This is how the book of Nehemiah starts:
The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah.
Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the citadel, that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down,and its gates are destroyed by fire.”
When I sat down to understand it, I ended up in a conversation with Nehemiah, and here’s how that went.
“One day my brother showed up unexpectedly. But that’s how everyone showed up back then. Unannounced. I was so excited to hear the news of the rebuilding, of the homeland. Lots of my people were comfortable in Babylon, but those of us who cared about returning to our homeland were hopeful.
“And when I heard from Hanani that nothing had changed, I was devastated. The breath went out of me. Do you know what it is like to spend your whole life and your parents’ whole lives and your grandparents’ whole lives retelling stories of what went wrong and what would be made right, lamenting the downfall, praying for the return? And then to hear that the people who went back, who could do something, were in despair? That after two generations and more, the walls were still in ruins, the gates still gaping and charred?
“It was more than I could handle. The city was in ruins. Someone needed to decide to rebuild. And somehow, unlikely as it was, I knew it might be me. I knew that I was going to have to give my one and only life to do something. To make a change. To take everything that I knew and throw it into this.”
Nehemiah slowly slipped back into his chair. I realized that he had fallen on his knees while he was talking.
I sat still. I thought of my own life, of the stories I learned about things that matter.
He smiled. “I get carried away. Sorry.”
He leaned back in the chair and looked around my office. At the books. At the coffee mugs. At the pictures of family.
“You know, sometimes I wonder,” he said. “If I knew that it would take the rest of my life, that I would spend a decade and more at the edges of the empire, would I have started this work? If I had known that I would fear and work and argue and defend. That I would give up all that was here in Susa for all that wasn’t there in Jerusalem. That I would work all that time and still wonder whether anyone’s life was really different, would I have done it again?”
His eyes stopped wandering. He leaned forward and looked at me. He said, “If you had something that mattered that much, wouldn’t you start working on it, no matter what?”
I closed my eyes and leaned back in the chair. I was too emotional to answer. When I looked up, he was gone. But his question is still in my heart.
“If you had something that mattered that much, wouldn’t you start working on it, no matter what?”
This is an excerpt from my book A Great Work: A Conversation With Nehemiah For People (Who Want To Be) Doing Great Works. From November 23-30, the Kindle edition will be available for $.99.