In the novel My Name Is Asher Lev, a young Hasid repeatedly dreams of his holy mythic ancestor thunderously accusing him of dawdling: "What are you doing with your time, my Asher Lev?" I've lived with a similar spur. Where I grew up, the apostolic directive to redeem the days held sway as long as one had wits. A few years ago a woman who doesn't know how young I am asked me about retirement. "What are you going to do with your leisure?" Her vocabulary startled me: leisure as a synonym for time. I stammered and said something about not really understanding the question.

For a few hours last week I flitted between hand-crafting Christmas gifts and clearing out a stack of accumulated paperstuffs. Suddenly I stared at the back of an old magazine. Four distinct photos depicted a campus lawn: spring, summer, fall, winter. The scenes framed a perfectly centered rendition of Ecclesiastes 3:1: "For everything there is a season … ." As I read the unfamiliar translation, the King James—The Byrds'—Version slipped out of its hiding place in my heart. "A time to every purpose under heaven." I winced, sensing the phrase mocked my unfocused attempts to reconcile disparate impulses—to seed the future and weed the past. My forte is making a purpose for every time.

I'm self-employed as a wordsmith. My workload is light this month, which means I touch the hem of worry about the distant future. Will clients still need me … when I'm sixty-four? But there's the more immediate issue of what to do with Thursday. Do I build paragraphs I hope someone will read? Do I contact potential markets? Do I delete files or shred documents? E. B. White purportedly admitted he sometimes had a hard time planning his day; he couldn't "decide whether to enjoy the world"—live in the moment—"or improve the world"—seed and weed. Spending an hour stroking the cat while waiting for the phone to ring wouldn't have crossed my mind if I hadn't written this paragraph on Wednesday.

Some of my friends say they get through life by living in the moment, not mulling over yesterday or fussing about tomorrow. I might dismiss the narrow focus as being Buddhist bunk, if I didn't see its roots in the Sermon on the Mount: "Take therefore no thought for the morrow … Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matt. 6:34), though that last line brings me back around to the apostle's admonition to redeem the time; in Ephesians 5:16 Paul justifies his instruction by reminding us that "the days are evil." If then, still now? I close the book on the king's archaic English and read an expansive, Amplified therefore that continues in verse 17: " … do not be vague and thoughtless and foolish, but understanding and firmly grasping what the will of the Lord is."

Firmly grasping. The will of the Lord. The day's purpose, despite the evil. In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day described a "holy man" as someone "of integrity, who not only tried to change the world, but to live in it as it was." So what do I do on a Thursday in December, waiting hopefully for my name to surface on someone else's schedule? My church celebrates Advent—the awaited coming—not so much in anticipation of Christmas, though that cultural aspect can hardly be avoided, but as a season of preparation for a second coming worthy of exclamation points. We sing Charles Wesley's "Lo! He Comes, with Clouds Descending" and Philipp Nicolai's "Sleepers, Wake!" (and nary a Christmas carol until sundown on Christmas Eve). So the liturgical season prompts a larger, cosmic question: What do I do with my time while waiting for the alleluia day?

Thursday morning I awake remembering that when I was in high school a local Christian radio station signed off every night by exhorting listeners to keep "waiting, working, watching." I always assumed the directive was biblical—three ways to redeem the time—but it's not. I Google and find the phrase in an editorial in the January 1869 Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle: "Blessed are they who live in the present for the future, and who shall be found waiting, working, watching when their Lord cometh."

Being so familiar, the blessed participle draws me to its causal condition: living in the redeemable present but with an intentional purpose—"the future." That first affirmation—not a spur—tempers my vague anxiety over downtime. I start my day with a walk around the block, worshiping God, enjoying the neighborhood as it awakes. Then the adventist alliteration helps me envision a plan for my December days. Wait, as I would for a kindlier season. Work, as I would over a springtime garden. Watch, as I would for an evil-eyed snake or lo! a descending cloud.

Related Elsewhere:

More articles on Advent and Christmas are available in our special section.

Earlier articles by Evelyn Bence include:

The Smiling Grandfather Clock | On Father's Day, the Holy Ghost helped me finally connect the dots and glimpse God's character (June 10, 2002)
Two Kinds of Thanks | Three hours in a women's shelter taught me the difference. (Nov. 1, 1999)