December 26, 2005 at 11:05 pm Leave a comment

Two weeks ago, Timothy came to our house. Mom wanted the upstairs bathroom tiled, and she had hired Timothy for the job.

Actually, this was not the first time Timothy had been in our home. I remember coming home from class a couple months ago to find him perched halfway up a ladder in the middle of our living room, washing windows. From the looks of it, he was a jack of all trades. His business card said he could do everything from gutter cleaning to dry walling and painting (though he didn’t seem to have much money to show for this array of skills).

Since he had done a good job on the windows, and since Mom knew he was short of cash, she’d asked him to come back and fix up the bathroom. The job would involve tearing down the existing drywall and replacing it, then painting and tiling around the shower, so Mom warned me that I’d have to move out of the bathroom temporarily. Just two days, she promised. Timothy would come on Sunday and be finished Monday.


He didn’t actually come on Sunday. And on Monday, when he did finally did show up, it became clear that he wouldn’t be finished Tuesday.

By Wednesday afternoon, there were signs that the project was not going well. Mom called me on my way home from class to tell me about the situation. She had been confined at home for three days to supervise the work, and was getting a little nervous.

“I…I don’t understand this,” she said. “Timothy can’t seem to focus. He spends a large part of the time wandering back and forth between the garage and the bathroom, carrying random supplies upstairs or back down.”

She said she’d found him several times rummaging through random storage cabinets to find duct tape or some other miscellaneous tools. He kept coming to her to ask for basic supplies, like a concrete finishing trowel—the kind of thing you’d think a tiler would already have in his supply chest. And he kept asking Mom the same questions repeatedly—like which paint can had the lime green for the walls, and which one had the white for the trim, when Mom had just gone over that info with him a few hours before.

“I didn’t notice any of this in Timothy when he was here before to clean the windows,” she said slowly, “though maybe it should have tipped me off that it took him the entire day to do the window cleaning. I think he’s trying hard, but he acts like a lost child.”

I heard a nervous sigh over the phone. Then Mom added, “I’m afraid to leave him here by himself to work. I’m not sure what sort of tiling job we’re going to end up with.”

The drywall had looked ok last I’d seen it the day before, so I wasn’t too worried. I assumed Timothy was just taking his time, and Mom was unnecessarily nervous.


The next evening when I came home, Mom showed me the progress. I climbed up on the toilet lid for a better view of the tile covering the top third of the wall. Mom clambered up on the side of the tub beside me. The tiles were all laid out on the wall, with cement visible between them since they hadn’t been grouted yet.

“Look at the rows,” she said.

I glanced around. Every column was distinctly crooked; the tiles in each row zig-zagged slightly as they ran across the wall. I looked closer, and noticed that the corners of half a dozen tiles were chipped off.

Mom ran her hand across the very top row, underneath the ceiling. The tiles there weren’t the same height. Some had been trimmed only slightly and were bumped up right next to the ceiling, without any room for grout; others had been trimmed much smaller, and stood a quarter of an inch shorter.

“How in the world…” I mumbled.

Mom sighed. “I have no idea.”

“Can he straighten those out?”

“The tiles are cemented to the wall. He’d have to chip them all off to change the positioning.”

I stepped off the side of the tub. “Good grief. What about all the tiles he broke?”


I frowned. “You’re not just going to let him leave it, are you?” I asked skeptically. “He can’t pass this off as a real tiling job.”

Mom paused and glanced around the room. She shrugged, then looked me in the eye. “Jamie, I’m not sure he could do a better job if I made him take it all off and start over. I think he probably did the best he could.”

So that meant we were going to let him finish.

I felt exasperated. This wasn’t a professional tiling job by any stretch of the imagination. And here we were going to pay Timothy for something that would have to be ripped out in a few months and done over by someone more competent? It seemed unfair that my parents’ money would be spent on such poor quality work, a job that fell so short of what they’d agreed to.

“Well…whose needs should we base our decisions on?” Mom asked pointedly, sensing my objections. “Timothy is already living hand to mouth,” she reminded me, “and if we don’t pay him, he’ll have lost a week’s worth of work and will have nothing to show for it.”

I sighed. She was right. Timothy didn’t have any cash to spare. Perhaps he couldn’t do a real tiling job; perhaps he couldn’t perform a service worth paying for. But he did as much as he could. Would it be right for my parents to send him off with no money because he couldn’t get his rows straight? When I thought about it that way, sending him away didn’t seem quite right.


On Friday afternoon, after the bathroom was “finished,” I watched Mom write out a check for Timothy. The amount was significantly more than my parents had expected, as Timothy’s bill was for a full week of work, instead of the two days he had estimated the job would take. But Mom and Dad had talked it over and decided to simply pay it.

I knew, as I watched Timothy walk out of our kitchen that day, that the money he received was money he didn’t really deserve. He was rewarded, not because of his merit, but in spite of it.

Part of me felt frustrated about that, even though it wasn’t my money being spent. And yet…something in the back of my mind tells me Timothy is not the only one to have been rewarded in spite of merit. I realize the same has been true of me too on many occasions. So, from now on when I take a shower and look at all those crooked tiles on the wall, perhaps it should serve as a reminder that Timothy and I are in the same boat: it is unmerited grace that sustains us both. And as I remember that I am the recipient of such grace, maybe, just maybe, I won’t be so quick to stifle the flow to someone else.


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Silent night Heel thyself! (or maybe not…)

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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