|December 2, 2012
Dear <<First Name>>
I looked over at Nehemiah. “Did you ever lose focus?”
He looked up. He had been reading. Or praying. I never can tell. “What do you mean?”
I think I must have sounded desperate as I rushed through my explanation. I said, “I mean, did you ever get distracted from your work, start too many things, get into the middle of something and not know how to finish it?”
Nehemiah thought for a moment, letting my question hang in the air between us. “What do you think?” he said, finally.
“Well, it looks like you did an amazing job of staying on task, of persisting,” I said. I tried not to whine. But I wasn’t doing a very good job.
He smiled. “You are only seeing the highlights, the turning points. Why do you think I’m any less human that you are? Any less prone to distraction? Just because I was living before the kinds of technology you have, doesn't mean there weren’t things that got in the way, other subjects to think about, other scrolls to read. All those times where you read that I responded, that I took time before answering, do you think I was born that way?”
“Of course not,” I answered, not exactly convinced.
“What you are reading is a God-driven case study of how we built the wall first and then the nation. What you are reading leaves out all the parts about my momentary doubts, my hesitation before plunging in. Because those aren’t nearly as important to the whole story as the habits that were formed, the discipline that developed over years.
“Let me give you a quick list. Maybe we’ll expand them later, maybe you’ll figure them out.”
I sat back, fingers on the keyboard. I needed some structure right now.
Six steps for staying focused
“First, I tried to get my priorities from God. We’ve talked about this before. You wrote about it this week. I find that if I know that the project or the work or the day is consistent with God’s priorities, self-discipline is easier. Not in a guilty way, but in a clarifying way. If there are six projects in front of me and one is consistent with God’s way of talking and writing and teaching, then the decision about what to do next if much clearer. If two of the six are, it’s a little harder, but I can get rid of four choices.”
I stopped him. “But when do you know when to go? When is it clear that it’s time to move?” I was thinking about all the times that I couldn’t decide what God wanted.
Nehemiah hesitated. “I know this is a big deal for you. But I’m not sure exactly what to tell you. For me, when the king said ‘what’s bothering you?’ I knew that it was time to commit. When we were dealing with all the attacks from Sanballat and Tobiah, I knew that it was my job to lead and protect.
“Maybe I needed to just keep moving. Because second, and very related, I talked with God. All the time. Four months at the beginning. When I talked to the king. When we were facing attacks. Even at the end of the story, when we list several last challenges, I included my prayer just to show you the kinds of things we talked about. I know that it sounds like bragging, but I was just being honest with you readers about how honest I was with God.There were lots of times I didn’t talk to God. But I made sure that there were several of my short prayers included in the book. I didn’t want anyone to think that I was a great leader just on my own.”
He stopped, suddenly emotional. I tried to help him out.
“You know, just this week I saw a video from Bill Hybels. He talked about a guy who had morning coffee with God. He picked a rocking chair, turned it toward a nice view, had a place to put his coffee cup, got up 15 minutes earlier, and talked with God. Hybels talked about a couple decades of hearing the results of those conversations. That sounds like you. We just read some of the results, forgetting that you and God had talked a lot.”
Nehemiah had recovered. “Thanks. That’s a great transition to the next principle. Third, I kept the routines.
“One of the last things I mention in the book is that one of the final things I did was to make sure the wood was being provided for the fire on the altar. It’s not exciting, but filling the woodbox so the sacrifices could happen is a spiritual act. And the pure physicality of it kept me focused. If you read carefully, you will see that keeping the Sabbath was something that mattered to me. Mostly because it mattered to God.
“Every day, fire. Every week, Sabbath. Every year, the appropriate feasts. Every morning...
“...every morning, coffee,” I finished. “With God.”
“Right,” he said. And took a sip. “Moving on, fourth, I reviewed the stories. When we were meeting to talk about starting the wall, I talked about everything that had gotten me to this point. Reviewing the stories mattered. My first prayer reviewed the story of God’s relationship. In chapter 9, we reviewed that story in detail.
“If you get stuck and are wondering why something matters, I think reviewing the stories of how you got here and what God’s doing might help.”
I thought for a minute. “So let me review. Follow God, talk to God, do the routines, review the stories. That sounds good, but it sounds pretty basic, pretty … routine. What did other people think about how simple you were?”
Nehemiah smiled at me, as if he was waiting for that question. “You are going to hate this one. Fifth, I didn’t get nearly as sidetracked as you do worrying about what people were going to think.”
I thought once again how annoying it is that he can read my mind. As if he lived in my head.
“I see I don’t need to explain that one,” he said, “so let’s keep going. Which is the next principle. Six, I just kept going. If you read all the way through, you see that there were lots of times that stuff wasn’t working. But I didn’t ever worry about it being my fault, that I should quit the project. I tried not to be arrogant. I listened to what the people were saying and responded and didn’t get upset. But I was confident that God was working somehow, and that the single most important thing I could do was to push on, to keep building, to keep obeying.
“Now, don’t forget that I didn’t go too far. While the wall was the project, I worked on the wall. I didn’t build armies. I didn’t go out to attack I didn’t let us get distracted. We just built the wall. Later, I focused on helping the people rebuild their lives. We focused on the temple, the giving, the worship, the obedience to God.
“We were in this whole mess because we didn’t follow God’s law, because we didn’t keep sabbath. I wasn’t going to let that happen as long as I had something to say.”
He paused. I said, “This is great. But this is a lot.”
He smiled. “If this is all too complicated, my friend Ezra made a really simple commitment. He was committed to learning the law, observing the law and teaching the law (Ezra 7:10). It wasn’t easy, but never confuse simple with easy. Sometimes the simplest next step is incredibly hard.”
He stood up. “I gotta go. But here’s something to think about when you are worrying about focus.
“Relax a little. Don’t get wrapped up in being perfect, in getting everything exactly right. We built the wall poorly, but we got it done. Because the wall was the most important thing. Just keep learning to do the most important thing. Sometimes you learn it by trying two or three things and discover that God doesn’t care about which of those things you choose. He cares about you.”
And he was gone.
I settled down. I started writing. “I looked over at Nehemiah. ‘Did you ever lose focus?’” I typed
Have a great week.
Jon and Nehemiah