Read an Excerpt
TO BE TRUE
"Those who have the last place now
will have the first place in the future."
The only thing slower than Ben's walk was his drawl. "Waiell, boy," he stretched his words and waited a month between phrases, "looks like it's you and me agin."
Snowy white hair billowed from under his baseball hat. Shoulders stooped. Face leathered from seven decades of West Texas winters.
What I remember most are the eyebrows. Shaggy hedges on the crest of his forehead. Caterpillars that shifted with his eyes.
He looked at the ground a lot when he talked. He was already short. This only made him seem shorter. When he wanted to make a point he would lift his eyes and flash a glance at you through his bushy brows. He fired this look at anyone who questioned his ability to work in the oil field. But most everybody did anyway.
I owe my acquaintance with Ben to my dad who was convinced school holidays were made for boys to earn money. Like it or not, be it Christmas, summer, or Thanksgiving, he'd wake my brother and me before the sun was up and drop us off at one of the local roustabout companies to see if we could hire on for the day.
Work in the oil field has about as many ups and downs as a drilling rig, so unless you were a company man or had your own crew, there was no guarantee of work. Roustabouts began showing up long before the boss did. Didn't make anydifference who got there first, though, all that mattered was the strength of your back and the experience under your belt.
That's where Ben and I came up short. I had the good back, but not the experience; Ben had the calloused hands, but not the strength. So unless there was an especially big job that justified quantity over quality, Ben and I usually were passed over.
The elements of the morning became so predictable that now, twenty years later, I can still taste and feel them.
I can feel the bitter wind as it stung my ears in the early morning blackness. I can feel the frozen handle on the heavy metal door that opened into the work shed. I can hear Ben's gruff voice coming from the stove he had already lit and sat beside: "Shut the door, boy. It's gonna git colder 'fore it gets warmer."
I'd follow the golden light from the stove through the dark shed and turn my back to the fire and look at Ben. He'd be smoking, sitting on a fifty-gallon drum. His work boots would be a foot off the ground and the collar of his coat turned up around his neck.
"Shor do need the work, today, boy. Shor do need the work."
Other workers would begin to trickle in. Each one's arrival lessened any chance Ben and I had of going out. Soon the air would cloud with smoke and bad jokes and complaints about having to work in weather too cold for jack rabbits.
Ben never said much.
After a while the foreman would come in. Sounds funny, but I used to get a bit nervous as the boss walked into the shed to read the list. With the eloquence of a drill sergeant he would bark out what he needed and who he wanted. "Need six hands to clean a battery today," or, "Putting in a new line in the south field, gonna need eight." Then he would announce his list, "Buck, Tom, Happy, and Jackcome with me."
There was a certain honor about being chosen ... something special about being singled out, even if it was to dig ditches. But just as there was an honor with being chosen, there was a certain shame about being left behind. Again.
The only rung lower on the oil field caste system than the roustabout was the unemployment line. If you couldn't weld, then you would roughneck. If you couldn't roughneck, then you'd service wells. If you couldn't service wells, then you'd roustabout. But if you couldn't roustabout ...
More times than not Ben and I couldn't roustabout. Those of us who went unchosen would hang around the stove for a few minutes and make excuses about how we really didn't want to go out anyway. Soon everyone would meander out leaving Ben and me alone in the work shed. We had no better place to go. Besides, you never knew when another job might surface. So we waited.
That's when Ben would talk. Weaving fact with fiction he would spin stories of wildcatting with divining rods and mules. The dawn would become day as the two of us sat on tire rims or paint buckets and walked the dusty roads of Ben's memory.
We were quite a pair. In many ways we were opposites: me barely fifteen years into the world, Ben into his seventieth winter. Mecrisp and convinced that the best was yet to come. Benweathered and crusty, living off of yesterday's accolades.
But we came to be friends. For in the oil field we were common cast outs. Fellow failures. The "too little, too lates."
Do you know what I'm talking about? Are you one too?
Sherri is. After three children and twelve years of marriage, her husband found a wife a bit younger. A newer model. Sherri got left behind.
Mr. Robinson is. Three decades with the same company had him one office from the top. When the executive retired, he knew it was only a matter of time. The board, however, had different ideas. They wanted youth. The one thing Robinson didn't have. He got picked over.
Manuel can tell you. At least he would if he could. It's tough being one of nine children in a fatherless home in the Rio Grande Valley. For Manuel it's even harder. He's a deaf mute. Even if there were a school for the deaf he could attend, he has no money.
"A lost ball in tall grass."
"A day late and a dollar short."
"Small guy in a tall world."
"One brick short of a load."
You pick the phrasethe result is still the same. Get told enough times that only the rotten fruit gets left in the bin, and you begin to believe it. You begin to believe you are "too little, too late."
If that describes you, then you are holding the right book at the right time. You see, God has a peculiar passion for the forgotten. Have you noticed?
