|December 30, 2012
Dear <<First Name>>
“I’m really tired, Nehemiah,” I said.
“I know. I can tell. You need to think about your routine.”
I hate when he does that. Goes right into my mind, I mean. I've been thinking about routine a lot these days. And Nehemiah started it. But it seems a little smug or something for him to raise the subject.
“I can hear you thinking,” he said. “And it’s time for you to talk about routine and me.”
A couple weeks ago I was thinking about Nehemiah’s work rebuilding the wall and then rebuilding the people. I started thinking about the feasts that God assigned, times of celebration that review the stories. We talked about that a couple Sundays ago.
Then I started thinking about the idea of routine: a set of thoughts and behaviors performed consistently. Nehemiah's’ life reflected some of these routines. I wrote about routine in an ebook about the Sermon on the Mount. The idea of routine, of learning a new routine, of routine shaping us, that came from Nehemiah.
“Thanks for the acknowledgement,” he said. “I know you wanted to talk next about Chapters 9-10 in my book. We’ll talk about the big confessional review and recommitment later, but I think you need to look at something right now, as you are walking into your new year. Number your paper from 1 to 6.” he said.
Nehemiah smiled. “You see how that simple action puts you in a learning mode?”
“It puts me in a testing mode,” I said. “It reminds me of all the quizzes in school that I wasn't ready for.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Actions can remind us of the context where we used that action before. In this case, for you, the context of quizzes is an unpleasant reminder of your own unwise behavior. But what if you had actually studied when you were in school? In that case, the process of numbering your paper would have reminded you of the times when you got to show to yourself and your teacher that you had learned something, right?”
As much as I disliked the reminder of my poor study habits, I understood. Repeated actions shape us and can then remind us of the context. It can be a bad thing, like flashbacks, or it can be a very helpful thing, being reminded of commitments.
“Back to the list. I know that sometime you are planning to talk about how I was shaped by reading the Law. This will be an illustration. I want to give you six kinds of routines that God put in place to remind us regularly about his work.
“First, there were daily routines. You remember how I had talked to God morning and evening for four months as I was wondering how the walls could be rebuilt? That morning and evening prayer had been part of my routine long before my brother came with the bad news. Morning and evening prayer was part of our story as a people. The Levites prayed in front of the altar morning and evening. David had prayers, psalms, for morning and evening. In Numbers 28, God laid out morning and evening sacrifices. He said there was to be an offering all the time, but he specified morning and evening to start the offerings. When you are offering a lamb, it takes that long.”
I interrupted, “But we’re not doing burnt offerings any more. And no one has, Jew or Christian, since the temple was destroyed in 70AD.”
I was relieved by that, since I’m not a fan of blood.
He paused. “Do you think that the removal of the sacrifice means that you don’t need daily reminders?”
He was right. Paul talked about making ourselves living sacrifices. Maybe looking at the when of the sacrifice rather than the what might teach me about routine. And maybe, when Jesus talked about daily bread...
“Let’s go back to the list please?” Nehemiah’s quiet voice broke in.
“Second, there were weekly routines. I’m sure you have noticed that Sabbath was a big deal for me. Twice I made a big deal out of closing the gates for Sabbath.”
“I’ve wanted to talk to you about that. Why so much about gates?” I asked.
“That’s for later. For now, Sabbath. It was a weekly reminder of God’s rest after creation and God’s rescue of his people from Egypt. We can pause daily, but we need a longer time each week to refresh and remember. To set aside our lists and remember that the strength and direction come from God.”
I sensed that he had much more to say about this subject. I do, too. But not here, not today.
“Third, there were monthly reminders. You've heard that leaders should reinforce vision every 28 days or so? That’s every four weeks. That’s why God told the people to make a sacrifice every new moon.”
“But don’t the prophets talk about God not liking their New Moon celebrations?”
“Ah, you've been searching Biblegateway.com for ‘new moon’, haven’t you. It’s easy to turn a routine, a way of living, into a ritual. We perform a ritual, hoping it has some value in itself. It’s a kind of magic. We wear our lucky underwear. We show up to church every week.
“And God said through his prophets that we as a people had started doing these rituals to placate him, or without thinking. Our bodies did the sacrifice, our minds were somewhere else. Sometime read the way Malachi reams out the Levites. But just because we ritualize behavior doesn't mean that we shouldn't look at routine.
“Think of it this way: a ritual is something we do hoping to influence God. A routine is something we do to work on us. What a routine like daily prayer or weekly Sabbath or monthly celebration does is to bring our minds back to the story of God’s work. But a routine this way means we have to think.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“I know,” Nehemiah said. “We’re still working on how to explain it. But that’s why we keep having these conversations. As we routinely look at the text, the stories, the works of God, we keep getting glimpses that we wouldn't have if we didn't routinely talk. I think that in the next draft of these thoughts, you’ll understand better.”
He smiled. “If you want a practical application of the 28 days thinking, go back to the wall rebuilding. Halfway through the project everyone was getting discouraged. We made some changes, reviewed our purpose, looked again to God’s presence. We needed to get refocused.”
I hadn’t thought about the wall story that way. I looked at the cycles of attention in my life. I wondered how often I ran out of steam after a month or so. I made a note to look at the calendar for the moon schedule.
“Fourth, there were annual reminders. We talked a couple weeks ago about the feasts as occasions for storytelling. In the course of a year, we covered all the stories of God’s work. They came with reminders of our failures or struggles. The focus wasn't on our failure, but on God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm.”
I raised my hand. “You mean like spending time at New Year’s looking back at the year and looking ahead?”
He smiled. “Exactly. And at Advent. And Lent. And Easter. And Pentecost. All those times that you could use to understand God’s work. Instead you complain about the holidays that Hallmark has created. But think about it. People need celebrations and reminders. Hallmark is just meeting a need for reflection.
“We’re running out of time but I want to cover these last two. Fifth, there were reminders every seven years. God had laid out a Sabbath year, a time when debts were cancelled and the land wasn’t worked and we were supposed to remember that God had given us a promised land. The land was created by God, given by God, watered by God.”
“Wasn’t the exile related to this?”
Nehemiah looked down. “The exile and slavery lasted until the kingdom of Persia took over. This is exactly the message of God that Jeremiah had preached: the desolate land put to an extended sabbath rest, a seventy-year Sabbath rest making up for all the unkept Sabbaths.” He was quoting from 2 Chronicles 36.
“Sixth, there were once in a lifetime celebrations. The dedication of the wall was one of these. The biggest one God put in place was the year of Jubilee, every fifty years. It was a sabbath of sabbath years. It was supposed to be huge. I’m not sure we ever did it.
“But I tried to help us celebrate these ways. I spent the rest of my life routinely reminding us of the stories of God.”
“Wasn’t that how you ended your account of your life?”
He walked away. “I’m not ready for that conversation yet,” he said.
I understood. When you get to the end of a story, a career, or even a year, it's hard to talk about it. So we won't. Not yet.
But I do have a last word for you and for me. The risk of thinking that the sacrificial celebrations are gone is that we are still human. We still build routines. We still need routines that remind us of God. I'll pray for you as we look into the next year, if you will pray for me. Daily. Weekly. Monthly. And at every turning of the celebrations.
And a word about my publishing. These conversations with Nehemiah have me looking very seriously at building some resources around the idea of routine. This month I published an Advent reader and Learning a New Routine about the sermon on the mount. I'm working on a short book on the idea of routine and then a reader for Lent. And, as you may know, these writings on Nehemiah are the first draft of an ebook on "A great work." Thanks for your encouragement and feedback. (And purchases.)
Happy New Year.
Jon and Nehemiah.