Monday, January 31, 2011

Truth Spaces (7) Jesus' unique questions

I wonder what specific issues you might have identified that are unique to Jesus' questions? Let me list three:

1) Jesus is Alive
When we read about Jesus in the gospels he is grounded in history, dealing with particular people in particular places. His questions were asked way back then. Yet, and this transforms our understanding, Christians claim that Jesus Christ is alive today and seeks to be Lord of our lives. The quality of relationships he had with people in the New Testament continues into the twenty-first century. His extraordinarily gracious way of dealing with people remains constant.

The central conviction of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ died and was raised from death to live for evermore. That first Easter the disciples were not hallucinating or falsifying history. Rather they were witnessing the astounding, world-changing reality that Jesus Christ is now alive. He has overcome death to reign forever – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). His promises of forgiveness and new life are vindicated and made contemporary by this astonishing triumph over death.

The early church burst into life as the Holy Spirit convicted and confirmed these truths in the hearts and minds of ordinary people. In the center of the Roman Empire those first followers, inspired by the risen Jesus, proceeded as T.R. Glover summed up to “outthink, outlive and outdie the pagan society.” The world turned on its axis. Because Jesus is now alive it is possible for every person to be in relationship with him in every place and at every time. No longer restricted to a walking within a few square miles in Palestine, Jesus is working in the lives of believers everywhere.

Jesus who spoke and acted in the gospel record continues to speak and act in the story of the church. Jesus who questioned people back then, continues to question now. He keeps on opening up truth spaces today.

Can you imagine what a difference this makes? In the very beginning Jesus asked two disciples: “What do you want” (John 1:37) but he keeps on asking people the same question today.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Truth Spaces (6) One more general point

I liked the pertinent question posted last time: "So what kind of questions did Christ ask?" In painting a general picture I mustn't obscure my focus on Jesus. But, I think, these general points about questions need to be made before I look at the unique differences of Jesus' questions.

I have shown that questions are (1) revealing, (2) of all sorts, and (3) can be asked in a relationship that is either top-down or side-by-side. It is also important to see how side-by-side questions are (4) especially popular in today's culture which is often described as moving from modernity to post-modernity.

In a book which gives an alphabet for Christians living in today's post-modern culture there is one entry for Q:

Quest-ions: Questions are now quests, not conquests. If a question can't become a quest (vision guest, grail quest, hope quest) it's not worth asking. A quest implies a question that launches the askers on a journey. Modern leadership involved answering questions. Authority flowed to the certain, convincing, clear, simple and firm. In contrast, post-modern leaders ask at least as many questions as they answer. Authority flows to the stimulating, challenging, provocative, mysterious and intruiging.

Now we must be careful about over-simplifying issues of culture but it's interesting to see this analysis fits so well the contemporary search for authenticity, as people seem to yearn for real spiritual experience that gives space for them to grow in understanding.

Now, to these four general points about questions that affect our approach to the gospel questions there are three specific issues that only relate to Jesus' questions. I wonder if you can guess what these three are?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Truth Spaces (5) Top Down and Side-by-Side Questions

Questions can often be used in a top-down relationship. This type of relationship lies at the centre of traditional western methods of learning between teachers and students. Top-down questions are used as a teaching tool to find out how much (or little) students might know, in order to teach them the appropriate material. To fill up knowledge cans! The person asking the question is marked by these characteristics:

  • Has the right answers gained through study, experience, perspective.
  • Directs and targets questions to direct knowledge into empty cans.
  • Controls the process because the end purpose is clear – these certain things need to be understood.
  • Has clarity because no interruptions occur and support materials are prepared.
  • Is efficient because time is used well.
  • Does not require personal relationships and engagement, though of course it may involve good relationships.

In many situations top-down questions are vital. Let’s never forget how we all need teachers and experts. About some matters we are empty cans who need to be filled. I cannot imagine skipping my intensive driving instruction when I was learning to drive a car. How much I needed an expert instructor to be specific, targeted and controlling in his teaching. I started out with nil experience and knowledge.

