The children’s movie The Incredibles tells the story of a superhero family forced to live undercover in suburbia. This requires that Bob, aka Mr. Incredible, the leader of the clan, is required to do menial work at an insurance company — a job so far removed from what he’s passionate about that he slowly slips into despondency. In one scene of the movie, Bob is sitting at the dinner table, a shell of his former self, completely disconnected from his family. His wife is desperately trying to get their two (superpowered) children under control, but Bob is oblivious to it all. Finally in frustration, she shouts out “BOB! IT’S TIME TO ENGAGE!”. Only then does he wake up to the fact that he’s desperately needed, right underneath his nose. What does that have to do with deaconing?
Well, if John Calvin is right, then the deacons are those officers of the church whose special calling is to lead the congregation in fulfilling the second part of the great commandment — “love your neighbor as yourself.” The question should be asked, well, what is the opposite side of neighbor love — the sin that deacons should steer their people away from and fight valiantly against within themselves?
The opposite of neighbor love is not neighbor-hate. Rather, it is simple indifference. Indifference as seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where two spiritual leaders quietly stepped to the other side of the road, not wanting to engage. This state of indifference, of not-caring, has a name within Christian tradition and theology. It’s acedia, or sloth. Sloth in the Christian tradition has less to do with being slovenly and lazy as it has to do with an attitude of the heart — where we do not care properly about the things that God cares about, where we are unmoved by the things that move his own heart.
Deacons are ordained as leaders — first and foremost as spiritual leaders. That means that their task is not first and foremost about developing better techniques, but first and foremost about seeking to develop transformed souls — within themselves and within those whom they serve. As the form for ordination puts it, one of the deacons’ tasks is to lead us into repentance. And so one of the primary sins that deacons must confront (first of all) within themselves and (also) within their churches may be sloth and indifference. Only then, perhaps, will we wake up to the fact that we are desperately needed, right underneath our noses.
How do we know if sloth is a sin that afflicts us? Perhaps a good starting point may be to reflect on these words by the novelist Robertson Davies: “To be guilty of Acedia it is not necessary to be physically sluggish at all. You can be busy as a bee. You can fill your days with activity, bustling from meeting to meeting, sitting on committees, running from one party to another in a perfect whirlwind of movement. But if, meanwhile, your feelings and sensibilities are withering, if your relationships with people near to you are becoming more and more superficial, if you are losing touch even with yourself, it is Acedia which has claimed you for its own.” Bob, it’s time to engage.