Interrupted by grace

If you want to make the most of your life and fulfill your life’s highest purpose, and if you want the greatest success in your job or career path, you need to stay focused on your dream or goal and resist distractions and interruptions as much as possible. By setting aside distractions and defending against interruptions, you’ll arrive without fail at your goal or destination. It’s a sentiment shared by a great many business consultants and experts in efficiency and effectiveness. But it doesn’t always work that way.

The principle of setting aside distractions and defending against interruptions is one Jesus seems to have practiced. During a visit to Capernaum (Mark 1:29-39), when he was overwhelmed by a huge crowd seeking healing, he went off by himself to pray and, apparently, to refocus on his purpose in life. Then he walked away from many who were still seeking healing there, saying to his disciples, “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns, that I may proclaim the message there also; for that’s what I came out to do” (v. 38). Healing the crowds, it seems, was not what he came out to do. It distracted him from his purpose and interrupted his mission.

It’s an ancient and important spiritual practice, when we’re distracted from our focus and from our purpose, to be aware we’re distracted and to let the distraction go, like a cloud passing by on the breeze. We return to our focus, recentering ourselves in what we’re about. That’s partly why we have sabbath days, occasions to retreat from the world to recenter in God. It’s why Jesus told us, when we pray, to withdraw into our place of solitude and close the door and pray to God who is in secret (Matt. 6:6). Avoid distractions; defend against interruptions.

But sometimes our focus, our commitment to keeping things the way they have been, our steadfast adherence to the path we’re on, can be the distraction. Sometimes we can be so focused on our purpose, it becomes a distraction from God’s purpose for us. What we consider distractions can serve as opportunities for God to get our attention and call us back to our purpose. What appears to be an interruption in our plans can serve as a spiritual intervention to bring us back to God’s will for us.

Consider what happened to Paul and Silas during their visit to Philippi (Acts 16:16-34). As they were going to a place of prayer, their journey was interrupted by a demon-possessed slave-girl who earned money for her owners by fortunetelling. She annoyed Paul and Silas so much, Paul lost his temper and turned around and healed her. He ordered the demon to leave her, and it did. His journey to the place of prayer was interrupted, and the interruption turned out to be the opportunity for the healing the slave-girl needed.

But the interruption of Paul’s and Silas’s plans was about more than merely healing a slave-girl. Paul’s healing of the girl resulted in the financial undoing of her owners. Their source of income dried up, “their hope of making money was gone” (v. 19). More than that, the healing of the girl who interrupted Paul’s journey appears to have threatened the social and economic foundations of the city. “These men are disturbing our city,” the girl’s owners charged as they hauled Paul and Silas off to court (v. 20). The crowd joined the attack, and Paul and Silas were severely beaten and thrown into jail.

The story tells of one interruption after another. Paul and Silas were interrupted on their way to prayer; the girl’s course of life was interrupted by her healing; the girl’s owners’ exploitation of the girl was interrupted and they were deprived of their chief asset; the business-as-usual economy of the city was interrupted with the recognition that healing is systemic as well as personal. Living the gospel means living a life full of interruptions.

Someone pointed out that if you had lived closely with Jesus, if you slept in the same house or field with him, awakened with him, ate with him, and traveled with him, you’d see that Jesus gave himself almost entirely to what we would consider interruptions. Most of the teaching, healing, and wonders we see in his life were seemingly unplanned responses to interruptions. He trusted that what God allowed to cross his path was something from God, God’s intended interruption. Jesus always seemed willing for his life to be interrupted by grace.

The past two weeks have seen major interruptions in our lives. On May 14, ten of our neighbors in Buffalo’s Jefferson Avenue neighborhood were shot to death while shopping at their local Tops Market. Ten days later, nineteen nine- and ten-year-old children were shot to death in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, along with two fourth-grade teachers at the school. According to figures compiled by The Washington Post, since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, more than 311,000 students at 331 schools have experienced gun violence, and at least 554 have been killed or injured. Those numbers do not include the ten Tops Market victims or other victims of shootings in churches, synagogues, and temples or in other public or workplace settings.

I give no credence whatever, absolutely none, to the notion that God was in any way responsible for any of those events. To suggest that such shootings may be part of God’s will or plan, as some do, is, I believe, an abhorrent blasphemy. I also believe that in every one of those events, a Holy Spirit is interrupting our lives, crying out in lamentation and bitter weeping, like Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more (Jer. 31:15). The voice is crying out for our attention, for our confession and repentance, for a deep and holy discontent with the way things are in our society, and calling for our conversion, for our sacred commitment to intentionally and radically change our way of living in community.

It’s been said that the briefest definition of religion is one word: interruption. When the journey we have been on is interrupted, when our plans come to naught, there is our opportunity to renew the life that binds us to the source and sustainer of life. Farmer and essayist Wendell Berry wrote, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

If we will let it be, especially if we as the church will allow, we will face these interruptions as openings to the real and extraordinarily difficult work to which God calls us. And baffled though we may be, no longer knowing what to do or which way to go, dealing faithfully and earnestly with what impedes us will be our song.

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