Like the March hare, I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date. My column for this issue of Tabletalk was due yesterday. This morning I received from my friends at Ligonier a polite email reminding me of that truth. I’m embarrassed, disappointed, ashamed. I don’t believe, however, that I am sufficiently embarrassed, disappointed, and ashamed. I’m only mildly so, which is more a reflection of the culture in me than it is the grace in my friends at Tabletalk. That is, my relative peace about my tardiness isn’t because the email I received was so polite, but because we live in a world where work gets done tomorrow. All deadlines must be flexible, negotiable in our day, lest we have no deadlines at all.
There are two raging rivers, culturally speaking, that converge from the lazy river of mediocrity. First, we do not know the excellent. Goodness, truth, and beauty, as the great triad of virtues, are so much more demanding, not simply to create, but to even enjoy, than okay-ness, funny-ness and pretty-ness. Entering into that towering poem The Wasteland by T.S. Elliot requires of us a higher aesthetic than we have obtained. It requires a greater familiarity with that which was great in the past than we are willing to acquire. It requires training and work. To enter the more familiar wasteland of our culture all you need is a remote control. To put it another way, one of our great problems as we receive culture is that we are too easily satisfied, too easily entertained. We get mediocrity in large part because that is what we ask for. Ninety-eight percent of us in the past year consumed a “meal” at McDonalds, not because we were reaching higher, but because it would do.
The second great river at the source of mediocrity is one that precedes our particular culture. It is a problem, a weakness, a sin that has been with us since Adam first led Eve east of Eden. The problem is sloth. The medieval theologians, when compiling the list of what would come to be known as “The Seven Deadly Sins” included in their list things we might expect, like lust, or even gluttony. But sloth? Where did that come from? How did it make the list? The list had two fundamental criteria. First, the list would include those sins that are most apt to beset most of us. It is almost certainly a sin to smash your car up with a sledge hammer. Not many of us, however, fight desperately against that temptation. Lust, gluttony, and sloth, however, have wide appeal. The second criteria, however, is that these sins were believed to be root sins, sins that were apt to sprout still more sins. It may be that sloth is what gives rise, for instance, to theft.
That list, we must remember, was concocted during the Middle Ages. Things moved pretty slowly then. Surely the same warning wouldn’t apply to us. We live in America, home of the Puritan work ethic. We have cell phones and laptop computers so that we can carry our work around with us wherever we go. We put in long hours so that we might climb the corporate ladder. We burn the midnight oil and the candle at both ends. How can sloth get a toe-hold on us? Because there is a great chasm that separates feeling busy with being busy, and an even greater chasm between being busy and working hard.
We feel busy because we schedule too much stuff. If I can’t miss my weekly golf game, my monthly poker night, my five favorite television programs, the Braves game, and a little “me time” here or there, I will surely feel busy. The trouble is, I feel busy because work creeps into my insatiable demand for play time. But even if that doesn’t describe me, if I am busy checking for emails, looking up the stock indexes, going to meetings and writing things down in my daytimer, I still haven’t actually produced anything. Work means getting real things done that actually help people. And that is a far greater challenge than being busy.
It has been said that any given job can be done with two of three qualities. It can be done quickly and cheaply, but not well. It can be done quickly and well, but not cheaply. It can be done cheaply and well, but not quickly. We have, as a culture, chosen quickly and cheaply. And having chosen thus, we find ourselves diminished, for we find that we like it that way. We find that we are not merely willing to accept mediocrity, but that we crave it.
The Bible offers a different call. We are to do our work “as unto the Lord.” We should be known by the world around us as the most diligent of laborers and craftsmen. We ought also, however, be known as those with the most discriminating tastes. For we are to seek out those things that reflect the Lord, that show forth His glory. We are to surround ourselves with “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). May our work and our play be suffused with excellence, that our Maker’s name might be praised.