By Laura Stephens-Reed
The name on my five-year-old’s birth certificate is Levi. For the past couple of years, however, he has told his dad and me each morning what he wants to be called that day.
Sometimes he is Batman. Other days he is a ninja. And lately, he is usually a penguin named Chilly Willy or a lorikeet he has christened Cheep Cheep. He dresses in clothes that he considers to be the costume for his persona. He talks in his approximation of the character’s voice. He eats – or at least pretends his food is – what he thinks his alter ego would enjoy.
I find Levi-Batman-Chilly Willy-Cheep Cheep’s imagination delightful, and I am grateful that he is surrounded by adults who feel the same way. In fact, he is Tuscaloosa famous at Publix, Panera Bread, and the comic book shop, where the employees love to see who he’s channeling that day. At the same time, Levi’s determination to be living art does interrupt the flow of our family life.
Getting ready for school is frustrating and requires a lot of creativity on my part when the “costume” he wants isn’t clean. Preparing for bedtime is exhausting and time-consuming when he has not yet wrung every bit of story out of his character for that day. And in the middle, there is a lot of protesting and foot-dragging if his parents have planned activities that take him away from saving a Lego version of Gotham or playing with his stuffed bird friends.
In the passage of scripture often referred to as the Gentile Pentecost – Acts 10 – the Jesus movement expands from a strong but small contingent limited by nationality, ethnicity, and culture to a religion for the whole of humankind based solely on belief. It’s a turning point in the history of Christianity. And it happens because Peter is interrupted by God – and Peter responds to those interruptions.
What if Peter had shrugged off his rooftop vision that came to him while he prayed as a hunger-induced fever dream? What if Peter had ignored the three ambassadors knocking on his door because he was too addled by his dream or too starving to waste time on strange solicitors? What if Peter had said to the Holy Spirit mid-evangelism, “Hold up. I’m not done preaching yet!” The spread of the Gospel to the Gentile world depends on Peter’s willingness to stop what he is doing and respond to each divinely-given distraction. Otherwise, as Gentiles ourselves, we would likely not be the beneficiaries of Jesus’ message and model.
Isn’t it interesting how the thing we consider to be an interruption often turns out to be the thing we need to be giving our attention and energy to? Will we be able to focus our attention rightly when these interruptions pop up?
In order to do so, we must be in tune enough with the Holy Spirit to see how these disruptions ultimately draw us closer to God and one another. We must, as Peter did, wrestle with the meaning of strange visions. We must actively engage with people that we usually don’t hang around with. We must go with them onto their turf, taking the good news with us and waiting to see what God’s Spirit will do with the interaction. We must know that if we do these things, we will be astounded. And we will be transformed. Because as much as we consider the Gentiles to be the converts, Peter is every bit as changed. Now considering the Gentiles to be his brothers and sisters in Christ, he has to defend his evangelism and his decision to accept Cornelius’ hospitality to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. And his shift and theirs sets the table for Jesus’ message truly to be taken to the ends of the earth.
Because that’s the thing about interruptions that really aren’t. When we give into them, we become different.
Having a child with an imagination bigger than I’ve ever had puts a lot of speed bumps in my day. It also pushes me to be a better parent. I’ve learned to play into Levi’s creativity instead of push against it. I make up games to get him moving. I talk to his stuffed friends like he does. I often become a character myself. And in all these things, I am remembering as a 40-year-old what it is to have the heart and mind of a child. If the kingdom belongs to those who are able to see from a kid’s perspective, as the gospels say, then thanks be to God that these disruptions bring me closer not just to my child, but also to the heart of the divine. May we all see interruptions for the opportunities they are to grow in imagination and love and connection to the kingdom. And may we respond with a willingness to be amazed and converted, trusting that God is always about good for all of God’s children.
Laura Stephens-Reed is Peer Learning Group Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She also serves as a clergy coach and congregational consultant.