In contrast with the top-down approach, there is side-by-side questioning. The person asking such questions:

  • Has good answers gained through study, experience, perspective but does not view others as empty cans. Those questioned also have experience, perspective and maybe study too.
    Is less clearly directed, encouraging a range of possibilities.
  • Gives away control, allowing others to respond in their own ways.
  • Is less straightforward because interruptions are possible.
  • Is highly inefficient because others are being allowed into an untidy learning process
  • Does require personal relationship and engagement, because questions open up dialogue which means two-way interaction.

Notice that side-by-side questions are riskier, untidier, and more costly. They make the questioner vulnerable because no one can be sure what might happen next. By definition, side-by-side questions open up conversation in multiple possible directions. Ask a side-by-side question and you belong automatically in relationship where anything could happen next.

In many life situations we do come with experience, perspective and some understanding. We have our assumptions, prejudices and some ignorance, but also some giftings and life experience. When someone we trust and respect comes alongside and asks questions side-by-side we can learn and grow in very different ways. Side-by-side questions open up truth spaces.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Truth Spaces (4) All-Sorts

Of course there are many different sorts of questions. Teachers use questions to find out how well students are learning. This so-called Socratic method engages with others to help lead them into knowledge. Rhetorical questions make a point and don’t expect an answer. Presuppositional questions like: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” get you into plenty of trouble quickly! Some people have tried to classify how many types of questions there are. Indeed, someone has described 17 sorts including the irreverent question, the apparently irrelevant question, the hypothetical question and the unanswerable question.

One of the simpler classifications has been devised by David Bloom who claims there are six primary categories:
1) Knowledge – Who, what, when, where, why, how?
2) Comprehension – How well did you understand that?
3) Application – How is this…an example of, or related to?
4) Analysis – What are the parts or features of this?
5) Synthesis – what would you infer from this? What solutions can you suggest for? What ideas can you bring?
6) Evaluation – Do you agree that? What do you think? What is the most important?
Often questions can involve more than one primary category, as we shall see. At their best, questions open up relationships giving us truth spaces in which to grow.

When questions open up relationships we need to ask what kind they are between the person asking the question and the one who responds. It makes all the difference whether the relationship is Top-Down or Side-by-Side.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Truth Spaces (3) Questions are revealing

The questions we ask are very illuminating. I remember as a young pastor being sent on a television course at the Churches Television Centre in Bushey, England. Before arrival we had to prepare various presentations for camera and also summarize topics that we were willing to be interviewed about. After each presentation we all sat in a theater and watched ourselves with horror (who likes to see themselves on video?) and then suffered critiques. I shall never forget that after my interview, my interviewer (a professional of long-standing in the television business) seemed to be as nervous as me. Why did he seem so tense waiting to see ourselves? Then it dawned on me that his skills as a questioner were also being made public in front of other professionals and that he was being critiqued for the quality of his questions. Questions are highly revealing.

It is said that you can tell how wise people are more by questions they ask than the answers they give. Our questions disclose so much about us - our depth or shallowness, our interest or boredom, our willingness to engage or not. My interviewer needed to show intelligent engagement – that he had asked good questions in the best ways. Was the phrasing appropriate? Did easier questions prepare for the more difficult? Did he miss anything significant? And was active listening evidenced by pertinent follow-up questions? Failure to pick up on issues betray poor listening not only to the words heard but what lies behind the words. Yes, the questions we ask reveal much about us.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Truth Spaces (2) Two Hundred and Ninety-Two

The most important truth spaces that have ever been opened up to humankind were asked by the greatest personality who has ever walked this earth, Jesus Christ. The four gospels record Jesus asking question after question, opening up truth spaces with all kinds of people. In his recent book All that Jesus Asks (Baker, 2010), Stan Guthrie has analyzed all these questions - eighty-five in Matthew, sixty-four in Mark, ninety-one in Luke and fifty-two in John. That’s two hundred and ninety two questions. Time after time Jesus invited people into safe spaces at deeper levels, in the new reality called the Kingdom of God. Of course, Jesus’ commands and actions ranged far wider than just the questions he asked, and often he himself was asked questions by others who were desperate for help, or sometimes wanting to trap him.

