When I was a kid, the only reality TV show that I watched religiously was American Idol. Like many other viewers, I was drawn not to the skillfulness of the talented musicians but the rather the folly of the utterly untalented. Somehow, the horrible singers were infinitely more entertaining than the truly gifted. Among those that were notoriously awful, there always seemed to be a common theme: an unfathomable lack of self awareness. As many who have seen the show know all-too-well, these horrible auditions would often end with the vocalist being dumbfounded by a barrage of criticism from the panel of judges. Often the contestant would respond with something along the lines of:
“But my friends told me that I was great?!?”
“Everyone I know loves my voice!!”
It seemed that the vocalist's world was shattered by the revelation that they were not now nor were ever going to be the next American Idol. How that message never seemed to reach their ears beforehand is something I will never quite understand. Still, amidst this hilarity, an uncomfortable reality was revealed. Sometimes we are hesitant to share truth that others so desperately need to hear.
Call it a generational blindspot or a creeping cultural influence, somewhere in the recent past the Christian understanding of the role of love in community became greatly distorted. St. Paul talks of an “agape” Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13 that is complex and multifaceted:
1 Corinthians 13:4-8
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.8 Love never fails.
Paul uses a slew of fourteen adjectives to explain Christ’s love in its fullness, yet so often we are content with cherry picking one or two descriptors and wholly disregarding the others. Our culture at large has continually conflated the idea of platonic love with “kindness” and “tolerance”. Even within the Christian community, we’ve reduced the idea of loving our neighbor to mean something more like being “un-objectionable” or “nice”. I find this a dastardly, milquetoast reduction of our true calling for Christian love. We’ve traded the gospel of grace and truth displayed in the Bible for a mere gospel of affirmation.
Within Christian community, it is essential that we embrace this all-encompassing love unapologetically. This means helping others bring light to the dark places in their lives that they either cannot see or are willfully ignorant of. As always, Jesus provides us with an example of this sort of love. In John 4, Jesus speaks eloquently of living water to the woman at the well. He offers his unconditional salvation to this woman while also pointing out the blatant sin in her life:
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
We must live in a posture of equal parts grace and truth. As the year progresses for the Fellows Class of 2019 and the group delves deeper into community, we have a unique opportunity to love one another in a meaningful way. We can choose to flatter and placate each other or challenge and push one another towards Christ. A small amount of uncomfortable honesty can spare someone from a whirlwind of pain and misery (just ask American Idol contestant William Hung). Granted, I can personally attest it is so much easier to tell someone what they want to hear. But I am certain that we all have moments in our lives when we are singing out of tune. It takes an honest and caring community to get us back on key. I pray for a group that can actively confront and deal with each others’ brokenness rather than shy away from it. In this acceptance of a fully-formed and Christ centered love, the Fellows can truly build each other up. As the Proverbs so beautifully state:
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
Will we accept the inevitable discomfort of sharpening one another or remain dull in our unobtrusive affirmations?