The Gift of Time

alarm clock

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Monks pray. They chant psalms and canticles to give God glory. [Click HERE por Spanish.]

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Nurses in hospitals see to their patients’ medications. Make notes. Change shifts.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Worksite managers drink coffee out of big tumblers and plan, supervise, order equipment and materials. Chew the fat with customers, architects, engineers. Talk football.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Rehab patients and nursing-home residents contend with their aches, their pains, and their loneliness. They await their meals, their p.t. and o.t., their baths and their showers, and their meds. They tune into their tv shows. They hope someone will come visit. Maybe they read their Bibles and pray.

Rembrandt Laborers in the VineyardDawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Students arise, eat cereal or pop-tarts, heft their backpacks, maybe stress-out about the homework they haven’t done. They get on and off the schoolbus, talk to their friends for a few fleeting moments. They get called-on. They get bored. They fall asleep at their desks after lunch. They get home and play video games. But hopefully not for too long, because there’s homework!

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Depressed people suffer, suffer–with every tick-tock minute poking the scalp like sixty little needles, one second after another… Landscape workers sweat in the sun, dirt grinding into the skin of their fingers… At Waffle House, they sling the hash; at Mickey D’s they drop the fries. In malls, salespeople at boutiques with light foot traffic endlessly fold and re-fold the merchandise… Drug addicts desperately hustle on the streets for cash… Young professionals in Nissans and Hyundais make quick stops at drive-thru carwashes and then vacuum their floormats… Truck drivers look through the windshield down the highway and plan their next bathroom/coffee stop… Soccer moms cut oranges, fold laundry, and show up for drop-offs and pick-ups… The unemployed wait in agony for e-mails to come…

How could we get through life without the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms? Five minutes can drag on like an eternity of torture, when you’re off your rhythm–or never had a rhythm to begin with. And for some of us–blessed with a good, healthy rhythm of life–1994 seems like yesterday.

Why do you stand there idle all day? (see Matthew 20:6) The rhythm that makes the passage of time endurable always involves some kind of work. For some people–sick people, incapacitated people–just to get through the day means a job well done. Twenty years ago, when I taught middle-school boys for a living, I had the motto: if everyone’s still alive when it’s over, it was a success. Other, super-productive people–like cooks, and moms, and bus drivers–they accomplish more before noon than most of us do in a month.

Ora et LaboraBut whatever my particular work may be, it does one great thing: it makes time a friend, an ally, a partner. On the other hand: when you’re idle, time becomes a mud patch, an enemy, a dark confusing cloud of frustrated non-possibilities. That’s the greatest torture on earth.

What exactly does the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard teach? Gosh–a lot. But the main thing is: the owner of the vineyard is generous. “I am generous,” he said.

We earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brows. We get to sleep the sound sleep of the just by busting it from dawn to dusk. But did we earn these brows, upon which we sweat? Did we earn these hands we use? Do we receive 24 hours every day to fill with our comings and goings because we pre-paid for their delivery?

No. A huge gift came first. We have what it takes to build up a rhythm of life because God gave us us. The idea that I deserve even to exist: that idea is the gravest enemy my spiritual life can have. Because if I start kidding myself that I, me, gave myself the morning sun, or a roof over my head when I was a baby–if I start tallying all the benefits and perks that all my illustrious efforts deserve, then I run a grave risk. I will find myself standing there with just one pitiful little denarius in my hand at the end of the day. When I frown, the Lord will ask me, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Some people live in run-down, drafty double-wides, and some live in mansions with wall-to-wall carpet and tropical fish tanks. Who really deserves either one? I could fight all my life to win the esteem of men, or to experience vast international travels, or to consume daily gourmet meals, or rack-up professional accomplishments and little performance-review trophies. I will still die as naked as I was born.

God gives. For free. We will all die wretched and miserable deaths unless we spend the rest of our lives trying to grasp this one simple fact. God gives. God gives the dawn. And 9am. And noon. And 3pm. And the evening.

He gives it all, to everyone, freely.


Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Rembrandt Laborers in the Vineyard

Let’s imagine a Lebanese vineyard, with vines sagging with grapes for the harvest. The cool mornings of fall have arrived.

The owner of the vineyard has arisen before dawn. He, all his family, and his trusty steward have worked hard through the summer. The good weather has yielded a rich abundance of ripe grapes. Now an enormous amount of work needs doing, in short order. All the grapes must be picked and gathered, pressed, and trod.

So the owner is walking the road to the town square before sunrise. He meets a large group of men who themselves are on their way to the square. In the dim light, the owner stops the men and offers them the customary wage for a day’s work.

The owner hopes these men will work hard, and they do—but not quite as hard as he imagined they would. So, when the time comes for the workers’ first break of the day, the owner marches down the road again, to the square.

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