The Magic of Paying Attention to What God’s Already Doing

Excerpted FromEverywhere You LookBy Tim Soerens From a landscape view of much of the church, at least the church in North America, we can make a case that we are just as much communities with a savior’s complex as we are communities confessing the need for a Savior. But before we beat ourselves up too […]

Excerpted From
Everywhere You Look
By Tim Soerens

From a landscape view of much of the church, at least the church in North America, we can make a case that we are just as much communities with a savior’s complex as we are communities confessing the need for a Savior. But before we beat ourselves up too much, it might be helpful to take a step back and think about how our inability to pay attention to the Spirit at work has been our default. We have been meticulously trained and rewarded to be helpful rather than curious, and this gets us in trouble.

Most of us were taught that kind and loving people are enthusiastically helpful. I’ve told my boys that “How can I help?” is one of the most powerful questions they can ever use. I stand by that. But I also need to teach them that honest curiosity needs to precede the very good desire to help. Most people who end up in a ministry setting get there because they want to serve. We are taught servant leadership, which sounds awfully biblical. And besides, it feels good to be helpful. Could there be a downside to being helpful?

When we look more closely at the vast majority of the words of Jesus, they point to our primary task as listening and seeing how God is the active agent before we become active—helpful. While this might sound like a Sunday school slogan, we’ve seen how it’s actually a massive shift from our default posture of being in charge. Pastor and author José Humphreys uses the powerful term “sacred curiosity.” Taking this seriously could radically transform our relationship to God, to each other and to our neighbors.

At a Parish Collective conference my friend Peter Block once said to a group of neighborhood leaders, “Don’t be helpful, be curious.” I’m not sure if this hits you as a zinger, but for most of my life in church settings the default has been the reverse: Don’t be curious, be helpful. In other words, we have the answers, because people are in need of them. Our task is to provide answers. I was not taught that curiosity in almost all relationships (friends, family, neighbors, work) is the beginning of everything truly interesting.

Many books have been written about this, and I’d encourage everyone to dig more into it. But in looking at church history and particularly the history of colonization, many of us, especially from the United States—especially men and white folks like myself—have accepted the idea that progress depends on extending our ideas and achievements toward the people who are classified as needing help.

When we switch from trying to implement God’s dream to listening for it as our primary and most critical action, we have done more than shifted a strategy. It might not seem like such a huge deal, but if we, collectively, can go on a journey in which listening for where God is working is our primary endeavor, it flips the script on church as usual. I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that if this is how we move forward, there are implications for our lives and neighbors and cities that we can barely fathom. It’s true that if we don’t recover the grounded imagination of the big why in our everyday places, there can be no real movement, but if we don’t trust that the Spirit is already at work in these places, then any movement we create, even with the best of intentions, has a high probability of collapsing into human effort. Eventually, we will end up tumbling into a knotted ball of pride and shame.

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The practice of paying attention to the Spirit is profoundly countercultural. Everywhere we go, most of what we read and the majority of what we watch tells us that we are in charge of our own lives: It’s up to us to make them amazing. But if we are after God’s dream for our particular places, then we need to remember that God’s Spirit is the central character, and we are only supporting actors. Willie James Jennings makes this point at the outset of his magisterial commentary on the book of Acts. He says, “There is only one central character in this story of Acts. It is God, the Holy Spirit. God moves and we respond. We move and God responds.”

One of the quickest ways to flip the script of me-centered existence is to look out our front door and realize that God is already active. I wish I could say this has become instinctual for me. I wish I could tell stories of how I have slowly reformed my mind and heart to truly see. I wish every time my feet hit the ground I could remember I’m on sacred, enchanted, holy ground.

The truth is that it takes continual practice and continual remembering, and it is impossible to do alone. To become the kind of church we dream of becoming will mean we make a pact with friends that we will resist the dominant narrative that we are the agents of change. If it’s up to us, then it basically boils down to our strategies of implementation.

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We will find ourselves in real trouble if we develop a savior’s complex—but the reverse is just as dangerous. If we start to think there is no hope or that we are not invited by the Spirit into this grand drama, we are also lost from the beginning. We cannot let pride win the day, but neither can we let shame take us out.

THIS MAGIC IS FOR EVERYONE

Paying attention is magical because it’s not just for the talented few. It’s open to all of us. If we are honest, it’s required of us. The truth is that we are always paying attention to something, and in this sense we can’t not pay attention. The task is to train our attention on God’s activity, and the rest will fall into place. Another way of saying this is “seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33, paraphrased). Another way to paraphrase this command from Jesus might be, “Listen, and join what I am doing in your neighborhood, and don’t worry about the results.”

Paying attention to what God is doing all over the place and still having the capacity to enter into it is overwhelming. While we have been discussing the art of paying attention, we haven’t focused on where we need to focus our attention. In order to do this with others, we need a literal common ground.

I trust that you are an amazing human being, but on your own, you can never be the church. It requires a team of listeners. Unless we have a focused place to listen, we cannot have a focused place to discern and act on what the Spirit is doing in that place. This turns out to be good news.

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Excerpted from Everywhere You Look by Tim Soerens. Copyright (c) 2020 by Timothy Soerens. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com