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Interrupted Life

Are we missing the life that is right in front of us, often found in interruptions?
Interrupted Life
Image: bilderlounge / Getty Images

I have a dog named Rev. She is my constant companion and an ever-present nuisance in times of trouble, or anytime really. Rev is always with me and she almost always wants something from me. I work from home. Once, in a disagreement about family duties caring for our little labradoodle, my wife said to me, “Well, I don’t stay at home during the week.” I was quick to correct her. I don’t “stay at home.” I “work from home.”

The tension point was that Rev, a three-year old labradoodle, needs what all three-year old labradoodles need, exercise and attention. These daily necessities had become my responsibilities. That means I often write on our back porch as Rev plays (as I am right now). I take phone meetings during my daily three mile walk with her.

It means something else too. It also means that Rev only allows me to work so long before she is ready to interrupt me. As I thump away at my keyboard, she rests patiently on my feet, sleeping underneath my desk, but after the 70-minute mark Rev thinks it’s time for me to take a break.

She’s right.


Like many preachers and writers, I tend to overwork. I get focused. When I’m writing, the rest of the world melts around me. No one else exists. The work of the Word and crafting words requires a certain focus and intentionality.

Interruption, like Rev’s desire for attention or a co-worker who sticks their head in the door, cost writers a lot. As a writer friend of mine told me, “A 5-minute interruption can cost you 45-minutes of work.” Once a preacher or writer gets pulled out of that deep focus, it takes a lot to regain it.

To shield our focus, pastors get hyper-focused and ultra-protective of our preparation schedules and time. A certain amount of this is good and necessary. I’d rather live in a world where pastors are hyper-sensitive about being prepared rather than one where pastors are cavalier about their calling. But all the focus on focus misses something: Life is a series of interruptions. More than that, life is found in the interruptions.

Could it be that the best sermon preparation available to us is listening to and paying attention to the interruptions?

Life Is Found in Interruptions

Last week I heard an astonishing podcast about focus and interruptions. The guest, a productivity expert, upended what many of us have been taught about interruptions. Like me, he works from home. Unlike me, he has a young child, a baby, in fact. I remember having babies. There were constant interruptions. What he learned is that interruptions don’t remove us from deep focus for all that long. More importantly, life is not what we’re doing when uninterrupted. Life is the interruptions.

What if in the stack of books, commentaries, lexicons, and stories we use to animate our sermons, we have become so focused on the world of our work that we lose sight of the world that is? And I don’t simply mean our families, but the real world around us.

For a long while I forced myself to write sermons in a coffee shop or other public space. As I worked, people watched, and prayed, I put my imagination to work, shaping my preaching to the people in my near view: What does that couple need? What does that young mother feel? What would I say to the barista behind the counter or the lonely teenager standing in line?

These questions shifted my imagination. This practice allowed me to forget about the faces in my church who were already in a small group, Bible study, or doing whatever else was on my church’s menu during that season.

I wanted people’s needs to interrupt me. For many years, my church ran a coffee shop in our space. The coffee shop was open seven days a week. I sat there, often with books or my laptop, hoping someone would chance by and interrupt me. It was my opportunity to hear from the hearers in my church and the general public. I never wore earbuds or headphones, because I wanted to be interrupted. I wanted to be interruptible.

In the Gospels, Jesus is interrupted and constantly interruptible. He’s often headed to one destination and turns to head to another. He is invited to dinner only to have an uninvited guest disrupt the proceedings. Sometimes the Lord invited himself to dinner.

Dallas Willard taught that Jesus is not giving us anything to do when he teaches the Beatitudes, but, rather, Jesus is addressing the current and lived experience of the women and men the Lord is teaching. How would Jesus know their lived experience if he forsook their interruptions? Life is in the interruptions. As a fellow pastor once told me, “If you can do all your job in the office, something is wrong.”

Ronald Rolheiser writes about creating a meaningful spiritual life in the midst of busyness, in his book Domestic Monastery. He writes, “To be forced to work, to be tied down with duties, to have to get up early, to have little time to call your own, to be burdened with the responsibility of children and the demands of debts and mortgages, to go to bed exhausted after a working day is to be in touch with our humanity.” What Father Rolheiser means is that the best of what we become, we become in the midst of life and life’s interruptions.

I don’t mean to suggest there is never a turn off your phone to Do Not Disturb or shut your door or sneak away, but I worry that too many of us do that too often. I worry that I do that too often. I fear we have made the production of a sermon a production for its own sake, and we have missed the life in front of us and called it an interruption.

Sean Palmer is the Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston, speaker and speaking coach, and author of several books including--Speaking by the Numbers: Ennegram Wisdom for Teachers, Pastors, and Communicators.

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