"Jesus Stopped": On Interruptibility

Yesterday I was having a conversation with some of my summer session students about the role of interruptibility in the Kingdom. My fascination with interruptibility began with a conversation with my good friend Mark and I continue to think about it a great deal was well as try to live it out in my own life.

Basically, interruptibility is a form of welcome and hospitality. It is a way of making room for others. This space we create is less a physical space than a temporal space, making room in your To Do list, making space so we can slow down and pay attention to others. In this, interruptibility is a form of slowing down. I'm reminded of a favorite quote from Philip Kenneson who quotes Kosuke Koyama in his book Life on the Vine:

God walks 'slowly' because he is love...Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is 'slow' yet it is lord over all other speeds since it is the speed of love.
Interruptibility is a sign that we are moving at the speed of love.

You see this a lot in Jesus' life and ministry. People frequently call from the margins and Jesus allows himself to be interrupted, to allow the "least of these" to interrupt what he is doing. And by doing so Jesus makes room for others.

But interruptibility is not just a form of hospitality, it is also a form of humility. We tend to become uninterruptible when we think our agenda is the most important. Thus, when you allow someone to interrupt you you are implicitly setting their agenda ahead of your own. You are practicing what Paul taught: "In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." Paul isn't talking about self-esteem here. He's talking about priorities. Put other people's interests on your To Do list. Be interruptible.

Because interruptibility is a form of humility it can function as a form of subversion in hierarchies, particularly in workplace interactions. Most workplaces are hierarchical, with superiors on top and subordinates down below. Agendas grow more important as you move upward. Thus, interruptibility flows downward. A superior can interrupt a subordinate but a subordinate shouldn't interrupt a superior. And when a superior interrupts a subordinate the assumption is that the agenda they are about to interrupt with is "more important" than what the subordinate is currently working on.

I'm not saying that superior-to-subordinate interruption is sinful. It's necessary to get the job done. My main concern has to do with how life in hierarchies can form bad habits and can be dehumanizing. Patterns of interruptibility in hierarchies need to be monitored if we'd like to be people of grace and welcome, inside and outside the office. Too often, the patterns of interruptibility created by workplace hierarchies create habits and self-concepts that get imported into other settings, the church in particular. I'm put in mind of the recent incident where a 12 year old boy with Cerebral Palsy was asked to leave church during Easter services (H/T Rachel Held Evans).

The best book I know of about fighting against the poison of hierarchies in workplace settings is Bob Sutton's best-selling management book The No Asshole Rule, which really should be required reading in all churches, let alone workplaces. According to Sutton, the NAR basically boils down to how people behave in hierarchical interactions. Thriving, happy and productive workplaces are places where hierarchies have been "flattened," where superiors work to interact with subordinates in an egalitarian manner. True, most large businesses can't function as a democracy, but what Sutton is after has more to do with the humanity of the workplace, the respect we give to each other. This is why you see places like Starbucks train their managers to give commands to subordinates by making requests. "Mop the floor," becomes "Hey Joe, would you mind mopping the floor?" The superior is interrupting Joe, as well he should, but he's doing so in a way that takes the edge off the hierarchy.

As Sutton summarizes in his book:
The difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.
And one way we can treat those less powerful than ourselves is to open up space for them in our lives. To become interruptible.

Two stories from Mark 10:
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”

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18 thoughts on “"Jesus Stopped": On Interruptibility”

  1. Philip Gulley wrote a similar piece that was in my inbox this morning. http://philipgulley.org/Secure%20Sermons/The%20Other%20Dimensions%20of%20Jesus%20%285%29.pdf

    On the bottom end of things, it's a little intimidating to interrupt others. One never knows whether one will be received or put in one's place.

  2. This is a great quote:  "Interruptibility is a sign that we are moving at the speed of love."  Kairos vs. chronos time?

    As a mother, I can relate to the association between interruptibility and expressing love.

    Another excellent blog post...  Thank you!

  3. What a great idea: "moving at the speed of love." As I've moved through seminary and ministry, it never ceases to amaze me how much pressure there is to NOT make space for people. Why is that? Well, there are just so many deadlines, papers, things to do, that are inherently individualistic and self-focused. I love the idea that interruptibility is a form of humility. This is a truth I will chew on for a while...

  4. A good follow-up to this is an article written on Father's Day this year by a local doctor in our paper.


  5. In my last job, I had managerial responsibility for several people and I usually phrased my commands as requests.  I always felt kind of wimpy doing it that way, but now I see that this was a useful management technique!

    Now, if I could just learn how to avoid getting upset when my kids (or the neighbors' kids) interrupt my concentration when I'm trying to study...

  6. ouch! you really had to post this as my kids are home from the summer interrupting every little thing I try to do. :)
    seriously... major ouch.  the good kind though. 
    time to pray...

  7. Great post. This is a constant issue for me: How much control of my agenda do I give up, and who gets it? Its quite difficult. Like a lot of people my life stage, there are often more people with requests, questions, needs, and (occasionally) demands than there are hours in the day. I will be honest. The interruptibility level for my wife or my kids is completely different than it is for a salesman.

    Plus, because I'm an introvert, I need to go into an isolation mode on a fairly frequent basis. I've always been inspired by Nouwen's suggested pattern of community
    -> ministry -> solitude. Not always good at it, but it makes
    sense. Even Jesus found occasional need to retreat with friends, or to get away from the pressing demands of people.

    The challenge for me, at this stage in life, is to ensure that the "least among us" are getting access to at least some part of the agenda.

  8. ...and PS - I'm all for the "no asshole" rule in the workplace, but I also think people who are lower on the hierarchy can tell the difference between someone who follows it for corporate/utilitarian purposes and people who follow it because they are decent human beings. Its good to follow the rule for the first reason, but even better to follow it for the second.

  9. I can identify. I think about interruptibility a lot because I'm not very good at it. So I try to keep it out in front of me, a conscious goal I work toward.

  10. How about flipping it around?

    "Hey kids, let ME interrupt YOU with some house chores...." :-) 

  11. > I'm not saying that superior-to-subordinate interruption is sinful. It's necessary to get the job done.

    Isn't this something like the naturalistic fallacy?

  12. Very timely.  I stay at home with my young kids and was just having a conversation with my friend on how difficult it is to remain patient when our children interrupt us during nap time when we had the expectation of some time to get actual grown up things done.  A good reminder that motherhood it a position that greatly requires interruptibility.  Thanks.

  13. yeah I've got that one down pat ;)

    they're great actually. I just miss my solitude a little too much.

  14. Thanks for this and just so you know, you do a good job on treating subordinates with respect and humanity. At least in my experience, and I say thanks, you're a great boss.

  15. What a challenge to me in my daily parenting, to allow myself to be interrupted by my little kids... to not take advantage of my position of authority over them, to be led by a rhythm of love.  Thank you.  

  16. I just found your blog through Rachel Held Evan's. I think I'll be here often. I used to ignore interruptions, ouch. This post is fresh air. Thank you.

  17. Makes me think a lot about how I handle interruptions (unnecessary pages) from people below me on my work hierarchy. It's easy to forget that their agenda is important too. Definitely a way to be intentional about being graceful.

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