There was just one problem. She couldn’t sing. The subject of a recent film starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins was, according to historian Stephen Pile, “the world’s worst opera singer”. Pile went further: “No one, before or since, has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.”
Apparently oblivious to the reality that her audiences gathered to quietly mock her she was consistently flat and sometimes off-key by as much as a semitone. But undeterred, she kept on singing, while her fans sniggered behind their hands.
Something similar happens in churches where a genuine commitment to encouragement gets distilled into hollow flattery, where we so want to cheer people on, we end up barking them up the wrong tree, nudging them to do what God has not called or equipped them to do.
Where the gifts of the Spirit are operated, a seriously dodgy prophecy is shared on a Sunday morning. The congregation-wide mass clenching of buttocks means that everyone knows the God of the universe most likely has not spoken, but for fear of crushing the person, or worse still, offending him or her, everyone stays tight-lipped. The emperor’s clothes remain unruffled.
There’s a greater danger of this when any kind of constructive criticism is viewed as negative or even divisive. Nervous of being tagged as a dissenter, people nod their head and blindly affirm. Not only does this dilute the possibility of quality control, but it devalues the currency of genuine encouragement. When people are always told that what they do is awesome (but they were anything but), nobody really believes it when real gifting is affirmed.
We drift into the twilight zone of self-deception when we’re constantly told to step out, do what we can’t do, and go beyond the limit. Sometimes it's also good to know what we can’t do.
“But I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” I hear someone muttering. “I can do anything.”
Bluntly, you can’t. I can’t fly without wings, give birth to twins, play the bassoon, or speak Cantonese. If it’s Christ who strengthens me, that means he will surely only strengthen me to fulfil his calling in my life. Instead of constantly telling people that they can do anything, perhaps we should teach more about all of us knowing our limits and spheres.
Many years ago, I was an occasional worship leader. Thankfully, the day came when a trusted but unsubtle friend told me that worship leading was not my primary gift, and that the body of Christ would probably let out a collective sigh of relief if I would pack my guitar away for good. I’m glad they spoke up. Recognising what I couldn’t do was a painful but enlightening step on the pathway of discovering what I could do. The wounds of a friend are faithful, if not always welcome.
One day, the hapless Florence found out the truth. Following the Carnegie Hall event, the New York Sun critic was scathing, declaring that Florence “could sing everything except notes”. She was devastated, suffered a heart attack five days later, and died within a month. Who knows? Perhaps if someone had loved her enough to tell her the truth, she might have a lived a little longer, and a lot happier too.
Jeff Lucas is teaching pastor at Timberline Church, Colorado. He is an international speaker, author and broadcaster Follow Jeff @jeffreylucas