“Redeem the time,” Paul says in his letter to the church at Philippi, “because the days are evil.” As a youngster I wondered why time needed redeeming and what it needed redeeming from—I still wonder that as a sixty-something. As a person for whom time seems to pass more quickly every day, let alone every year, it’s worth taking a look at the nature of time and why it might need to be saved or redeemed. It brings me back many years to when my youngest son—now in his early forties, was a young kid.
The year that Justin was in second grade, I was on a mission from God, just like the Blues Brothers. My PhD coursework was done, my language exams were passed, I had survived my comps. All that remained was to write my dissertation, defend it, get my PhD, get a teaching job somewhere (anywhere), and get on with our lives. I had a one-year fellowship, paying the same pittance that my teaching assistantship had paid for the previous two years, but with no teaching required.
In other words, this fellowship was paying me to write my dissertation within a year. I had heard an endless number of horror stories about people taking teaching jobs while still ABD (“all but dissertation”) who never finished the dissertation and hence never earned their PhD. It was now or never; hence, the “mission from God.” I warned my sons that once it was all done, they would forever after have to call me “Doctor Dad.” I threatened to put “Dr.Dad” on our Wisconsin license plate.
I spent 12-15 hours per day that academic year in the bowels of Marquette University’s Raynor Memorial Library, while Jeanne and the boys saw less of me than ever. Every day I clacked away on the keyboard at a mainframe computer terminal, then stood in line at the dot-matrix printer to get a hard copy of what I had produced. I lost weight—Jeanne says that I am the only person she’s ever met who can lose weight typing. I got an autumn cold that, after several weeks of being ignored, turned into walking pneumonia. But I kept on trudging.
A few months in, Christmas was coming. One day Justin came home from school and pulled something out of a folder in his backpack. “Here,” he said, holding the item toward me. “This is for you.” One of the first grade class’s projects was to imagine that they had the power to give any Christmas gift that they chose to whomever they chose. What would the gift be, and to whom would it be given?
Justin’s choice was neatly printed on a piece of lined paper cut out in the shape of a gift box with a ribbon on top. After coloring the ribbon, he had written the following:
If I could give a gift, I would give it to my Dad. I would give him the gift of time, because he’s writing a dissertation and he needs more time. If I knew anyone else who was writing a dissertation, I would give them time too.
Where did this kid come from? I wondered as my eyes filled with tears.
Jeanne laminated Justin’s gift at the elementary school where she worked so it would last, and it has—hanging on several office doors over the past thirty-plus years. I recall one day some years ago when a student arriving for office hours noticed it. “That’s so sweet!” she said as she read what the gift said. “How old was your kid when he wrote that?” “He was in first grade,” I replied. “What grade is he in now?” “He’s working on his Master’s degree in psychology.” And that was at least a dozen years ago. This is a gift that keeps on giving.
I had never thought of time as a gift. It was something to waste, something to spend, something that races too fast on occasion, then drags its ass at a tortoise pace, framing my days and years whether I like it or not. I was in my middle thirties when I received the gift of time with (I hoped) well over half my time on earth still to be lived. Now I’m in my middle sixties; I passed that half-way mark years ago. More and more often I sense the urgency of the bartender from T. S. Eliot’s bartender from “The Waste Land” behind me” HURRY UP PLEASE! IT’S TIME!
But what is time? That’s the question St. Augustine famously asked toward the end of his Confessions over a millennium and a half ago. After several pages worth of spinning his philosophical wheels, Augustine admits with his usual directness that “I must confess, O Lord, that I do not know what time is.” Time is indeed a classic philosophical puzzle. Is it “out there,” imposing itself on me? Is it “in here,” a subjective part of me that I impose on what comes to me from “out there”? Both of the above? None of the above? I’ve had a lot of fun with students exploring the intricacies of time over the years.
For most of my working life as a professor I have been an unabashed workaholic, regularly working 12-15 hours seven days a week at various times during the semester. But I learned while on a life-changing sabbatical over a decade ago that the most important changes in life are incremental, silent, and slow. To even notice change and growth, I’ve had to learn how to treat time as a gift occasionally rather than as a taskmaster that must be obeyed.
Starting this blog a decade ago has made it possible for me to discover little time-gift packages in unexpected portions of the day and week, ready to be unwrapped and used for nothing but reflecting on and writing about my spiritual journey. Not long ago I would have said that there was no time for such an activity. Now I find that my centeredness and sanity depend on finding the time.
My seven-year-old son, all those years ago, had an insight that many of us never have, or forget immediately if we ever have it. Time is indeed a gift, grace on a silver platter. But so is everything else. Our lives, our very existence, every season, every task, every person we encounter, every molecule we breathe, is a gift of grace from the divine so profligate that the gifts continue regardless of what we do with them. Paul told the church at Philippi that they should “redeem the time,” do something appropriate and fitting with this one of the many “good and perfect gifts” that come from above. One place to start is with sheer gratitude. As the old hymn says, “Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.”