Saturday, December 27, 2008

Secondary Questions - Or, lessons from a homeless man's reading list.

In 2004, a man named Dan walked into the coffee shop where I worked in Grand Rapids. My co-worker took his order and I made the drink. While they waited for me to finish, she decided to make some small talk with this guy. “I’ve never seen you before. Do you work around here?”

“I don’t work around here or anywhere else,” he said.

“Oh. Well, do you live around here then?”

It was an innocent question, but she clearly didn’t understand that Dan was probably homeless. I hip-checked her out of the way and handed him his drink. He paid with a dirty dollar bill and some change, if I remember right, and began talking with me about education and religion. Unlike some of the other people I talked with in that neighborhood, his points were articulate, well reasoned, and truthful. He mentioned some books and asked if I had read them. Then he wrote the titles in beautiful cursive on the back of a concert flyer. “You’ll find these at the Grand Rapids Main Branch Library,” he said.

He told me that one of the books, The Art of Clear Thinking, didn’t have much to say. He really only recommended the chapter, “How To Not Be Bamboozled”. I found all the books on his reading list and read them over the next four months, but I remember this chapter best. “How To Not Be Bamboozled” warned against accepting false information in an age where information is so easily accessible. And mind you, this book was written in the 1950’s, way before the lightning speed at which we could all WikiTubeBookSpace. The author said that all information should be tested by three questions: “Why do I need to know this? Who is telling me? And what are their sources?” I won’t give you my book report summary of the chapter, but I want to point out the importance of further inquiry. It’s easy to hear something and assume that we have a complete understanding of both its context and credibility.

I’m awesome when it comes to acting like I understand everything. Reader’s Digest once had an article that explained how you could impress people at parties. I was ten and woefully insecure, so I ate this stuff up. The author’s strategy was to say truthful statements, but to say them in such a way that deceived people. Imagine someone asks you, “Have you ever read Dante’s Divine Comedy?” Instead of saying “No,” you can answer, “Not in English.” The second reply insinuates that you’ve not only read the Divine Comedy, but that you read it in Italian. But this is a party. You can move on to another circle of cocktails and leave that person to bask in the residual glow of your coolness.

I’ve spent the better part of the past five years re-training myself to not play that game anymore. It all started when I couldn’t get away fast enough and the person started asking questions that proved I was a phony. My Reader’s Digest-inspired cool (if such a thing were possible) couldn’t stand the test of secondary questions.

But secondary questions aren’t just a BS detector. What if every conversation you ever had sounded like a job interview? You have your set of questions for people to get the basic information of who they are and what they’ve done. But without context, do you really know the person? I recently filled out an application that asked me to tell them a little about myself. “What makes you tick?” it asked. I looked at the space given after the question and basically wrote in, “It’s a long story, but at least it’s not boring.” I couldn’t give a short, easy answer. If I had given an answer like, “I’m a writer,” and left it at that, their assumptions could lead them to a conclusion miles away from my meaning. In Nashville, when you say you’re a writer, most people immediately say, “Songwriter?” I have to tell them, “No, typewriter.” It takes another question for them to understand what I meant.

I’m learning to ask secondary questions when I pray. First, it’s important to ask questions that test the truth of what I may hear in prayer. 1 John 4:1-3 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.” Just because I hear something while I’m praying to God, and just because it sounds like something God might say, it doesn’t automatically mean the word is from God. John encouraged people to ask questions that would test the spirit speaking to make sure the word came from God.

Then there are the questions I ask God to build an understanding of what He may require of me. I think He wants us to make an effort to understand, to learn and grow instead of passively accepting everything that comes our way. There’s a reason, I think, why James 1:5 encourages us to ask for wisdom from God. And the writer makes it clear that God wants to give you wisdom. But you have to ask.

If God were to tell you to get a new job, for example, does that mean you should get any job other than the one you have now? Or should you take a moment to ask, “Where do you want me to work?” That could save you a lot of frustration applying and interviewing at dead ends, which might cause you to blame God for making your life hard. And I’ve found that asking God the secondary questions doesn’t only give me clearer information on what He wants me to do, it also helps me to understand His heart, how He desires to give me good things, how He loves me enough to guide me.

Secondary questions help keep us from being bamboozled. We can see if the guy at the party is making himself look a lot cooler than he is in real life. We can see if God is speaking, or if a lying spirit is trying to deceive us. Information without credibility will eventually break down if you press it with questions. That sure beats having your thinking enslaved by lies.

Secondary questions also make space for a relationship. It’s the difference between a boss who only wants you to know your duty and a Father who wants His adopted son to become more like Him. Information without context is just trivia, and I don’t want my life to be trivial. Instead of asking the wandering homeless guy where he lives, you could ask him why he’s out of work. Who knows? He might give you a cool reading list.


Lindsey Renee said...

A mutual friend recently recommended your blog to me. I've been reading it on and off for the last month or so. I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate reading your thoughts. Your blog have been an encouragement to me and has helped me to start think about my relationship God a lot more. Thank you.

Grace & Peace

rachelbax said...

another excellent post!!

Lindsey Renee said...

Joelle was the one who recommended your blog to me.

Adam said...

Isaiah! I was totally at Skelletones Wednesday night, and I thought you'd be there because the Vigilantes where playing. I was thinking all night about how to introduce myself ("that guy from the internet" sounds a little sketchy), but then you weren't actually there...Joey said you were still in Nashville. It made me sad.

Anonymous said...

wikitubebookspace? simply amazing sir. i couldn't but help to think of harley as i read this post...the guy we met outside of fido with rachel and timbre.

i don't tell you this enough, but thanks for sharing your heart, not only in these posts, but in you life in general. you are a true blessing my friend.