much of the music theory she tried to teach me.
Honestly, I wasn’t all that interested. And I probably wasn’t all that naturally gifted.
But, the years flew by. My piano teacher found all kinds of ways to praise me. Instead of scolding me for not practicing, she praised my ability to sight read. When she probably should’ve been telling my parents that I was only mildly talented, she seemed convinced that I had all kinds of amazing ability that was just lying dormant, waiting to be uncovered by the right piece of music. To the very end of my piano “career,” my sweet teacher expressed her absolute conviction that I was just as talented and amazing as my dad, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
I took piano lessons for ten years. I remember the day she told my mother that she felt she had taught me all that she could. She recommended that I start taking classes at a nearby university so that I could continue in my music theory and further develop my skills. You can probably guess that that never happened.
I had played the piano for my entire childhood and had performed in a decade’s worth of piano recitals. My teacher saw something in me that just wasn’t there, and I loved her for it. I was amazed by how often and how freely she made excuses for my lack of preparedness, how graciously she overlooked my flaws as a student, how convinced that she truly seemed to be that I was a gifted pianist.
As much as I loved the way my teacher seemed completely smitten by little freckle-faced me and my not-so-great piano playing, the truth is that she likely would have produced a much more accomplish pianist if she had told me the truth, in love, the first time I arrived at her house completely unpracticed. She probably should’ve looked me in the eyes and reminded me that just being my father’s daughter doesn’t automatically make me a piano great. Instead, she made more excuses. She probably felt sorry for me. She squeezed me tight and gave me a peppermint and sent me out with encouraging words about how well I was doing. She disregarded her well-tuned knowledge of how a gifted pianist plays because she loved me and she loved my dad.
Sometimes when I look around at the church these days, I feel like we’re taking some miscues from my sweet piano teacher. We should be looking each other in the eyes, speaking loving truth, truth that we know is real because God says it. We have well-tuned knowledge of God’s real, live truth, but we are disregarding that knowledge so that we can insist that people we want to love well are not doing wrong. We choose to decide that, well, the Bible doesn’t REALLY say what it sounds like it says. We squeeze people tight and give them coffee and send them out with the assurance that homosexuality isn’t a sin. We declare that, because we love her, we simply cannot tell a woman that abortion grieves God. After all, it’s her body, and who am I to say so? We are convinced that freedom in Christ means freedom from guilt over pornography. After all, a loving Christian couple can watch pornography and enhance their sex life! So, go! Do that! We love you, and we know who your Father is, so we know that you aren’t going to take it too far.
Little by little, because we love people so much, we make excuses. We praise them for their tithing and their mission trips and we ignore what is killing them. And, when the church service is over, instead of inspiring holiness, we have simply made it easier for them to choose worldliness. We set out to produce spiritual prodigies, but through our misguided expressions of love, we have just made a world of mediocre, luke-warm, uninspired, lied-to double-minded men and women.
If we really want to love people well, we will love them while they tread through the hardest truths. Instead of trying to show them a nice grassy path that veers around the messy pit where they need to confront sin, we should trudge through the muck with them. We should hold them up when they are exhausted from the sin-killing battle. We should look each other in the eyes, to the depths of our souls, and instead of saying, “You’re fine just how you are,” we should send up a war cry that will shake the very foundation of this weak and weary world. Then, we should fight with them. And, we should stop deciding that a vague association with the Father is enough.
That, church, is love.
If my piano teacher could see all of the dust that has collected on my piano over the years, I have no doubt that she would wish to go back to days when she had the opportunity to tell me the truth. To insist that I practice. To warn me that I was going nowhere fast. And, to squeeze me tight while she delivered her tough dose of reality.
Look ahead twenty years, friends. Where will the church be then? When we are seeing the real results of the ways that we have tried to love through approval and false hopes instead of through the trustworthy reality of God’s word? Speaking the truth isn’t easy. But, if we aren’t basing our discipleship on absolute truth, as God defines it, then we are only half loving people. It’s a mediocre, halting, unsure way to play the tune of God’s holiness and mercy. And, it leads to a dusty, empty faith, as useless as the piano that no one remembers how to play anymore.