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Interruption Science, Made Holy

May 26, 2019
Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67
I was recently introduced to something called interruption science -- the study of how interruptions affect us.  Interruptions are defined as “anything that distracts us from our primary task” -- and that can be almost anything.  We are constantly bombarded by text message alerts and other electronic buzzes from our phones, by people coming to talk to us about their primary tasks, by appointments and meetings.  And then there are the abundant self-interruptions -- when we toggle our computer screen to steal a short glance at our email, or start on a tangent because we happen to be reminded by something in front of us.
Interruption scientists have discovered that it takes the average person about 25 minutes to recover from an interruption that is unrelated to the task they were previously working on.  But unfortunately, the average human is interrupted at least every 12 minutes (and some studies say self-interruptions may actually bring that number down to every 3 minutes)!  
Which means that most of us have no hope of ever catching up.  And the costs are higher than we might realize. All these distractions make it harder for our brains to decide where to focus. So we take longer to complete our most important tasks, often at a lower quality, and experience more stress and frustration in the process.  We are also less likely to think deeply, leading to decreased creativity and innovation.
And while I hadn’t heard the term “interruption science” before, I had certainly experienced the phenomena.  This inability to find open time to really focus on something important without distraction -- that feels like all-too familiar territory both at work and at home.
So it was actually with some joy that I realized I would have a lot of time alone in the car last weekend.  I was heading first to Richmond and then to join some of you at our parish retreat at Shrine Mont. I’m not always a big fan of car trips, but this felt like a welcome chance to step away from the busyness and constant motion of life and sit on my own for a while.  Plus, someone had suggested a new podcast for me to try called “Encountering Silence.” So I downloaded a handful of episodes that included interviews with some of the modern greats of Christian spirituality -- Jim Finley, Cynthia Bourgeault, Parker Palmer, James Martin….  
So there I was listening to one of these podcasts, inspired by its thoughtful discussion about prayer and silence and depth, when all of a sudden, about 20 minutes in, this happens:
“Our conversation will return after this brief moment of silence.  Please take a breath and be present in this 30 seconds of silence.”  And then a singing bell rang. And rang. And rang.
What was this?!  30 seconds?! Why were they interrupting this great conversation?!  Do that on your own time! I quickly pushed the little arrow button on my phone to skip ahead 30 seconds and the conversation began again.
It was only when I pushed that arrow button again durng the second episode that the irony hit me.  I’d chosen to listen to a podcast called “Encountering Silence.” I was loving hearing about how these different people had experienced silence and what it meant for their spiritual lives.  I heartily agree with the premise that contemplation and stillness are an important part of spiritual deepening. My favorite spiritual practices revolve around silence. But despite all this, I couldn’t be bothered to take 30 seconds of silence without begrudging it as a ridiculous interruption.
And, it turns out, I am not the only one.
Interestingly, some of the psalms, including the one we said [sang] today, include a similar kind of spiritual interruption.  You don’t see it in our bulletin, but if you look up Psalm 67 in most Bible translations you will see in the margins this little italicized word: Selah.  Selah is a sacred Hebrew word that appears 71 times in the psalms, and twice in our psalm for today.  It is a direction to the reader or singer of the psalm to pause - to take a breath - to stop and listen - to reflect and imagine.  “You are on sacred ground,” Selah reminds us.  “Stand in awe!”
But we ignore it.  In fact, we don’t just ignore it -- we take it out.  For practical reasons, of course! Just like I skipped through the 30 seconds of silence on my drive to get back to something that seemed more interesting.  
We humans too often forget or avoid our deep need to close our eyes, take a breath and listen for God.  
Maybe it’s because we’ve gotten so used to living at the speed of machines.  Our lives are full of fast-moving traffic and closely scheduled obligations. We are surrounded by noise and activity, and we tend to be very impatient when made to wait for anything.  If we find ourselves with a minute in line at the grocery store, most of us can’t help pulling out our phones to check email or compare our lives to the far more interesting ones our friends claim on Facebook or Instagram.  
And so that bell - that Selah - or whatever it is that calls us to silence, wherever we might receive an invitation to open ourselves to God in the waiting, even for a mere 30 seconds - those are gifts!  That is a completely different kind of interruption than the type that frustrates our days and causes stress.
Over my commutes last weekend, I ended up listening to 6 episodes of the podcast, and by the time I returned home I had grown to look forward to the sound of that bell and the invitation it provided to breathe deeply and gratefully take in the world around me.  By the end, my body and brain had come to terms with how very much I need that life-giving interruption of Selah written into my margins.  
And that, I think, is where we find Lydia, from our reading from Acts, today.  She was a worshiper of God, and she was listening. And because she took opened herself to listen, because she welcomed the life-giving kind of interruptions, she was able to hear God speaking in the depths of her heart.  
As our story puts it, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”  And what she heard was not only life-giving but life-changing.
This little snippet is our only glimpse of her in the Bible, and yet, like so many of the anonymous or briefly-appearing characters in scripture, Lydia’s legacy is large.  She is celebrated as a saint -- the first convert to Christianity in Europe -- her name is synonymous with hospitality and faithfulness. And all because she stilled herself to listen for God.  
Experiences of silence and stillness put us in the stance to receive, and from what we feel and hear and experience of God’s presence and care in those moments, we are transformed to speak and act and love as God’s people in the world, free (or at least free-er) from our all-too-human illusion that we are separate from God.
We are on sacred ground.   
May we all stand in awe.  
Selah!  RING BELL.


  1. Excellent post.

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    Read my Latest Post


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