See his hand on the festered skin of the leper?
See the face of the prostitute cupped in his hands?
Notice how he responds to the touch of the woman with the hemorrhage?
See him with his arm around little Zacchaeus?
Over and over again God wants us to get the message: He has a peculiar passion for the forgotten. What society puts out, God puts in. What the world writes off, God picks up. That must be why Jesus told the story of the chosen workers. It's the first story of his final week. It's the last story he will tell before entering Jerusalem. Once inside the city walls Jesus becomes a marked man. The hourglass will be turned and the final countdown and chaos will begin.
But it's not Jerusalem. And he's not addressing his enemies. It's the Jericho countryside and he's with friends. And for them he weaves this parable of grace.
A certain landowner needs workers. At 6:00 A.M. he picks his crew, they agree on a wage, and he puts them to work. At 9:00 he is back at the unemployment agency and picks a few more. At noon he is back and at 3:00 in the afternoon he is back and at 5:00, you guessed it. He's back again.
Now, the punchline of the story is the anger the twelve-hour laborers felt when the other guys got the same wage. That's a great message, but we'll save it for another book.
I want to hone in on an often forgotten scene in the story: the choosing. Can you see it? It happened at 9:00. It happened at noon. It happened at 3:00. But most passionately, it happened at 5:00.
Five in the afternoon. Tell me. What is a worker still doing in the yard at 5:00 in the afternoon? The best have long since gone. The mediocre workers went at lunch. The last string went at 3:00. What kind of worker is left at 5:00 P.M.?
All day they get passed by. They are unskilled. Untrained. Uneducated. They are hanging with one hand from the bottom of the ladder. They are absolutely dependent upon a merciful boss giving them a chance they don't deserve.
So, by the way, were we. Lest we get a bit cocky, we might take Paul's advice and look at what we were when God called us. Do you remember?
Some of us were polished and sharp but papier-mâché thin. Others of us didn't even try to hide our despair. We drank it. We smelled it. We shot it. We sold it. Life was a passion-pursuit. We were on a treasure hunt for an empty chest in a dead-end canyon.
Do you remember how you felt? Do you remember the perspiration on your forehead and the crack in your soul? Do you remember how you tried to hide the loneliness until it got bigger than you and then you just tried to survive?
Hold that picture for a moment. Now answer this. Why did he choose you? Why did he choose me? Honestly. Why? What do we have that he needs?
Intellect? Do we honestly think for one minute that we haveor ever will havea thought he hasn't had?
Willpower? I can respect that. Some of us are stubborn enough to walk on water if we felt called to do so ... but to think God's kingdom would have done a belly-up without our determination?
How about money? We came into the kingdom with a nice little nest egg. Perhaps that's why we were chosen. Perhaps the creator of heaven and earth could use a little of our cash. Maybe the owner of every breath and every person and the author of history was getting low on capital and he saw us and our black ink and ...
Get the point?
We were chosen for the same reason the five o'clock workers were. You and me? We are the five o'clock workers.
That's us leaning against the orchard fence sucking cigarettes we can't afford and betting beers we'll never buy on a game of penny-toss. Migrant workers with no jobs and no futures. The tattoo on your arm reads "Betty." The one on my biceps is nameless but her hips bounce when I flex. We should have given up and gone home after the lunch whistle but home is a one-bedroom motel with a wife whose first question will be, "Did you get on or not?"
So we wait. The too little, too lates.
And Jesus? Well, Jesus is the guy in the black pickup who owns the hillside acreage. He's the fellow who noticed us as he drove by leaving us in his dust. He's the one who stopped the truck, put it in reverse, and backed up to where we were standing.
He's the one you'll tell your wife about tonight as you walk to the grocery with a jingle in your pocket. "I'd never seen this guy before. He just stopped, rolled down his window, and asked us if we wanted to work. It was already near quitting time, but he said he had some work that wouldn't wait. I swear, Martha, I only worked one hour and he paid me for the full day."
"No, I don't know his name."
"Of course, I'm gonna find out. Too good to be true, that guy."
Why did he pick you? He wanted to. After all, you are his. He made you. He brought you home. He owns you. And once upon a time, he tapped you on the shoulder and reminded you of that fact. No matter how long you'd waited or how much time you'd wasted, you are his and he has a place for you.
* * *
"You guys still need some work?"
Ben jumped down from the barrel and answered for both of us. "Yes sir."
"Grab your hats and lunches and get in the truck."
We didn't have to be told twice. I'd already eaten my lunch but I grabbed the pail anyway. We jumped in the back of the flatbed and leaned against the cab. Old Ben put a smoke in his mouth and cupped his hand around the match to protect it from the wind. As the truck began to rumble, he spoke. Though it's been twenty years I still can see his eyes sparkle through the furry brows.
"Shor feels good to be chosen, don't it, boy?"
Sure does, Ben. It sure does.