Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan takes its title from the Mongol and Chinese emperor Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty. The story behind the tale is as fascinating as the poem. In 1797, Coleridge lived briefly at a farmhouse near Exmore, England. One night he had a dream that inspired him to begin writing a poem the following morning. After a few hours of writing, a knock came at his door. A visitor from the nearby village of Porlock interrupted his work for over an hour. When he returned to his writing, most of the “vision” had escaped him, thus preventing him from finishing the poem as he would have liked. The man from Porlock has since become synonymous with unwelcome distractions.
Annoying interruptions and unexpected intrusions often result in frustration and exasperation. Just when we try to accomplish a pressing task, the phone rings or a text message appears, sidetracking the urgent mission as we focus on the interruption. At first, these “people from Porlock” appear to be distractions from what we feel is urgent. They are, however, often God-given opportunities to replace the urgent with the truly important. Jesus always put the urgent aside to focus on what was important.
Jesus taught this lesson as he descended the steep hill to Capernaum. Crowds enveloped him as he made his way into the village. A man with leprosy suddenly appeared and knelt before him, asking to be healed. Jesus immediately replaced his urgent goal with the more important task. He stopped, reached out his hand and touched the man. He recognized the man’s faith and said, “Be clean” (Matthew 8:1-4)!
The disciples were often concerned with dignity, order and proper procedure, such as when people brought little children to Jesus. These sort of chaotic and unacceptable intrusions upset the disciples. You can imagine them complaining to each other, “This is neither the time nor the place…!” Their Master had more urgent matters to tackle. Jesus thought otherwise: “When Jesus saw [the disciples’ reaction], 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’ ” (Mark 10:14).
On one occasion, four people carried their paralyzed friend on a mat to see Jesus. They could not get into the crowded house where he was teaching. So they went up to the roof, cut out an opening and lowered their friend to where Jesus was speaking. Talk about a disruption! It is not a stretch to presume that most people in the room, especially the home-owner, felt that the unorthodox and destructive procedure was inappropriate! For Jesus it was the opportunity of the evening. He witnessed the faith of the four friends, and said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven…. Get up, take your mat and walk” (Mark 2:5, 9).
Another time, a large crowd gathered around Jesus as he followed Jairus, whose daughter was dying, to his home. The crowd was in “911 mode.” They were aiding Jesus in a life-or-death situation. Suddenly, a woman interrupted the emergency. She had been suffering from a bleeding disorder for 12 years. “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed,” she thought to herself (Mark 5:28). How arrogant to intrude. Didn’t she realize that a child’s life was at stake? Jesus immediately interrupted his urgent journey to address an important and equally vital situation. He turned to the woman and said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering” (Mark 5:34).
The “people from Porlock” who unexpectedly enter our lives are not intruders, but in reality are gifts from God. He sends them for a reason—not to annoy us, but to enrich our lives and to build character, both theirs and ours. They are part of God’s ultimate vision for us to be united as one. As this becomes a way of life, God gives us the assurance that we all belong to him.
May we always welcome the “people from Porlock” into God’s family through our love and willingness to put the important before the urgent.
Commissioner William W. Francis is the Territorial Commander of The Salvation Army Canada and Bermuda Territory. His wife, Commissioner Marilyn Francis, is the Territorial President for Women’s Ministries. Commissioners Francis have two adult children, Captain William Marshall and Susan Marjorie, plus six grandchildren.