Do-not-disturbThis week I received an email from a friend I had not heard from for almost twenty years. I first met him when I was at seminary.

He wrote:

“I cracked open my Regent mail today and saw your picture. You’d be surprised how often I think about you. I still remember conversations we’ve had, how you would put down your thesis to talk to a young person going through confusing times. And I remember talking to you about going into the pastorate.”

He went on to share that he had left a position as a consultant engineer, done an MDiv, and was now pastoring a church.

I couldn’t help but think of Henri Nouwen’s oft-quoted observation from his book REACHING OUT:

“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.'” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, REACHING OUT,” Garden City., N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 36)

Our present goal-obsessed culture is very intolerant of interruptions. Time management techniques backed up with technology means that for many of us, our plan for the day is a to-do list on a PDA. Or for less tech-savvy folks like myself, a to-do list on a planner.

As a result I find myself often tired and guilty because I am often behind in the things I should be doing (don’t ask me how many emails I have yet to reply). And I am often frustrated by interruptions.

These interruptions would often come from people that are important to me: my children, my mother, my friends, people in need etc. But instead of welcoming these interruptions as opportunities to bless them, I often feel resentful. And often I feel somewhat depressed that I am never on top of things.

Something is not quite right here.

I suspect that my friend who emailed me may have romanticized the past a little. Still, if there is any truth in my friend’s recollection, I am grateful. My thesis was on the leadership qualifications in the Pastoral Epistles. It would have been ironic if I had been so busy writing my thesis that I had no time to encourage a potential leader.

I am not here to propose a complete laissez-faire approach to our lives. 20 years ago I needed to finish my thesis and I did. We need to have goals and yet we also need to respond to needs and opportunities as they arise. I suspect this will be one of the many things in life where we have to search for some elusive balance.

We all have responsibilities that entail our achieving certain goals. Yet life is such that there will always be interruptions.

Maybe what is needed is a more dynamic understanding of life. Our lives are not purely defined by our goals. Our lives will always be filled with both goals and interruptions. Some of them will be valid. Some not. And life is one long lesson in acquiring the wisdom to know the difference.

Taking our cue from Jesus, He seemed to go through life with clarity about his identity and mission (See for e.g. Mark 10:45; Luke 4:16-20). And that guided Him as He balanced the many demands on His life. Therefore it would seem then that the first questions to ask before selecting a goal or responding to an interruption are these: Who am I? What is my primary mission in life?

Who am I? Well, I am a child of God, saved, and loved unconditionally by my Heavenly Father, and hence I am not to worry or be anxious! (Matthew 6:25 – 34)

What has Soo Inn been called to do? I am called to teach God’s Word. So I needed to study the Word in depth. Hence I needed to finish my thesis. I am also called to encourage emerging leaders through intentional relationships. Hence it was right that I spent time walking with my friend 20 years ago.

It’s amazing that the same answers apply today. 20 years later.

Who are you? What is your mission in life?

There is no magic system for discerning which goals and interruptions are valid. But some clarity of our identity and mission would certainly provide us with some guard rails for decision-making.

And it must also be said that we also need to structure in Sabbath times so that we can achieve the other critical balance of work and rest so crucial for a healthy life. Jesus had His mission and His interruptions. But He also went to quiet places to rest and pray on a regular basis.

So life is not just a series of goals to be protected from interruptions. It is a dynamic combination of goals and interruptions!

And I am grateful that my friend interrupted me with an email to remind me so.

Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan