The dust swirled in the hot humid air as I trudged home from school. I slipped the report card next to Mom’s purse, hoping she would just sign it and give it back with cool indifference.
No such luck.
In our home, earning a mediocre grade was a major event, close to dental surgery or transmission work. Mom saw the “C” in social studies, and for the next hour, I was on the receiving end of a one-sided conversation about what that word meant. There would be no average in our family. We came from a proud line of immigrants who fought and struggled to survive. The men in the family were sailors and farmers and gas station owners. None of them were rich, but “none of them were average.” It was the same story I had heard a hundred times before.
The next day, Mom went down to the school, without an appointment, to visit the teacher. I cringed inside. And of course, the truth came out that day. I had been slacking, more concerned with being a kid than being a scholar.
“You can do better” was the message from the teacher looking straight through to my heart, “If only you would apply yourself.”
Does God delight in excellence?
We’ve all had those people in our lives who saw things in us in that we did not see. Teachers, parents, pastors, and coaches all seem to have a knack for extracting potential out of the lazy, the misguided. The best ones urged us out of the muck of mediocrity, pushing us to achievement.
One of my first memory verses as a child was probably one of yours, too. “Whatever you do in word and deed, do as unto the Lord,” also is given great prominence here at the High Calling.
This quest for excellence drove the early scientists to explore this creation, finding mystery in the telescope and the microscope. It motivated sculptors, architects, artists and poets to create masterpieces for God’s glory. In fact, the New World was a breeding ground for men and women who didn’t just want to build a nation, but wanted to build an entire society that collectively honored God.
The difference between excellence and perfectionism
But there is a dark side to the quest for excellence, and that’s perfectionism. I’ve wandered across the center line many times in my life, setting unrealistic expectations of myself and others. It’s a gift twisted, turning into an unbridled ambition of pleasing man or God.
While excellence is God-ordained, perfectionism is worldly and frustrating.
In the confusion of the two, sometimes we settle for mediocrity. Mediocrity is a black hole that can suck the time out of a clock, draining lives of joyful, productive endeavors. Mediocrity is a place where the darkness is so powerful that great ideas and innovation are drawn in, only to be starved out. Mediocrity takes all the brights that color our world and simply absorbs them into empty pixels of gray.Still, mediocrity shouts for attention every time the task is hard. And I lean on the crutch of grace, hoping that without a scorecard I’m off the hook. Paul exhorts us not to use our freedom as “an opportunity for the flesh.” And my flesh is steeped in mediocrity. I settle. I get lax. I miss my chance to change the world.
Honoring the Gift
The parable of the talents reminds us not to bury our treasure, but to use it, invest it, and share it. The words remind us to master our gifts as the ultimate honor to the gift-giver. The soft and half-hearted pursuit of even the smallest of tasks can chip away at God’s best for us.
We all have our excuses. I’ve used every one of them. “I’m too busy.” “I don’t have the right skills.” “It’s not the right time.” “I don’t have the experience.” “I’m too young.” “I’m too old.” But acting small doesn’t do a thing for the world. Playing it safe doesn’t impact your workplace, your school, or your family. When I say, “I’m nothing special,” I’m actually questioning my God-given talents, the belief that others have in me, and the trust of those I influence.
I think that’s the difference. Perfectionism sucks the life out of a person with impossible expectations, while mastery of a gift honors God.
Let’s face it. To live in a mediocre world wouldn’t be much fun. In this land of never-summer, there’s little creativity, innovation, or adventure. Everyone is just “okay,” shrugging their shoulders in a dreary march toward Laodicea.
We can do better.