Do you find it extraordinary that 292 times Jesus engages humankind by unforgettable questions, yet rarely do we spend much time on them? Questions may uniquely take us to deep places because they reveal so much about the questioner and make special demands of those who are questioned.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Truth Spaces (1)

After some hectic days making reconnections back in the US, I have time to begin a series of posts that will unpack some of my sabbatical work on my new book called: TRUTH SPACES. Intended to be a more popular book that will encourage seekers and believers alike to look at the gospel stories with fresh eyes, I hope a wide range of readers can become involved. Please share insights and let me know what is helpful or not. (Of course, I shall not be reproducing my whole manuscript but key elements within it!)

Looking back over my life, I marvel at the importance (not always recognized at the time) of those few occasions when someone I respected and trusted opened up a space in front of me by asking me a leading question. By inviting me to answer they encouraged me to move into a space, so to speak, into relationship with them, in order to learn something important about myself. Whenever such a truth space is opened up in front of you by a real question, and you step into it, your world can change. You can be led into deeper places of understanding about who are you are and what you are doing because someone wiser has invited you to join them.

Can you think of occasions when someone you respect and trust asked you a question that made a real difference to your life? That opened up a truth space? Please let me know.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sheer Thankfulness

This week I have been back teaching full classes on The Principles of Preaching. As I expected, within hours of returning to the US an avalanche of waiting correspondence and expectation has almost obliterated memories of our sabbatical break. But not completely obliterated! Carol and I reflected today on some of the high-points of the sabbatical, such as:
  • That work table in the seventeenth century cottage, with a view over snow covered roofs of Wallingford and undisturbed time reflecting on Jesus’ questions today.
  • Waking up to the grandchildren excited at their sleep-over with a whole day of grand-parenting ahead – feeding the ducks, walking in the snow, staring into the log fire and chatting about life.
  • Seeing old friends – reconnecting with people we had not seen for many (many) years and experiencing such joy in friendship and shared memories. This was a huge plus throughout our sabbatical.
  • Speaking at the Evangelical Homiletics Conference on the subject that has dominated my last five years - Connecting Preaching and Worship - and experiencing feedback in a top-notch plenary session. Yes, other profs and pastors agree this is a vital issue!
  • Worshipping in the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church pulpit, Toronto, with a full choir behind me, singing “I was glad when they said unto me” after I had preached on Psalm 122.
  • Cleaning up the ash and laying kindling for the log and coal fire, recapturing household duties fifty years ago.
  • Reveling in a slower pace where quiet study was interwoven with country walks and unhurried conversations. Truly restorative.

I am so thankful for this time away and hope that the privilege of refreshment will be evident in the renewed energy I bring to teaching and living through this new year!

Sunday, January 2, 2011


In just over three days we shall be back in the USA and nine glorious weeks of sabbatical will have come to an end. We are busy cleaning the home and packing our cases, trying to tie up loose ends while anticipating re-entry into our N. American life. I doubt that I shall be able to post much coherently until we are home…we need to move out tomorrow and stay in hotels prior to our flight.

But I must reflect soon because a sabbatical report is due the Academic Committee of Trustees Board! And I know our US friends will be expecting a user-friendly (brief) overview of all that we have been through.

Unsurprisingly, in spite of not always having internet access, I have been able to post more blogs during my sabbatical than normal. I have had much more time to ponder and write. In the 5 months before my sabbatical started I managed just 34 posts, but since I have been able to post 68 entries (of admittedly very varying quality)! Thank you for following my journey into another year. I look forward to catching up soon.