On Holy Interruptions
[Jon.3:1-5, 10; 1Cor.7:29-31; Mk.1:14-20]
Some people simply hate interruptions. In the movie Darkest Hour (2017), there’s a scene where Winston Churchill shouts at someone: ‘Will you stop interrupting me while I’m interrupting you!’ [i]
We all get interrupted. The phone rings, a child cries or someone calls out our name, and we’re obliged to stop what we’re doing. It can be frustrating.
One day in 1797, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge fell asleep and dreamt of a new poem, including all the verses. When he woke up, he started writing it down quickly, but there was a knock on the door. An hour later, he returned to his poem, but only vaguely remembered the lines. He did his best, though, [ii] and the result was the poem Kubla Khan. [iii]
The spiritual writer Melannie Svoboda suggests three reasons why we don’t like such intrusions. Firstly, they force us to change what we’re doing, and some people don’t like change. Secondly, they infringe upon our sense of freedom and control, and we don’t like being reminded of what little control we have in our lives. And thirdly, they involve some form of sacrifice, and self-sacrifice isn’t always easy to do. [iv]
But interruptions can also be good things. They can help us become more patient, they teach us to let go, they remind us that life isn’t only about ‘me’, and they can be pleasant when we like the interrupter.
There are many interruptions in Scripture. During the Wedding at Cana, for instance, Mary asks Jesus to get more wine (Jn.2:1-12). And while Jesus is teaching in Capernaum, a sick man is brought in through the roof for healing (Mk.2:1-12).
But Jesus never considers anyone an annoyance or an intrusion. Every encounter with every person is always important to him.
And sometimes Jesus interrupts others. In today’s gospel, he approaches four fishermen while they’re working. This turns out to be a major interruption for them, because they suddenly leave everything behind to follow Jesus. And not only are their lives changed, but as we know, the whole world is changed, too.
These stories remind us that every now and then, when we least expect it, God interrupts what we’re doing. He might put an idea in our head, or he might speak through someone, or something really inconvenient might happen to us.
But the point is that God loves us, and he’s more involved in our lives than we might think. He’s constantly trying to change us and shape us (Jer.29:11; Prov.19:21), and he’s trying to use us to channel his grace into the world (Jer.29:11; Jn.15:5).
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that we must allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, for he’ll be constantly crossing our paths and cancelling our plans by sending us people who claim our attention. However, we may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, he says, for it’s a strange fact that Christians often consider their work so important and urgent that they’ll allow nothing to disturb them. They think they’re doing God a service, but actually they’re avoiding God’s ‘crooked yet straight path’. [v]
Henri Nouwen used to complain that his work was constantly being interrupted, until he realised that the interruptions were his work. He said that the unpleasant things, the hard moments and the unexpected setbacks carry more potential than we usually realise. [vi]
So, let’s close with a story. An elderly monk once lived a solitary life in the hills of Italy. He never left his monastery, and he prayed every day that someday he might see the face of God.
One day, his superior asked him to go into the village for supplies. He resisted, saying that he’d never left the monastery. Yet he went, though he was determined to only get the supplies on the list and then return to seek the face of God.
As he approached the village gates, a blind man said: ‘Pardon the interruption, but can you help me?’
‘Oh no,’ said the monk, ‘ask another’. He then went on his way, purchasing the first item on his list when a hungry boy said: ‘Pardon the interruption, but can you help me?’
‘Oh no,’ said the monk, ‘ask another’.
As he came to the last item on his list, an elderly woman in obvious disarray said: ‘Pardon the interruption, but can you help me?’
‘Oh no,’ said the monk, ‘ask another’. He returned to the monastery and said to his superior: ‘I got the supplies, but I never want to go into the village again.’
‘Why?’ asked the superior.
“Well, every time I tried to do something someone said: ‘Pardon the interruption, but can you help me?’ I’ll never see the face of God that way.” [vii]
[v] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. HarperOne, NY, 1954:99. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/518c65fee4b0887d9a39138d/t/5827e7aab3db2b0f3d311bf5/1479010229503/Life+Together_Eng.pdf
[vi] Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing. Thomas Nelson, Nashville. 2001:11