Shut up and LISTEN!

By Cody Stauffer

To truly partner with God, we must first HEAR what God is up to.

It became a mild obsession of mine, a goal that began the day I started my freshman year of high school. I wanted to be nominated as a Natural Helper.

The Natural Helpers program is a national organization centered in middle schools and high schools, founded on the idea that within every school, there is an informal “helping network.” Put simply, when students are facing issues, they are more likely to reach out to their friends and fellow students and maybe a teacher or two they trust. The Natural Helpers program—launched in a single high school in Washington State in 1979, with more schools added every year since—seeks to leverage this reality by taking students who have been recognized by peers as helpful and trustworthy and equipping them through intensive training to increase their capabilities as helpers.

When the program was launched in our school system, I figured they would nominate me in short order. I had a significant number of friends across all the recognized groups and cliques of our small school. I was a leader (class president) and people were constantly asking me for advice. But they did not select me to be a part of the program my freshman year. I was similarly overlooked as a sophomore. The training dates for my junior year came and went. I was not asked to attend. When the same thing happened my senior year, I had already resigned myself to the reality that it just would not happen.

Before our graduation, each senior conducted something like an “exit interview” with the school’s lone guidance counselor—the one who oversaw the Natural Helpers Program. I had a great relationship with her and so I asked: why had I never been selected to be a part of the program? From what I understood of it, I checked every qualification mark. With a knowing smile, the counselor let me know, “Cody, you were nominated by many students every year. But the panel ultimately decided not to select you each year, because of one thing. Yes, lots of students found you trustworthy, and yes, lots of your friends came to you with problems. The thing is, you helped no one. You only told them what to do!”

I was not hurt by the counselor’s words, but I was confused. For years I had been “helping” my friends by dispensing insightful advice. I had all the answers. What more could I have done to be “helpful?” Sadly, it would take a few more years and the help of my wife to truly grasp what the counselor was saying.

Shortly after our wedding, my wife, who was still enrolled at Bible college almost an hour away from our home would come home after long days of attending classes, then cleaning homes in an affluent neighborhood close to the school. She would decompress by sharing troubling aspects of her day.

Wanting to be helpful, I would naturally offer all the solutions that would surely fix the problems that were frustrating her. Feeling satisfied with the way I had fulfilled my role as her partner, I would carry on with the rest of the day’s business—mowing the lawn, doing dishes, etc. At first, I did not notice that she left these interactions feeling more frustrated, not less. Eventually I caught her rolling her eyes after I had finished dispensing wisdom one time. I said, “What? I’m only trying to help!” to which she replied, “You know how you could help? You could just shut up and listen!”

We laugh about it now, so many years later. But at the time her words hit me with a force that was truly humbling. Here I was, someone who was committed to helping others as a pastor and partner. I was striving to serve and truly partner with God in my ministry and marriage. But after my wife “cut me to the quick” with her blunt, but necessary, entreaty, I saw signs of this shortcoming in other places, not just in my marriage.

  • I was constantly being told how good I was at preaching, but more than one person let me know I “needed to work on being a pastor.”
  • If people would just listen to me, I could fix all the problems facing the church where I pastored.
  • And come to think of it, you know the country would be better off if voters/politicians/leaders just did this thing that isso obvious. Just ask me!

It was at this time that I began to pay attention to the work of Lesslie Newbigin, the British theologian and missiologist considered the forerunner of “missional” thinking. Specifically, I was drawn to his idea that God is already active and present in the lives of all people and cultures and religions—what we in the Wesleyan tradition would call “prevenient grace.” As a person who hoped to partner with God, I was learning how important it is to first pay attention to the ways God is already active in the lives of others, rather than giving people all the answers according to me.

At around the same time, I began to see with new clarity the way Jesus would first listen to those he served. He paid attention to the work God was already doing in the life of the person with whom he worked to bring wholeness and restoration. One striking example is in the book of John: Jesus asks a man who could not walk a question, and then he listens to the man’s reply. After healing him, Jesus is given a bit of pushback from some critics. In his exchange, he offers this deep truth, “I can only do what I see my Father doing” (John 5:19, paraphrase).

There are many other rich examples of Jesus practicing this deep listening, wanting to discover the pain someone was feeling and seeking how God was already “doing a work” in the other person’s life. These examples range from the woman at the well and her questions about worship and life, to the Syrophoenician woman whose correction Jesus heeded, to the bewildered and hurting disciples on the road to Emmaus who shared the very story that Jesus had already lived, died, and lived again. In all these instances, Jesus listened. Once Jesus heard the deep longing and saw the work God was already doing, then Jesus partnered as a servant of healing.

As one drawn more and more to open and relational theologies, I am learning to stop and listen for the ways God is calling forth new creation, moment by moment. I desperately seek to partner with God in this seriously joyful business. But if I am genuinely wanting to join with God, I must treat each moment as the brand-new encounter with the divine that it truly is. No assumptions. No ready-made answers. Just deep listening for God.

It will be a lifetime of work to “get over myself” enough to truly listen to God speaking through the life of another. But I am learning that if I will set aside expertise, expectation, and the need to fix everything, it is those moments when I truly connect with the world, and with the God who invites us all to join in on each newborn moment.

Questions: How can you practice listening for God? What might be the implications of God already at work in other cultures and religions from your own?

Cody is the pastor of two congregations—Clarkston United Methodist Church (Clarkston, WA) and Lewiston First United Methodist Church (Lewiston, ID). He is married to Lisa Stauffer, with whom he has two children. He is co-host of the All That’s Holy Blue Collar podcast ( Cody is currently enrolled in the DTM program of the Center for Open and Relational Theology.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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