Jenny Williams: Our interruptions are our work

What did Jesus do when he was interrupted? Or Simon of Cyrene when ordered to carry this man’s cross?

How often are you working on a major task or deadline, and the interruptions just won’t go away? How do you deal with them? A recent lectionary text shows Jesus dealing with two interruptions in a short period of time and handling them with grace. In Mark 5:21-43, Jesus arrives on shore only to be greeted once again by the sort of enormous crowd he sought escape from. Whatever his intended task was, the episode focuses on two healings. In the first one, a prominent local religious leader named Jairus asks Jesus to heal his adolescent daughter, who lays on her deathbed at home. On his way to Jairus’ home, an unclean woman touches Jesus’ robe, knowing she will be healed from 12 years of hemorrhaging.

Yes, even Jesus’ interruption is interrupted.

Henri Nouwen wrote of a now-famous conversation which helped him think about interruptions as something other than a bother. He writes, “While visiting the University of Notre Dame, where I had been a teacher for a few years, I met an older experienced professor who had spent most of his life there. And while we strolled over the beautiful campus, he said with a certain melancholy in his voice, "You know . . . my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work."

What if we saw interruptions as a gift? What if, instead of resisting them out of frustration, we saw them as an opportunity to be open to God?

Nouwen went on to be transformed by the professor’s statement. He later wrote, “It has been the interruptions to my everyday life that have most revealed to me the divine mystery of which I am a part . . . All of these interruptions presented themselves as opportunities . . . invited me to look in a new way at my identity before God. Each interruption took something away from me; each interruption offered something new.”

Interruptions confront our illusion that we are in control of our time. Notice how we talk about time as though it were a commodity: we have it, we spend it, we want more. Instead we should remember that in the beginning, God created time by giving us the rhythms of day and night, work and Sabbath. Time is a gift. How can we receive it well? The Protestant work ethic has formed us to think that time, like money, is not something to be “wasted.” Marva Dawn wrote a book about worship called A Royal Waste of Time. Her title suggests that what the world deems wasteful, worship, we see as honoring God.

Is your task at hand really so important? Or does God mean for you to be doing something other than what you—or your business, or your church, or your institution—think is important?

To Jairus, it may have seemed that Jesus was wasting time in choosing to stop and engage the hemorrhaging woman. His daughter was dying! To the crowd, Jesus’ choice may have likewise seemed wasteful because he was delaying helping a prominent man to strike up a conversation with a pariah, whose medical condition made her perpetually unclean. How did he decide which interruptions to welcome and embrace?

Jesus engaged in a sort of triage. The outcast was made whole because he decided to stop. He restored not only her health, but he restored her to the community of the faithful. But she was only made well because he was willing to be interrupted.

What if we approached each day with the same willingness to engage in this “spiritual triage”? When faced with interruptions can we use this question for evaluation: “Even if I am on my way to doing something good—something for my church, something for my family, something for my community, and I am interrupted by someone who needs help, is this interruption the thing that God wants me to do first. Or instead?”

One blogger’s reflection prompts me to offer an alternative to the now clichéd WWJD. Instead, we might want to have cute little paperweights on our desks that read “What would Simon of Cyrene do?” Interruptions are a way to take up the cross and deny ourselves. But like Simon of Cyrene, if we see the interruption through to the the end, we may indeed be blessed to have carried Jesus’ cross for him.