Redeeming the time, because the days are evil. — Eph. 5:16, KJV
This year, our church has been studying Paul’s letter to the Ephesians with an emphasis on spiritual maturity. We’ve been seeking a more thoroughly grounded walk with Jesus, one that is “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17). Needless to say, when you open yourself up to God so intentionally, He’s inevitably going to show up and teach you some things you’ve never considered.
Lately it seems that God has been transforming my life through the pursuit of a singular question: What is the most important thing I will do today?
With great regularity, Paul contrasts our former way of life with a new reality we experience in Christ. In fact, a healthy portion of his introduction describes the vast contours of our new mode of being. In Christ, you are saints. In Christ, you are redeemed. In Christ, you are chosen. In Christ, you are blessed. Like a wild river spilling its banks, Paul’s language moves here and there in an attempt to encompass the breadth of this expansive realm — a realm otherwise known as the Kingdom of God. A dozen times in his prologue, Paul explicates a crucial component of our identity as an extension of residing, both individually and corporately, in Jesus.
By the time we arrive in Ephesians 5, Paul has repeatedly contrasted this new identity with an older pattern of life. The heart of the teaching can be easily summarized: “How could you return to your old, wicked ways? You are a new creation in Jesus.” This is the message of 5:15-16, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Wisdom is demonstrated by living authentically out of one’s identity as a Christ-follower.
But tucked within this teaching is a little nugget that is quite instructive: “make the most of the time.” The rendering of the King James is more regal and poetic with its reference to “redeeming the time.” In this present evil age, followers of Jesus cannot afford to live out of an expired identity. The wise person seizes every opportunity, every morsel of time, with redemptive expectation. A redeemed identity yields a redemptive perspective. We seek to “make the most of the time” through redemptive intentionality.
Or to put it another way: all of this has prompted me to evaluate the way I use my time.
And this evaluation has prompted me to ask a question that has become transformative: “What is the most important thing I will do today?”
I’ve found that by asking myself this question, I’m more open to the redemptive possibilities that seem to be ever-present…at least once I have the eyes to see them.
So the other day I had breakfast with some guys at a local restaurant. Afterward, as I was walking back to my truck, I was approached in the parking lot by an African-American man in filthy clothes. He wore a tattered T-shirt and jeans caked in dirt. A week-old beard covered his cheeks and chin, deep wrinkles marked his forehead and eyes. My immediate reaction was to raise my defenses. Honestly, there was a part of me that just wanted to get in my truck and pretend that I didn’t see him. I didn’t want to take the time to hear his story, to be asked to help. But my conscience immediately countered those thoughts and I felt something — my faith? my upbringing? my white guilt? — prompting me to interact with this gentleman.
He asked me if I knew any place around that sold cell phone batteries. I told him that I didn’t, but that he was near some stores that could probably help him. He thanked me and turned away and I felt a sudden rush of relief. I was free to get in my truck and leave, having fulfilled my obligation to acknowledge this man’s question about cell phone batteries. But all of this “redeeming the time” language must’ve been rolling around my mind because I thought about my question: What is the most important thing I’ll do today? Why am I in such a rush to leave? What am I going to do today that will be MORE important than treating this man with hospitality and generosity?
“Hey, mister, have you had any breakfast?”
He turned back and said, “No. I haven’t.”
“Well, you’re in luck. This place serves a fantastic breakfast. Do you like eggs and bacon?”
“Oh, yes. That sounds good.”
Lest you think more highly of me than you should, I should probably tell you that my intention was to simply pay for this man’s breakfast and then hit the road. I figured I could order him a to-go plate and send him on his way. After all, the guy was on a quest for cell phone batteries. I guess I subconsciously felt that this would be enough of a good deed to assuage my guilt while still allowing me to get on with my morning. I had asked the question and found the answer: The most important thing I will do today is buy this man a meal. A meal to-go, but still.
We walked inside and I approached the young lady behind the kiosk at the front door. She smiled and a look of recognition flashed across her face. I said, “Yeah, I just was eating here but I need to place a to-go order for my friend here. I’m wondering if I can just pay and then I need to leave. Is that okay?” Again, for some reason I felt the need to get on with my day in the worst way.
Her smile fading, the young lady replied, “We can do the to-go order, but you need to tell him that he can’t eat here on our property.”
It was only then that I noticed the eyes on us. From tables across the room, from booths in the corner, from the bar stools facing big screen TVs, I noticed that many of the patrons in the restaurant were watching us. There were a lot of sideways glances from people not wanting to be overtly rude by staring at us. A few others were barely able to conceal their disgust. It dawned on me that we were unwelcome here. My homeless friend was unwelcome because of his stench or his clothes or simply by the sheer fact of his existence; and because of my proximity to him, I was unwelcome, too.
I realized that as a white, middle class, American male, I never had anyone look at me this way before.
And I realized that my friend received those looks of reproach every single day.
Her words rang in my ears again: “You need to tell him that he can’t eat here on our property.” She represented the room, the perspective of privilege. “We will take your money but we will not honor his personhood. Let him eat his food elsewhere, just not in our parking lot. We’ll not have it.”
That was when it hit me. Buying this man a meal is not the most important thing I will do today. The most important thing I will do today is to share table with him.
I looked her in the eye and said, “I’ve had a change of plans. I need two seats at the bar.” And with reluctance she seated us. And with all the defiance I could muster, I stared down one patron after another until they all meekly averted their eyes downward upon their heaping plates of eggs and sausage. Still fuming, I handed him a menu, told him to order anything he wanted.
He looked and the menu and glanced back at me, “I’m not too good at making out letters sometimes. Could you read the menu to me?”
And I wept while I read.
The most important thing I will do today is read this menu to this man.
He settled on scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, grits, and orange soda. And I asked him about his life. Turns out we both grew up in Tennessee. We’ve both lost dear loved ones. We talked about our children, our wives, even our faith in Christ. He told me about the time when, as a teenager, he stood before the church and said, “Jesus is my Lord!” and they took him to the baptistery and his sins were washed away.
The most important thing I will do today is share table with this brother.
He thanked me profusely in the parking lot before we parted. He shook my hand and I could feel the callouses and the grime and the scratch of his fingernails, long overdue for a trim. Before he resumed his quest for a new cell phone battery, I heard another question:
The most important thing I will do today is learn my friend’s name.
His name is Robert.