The Power of a Generous Question - Reservoir Church
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The Jesus Model for Everyday Interactions

The Power of a Generous Question

Ivy Anthony

May 20, 2018

For the last couple of weeks I’ve had the pleasure of having a new little commuter with me on my days that I travel over here to the office.  There’s a Reservoir family who recently moved from here to my town of Milton, south of the city – but just shy of the end of the school year, so they decided instead of disrupting their pre-schooler’s routine for just a few weeks of the school year – they’d keep her in her preschool which is over here in Davis Square.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a preschooler in the car, and I’ve never been so entertained. This girl is smart as a whip – and makes me laugh so much. And it’s been a long time since I’ve laughed out loud in the car on my commute! Part of the beauty, likely, is that it’s not my own kid, so everything seems endearing! I’d forgotten that part of this smaller human being land is really taking intense interest on certain things they are into – whether it’s a book, or a toy, a show, or a song! Despite the fact that kids often get a bad rap of having short attention spans, they really are able to hone in on what grabs their attention.

This little girl is absolutely head over heels for this movie/show called Minions.  Has anyone heard of it/them? These tiny little aliens? Creatures? I’m not sure what they are, but they became the stars out of a series of movies called Despicable Me, and evidently now have their own TV show.  Anyway, part of what makes these minions special is that they do little song numbers that are perplexing as much as they are addictive. And I have now listened to the minions soundtrack on repeat, many, many times. It’s hard to explain exactly what this experience is like, so I’m going to play you a little piece of one of these delightful songs:

[Audio clip: Papa Mama Loca Pipa – Minions]

You. are. Welcome.

((You might recognize the music from the comedic opera, Pirates of Penzance – by Gilbert & Sullivan.))

All of the minion songs are like this – it’s incredibly mind-twisting because I want to make it be real words, but they aren’t. It’s “minionese” –  but this little girl has memorized every, single word of this foreign language she has incorporated spotlessly.

Now – that song (and most of the other minion songs) is roughly 1 minute in its entirety.  Our commute over to Davis Square from Milton is 1 hour and 12min.

So I – feel like I’m learning another language, but it doesn’t have any apparent meaning – it’s real curious.

At one point in one of our drives, I started to think that something might actually be happening in my brain – like I might be going a tiny bit crazy.

So I suggested to this little girl that maybe we listen to the soundtrack of the original “parent” movie – the source that the minions were birthed out of…. With actual. Words.

So the theme song of all the despicable me movies is this:  

[Audio clip: Despicable Me Theme Song,  from 2:17 for about 30 seconds]

So much better, right?  I don’t know! But it does at least have words I can understand.

This little girl was stone quiet during the entirety of this song. The refrain “I’m having a bad, bad day” – is repeated 10 times throughout this song.

Not surprisingly – my little friend focused in on this particular line, and it was interesting to me how she started to process what she had heard. She started to ask some really inquisitive, generous questions:

  • “I wonder why that man thinks he’s having a bad, bad day?”
  • “Was he looking for something?”
  • “Was he wanting something he doesn’t have?”

I’m not kidding.  Word for word – I wrote these down, (once we parked in her pre-k parking lot, of course)!!

  • “There are kids singing with him – so I wonder if he talks to them?”

Are you kidding me with these questions. This kid is a tiny genius!

These generous questions she poses are ones that come from her attention and interest in life around her – even if it’s fictional – her interest inclines her to know more about what is happening to this man who is having a very, bad, bad day.

These generous questions seem to slice right to the heart of what it might look like to be interested in someone in your everyday interactions. These generous questions and ones like them seem to offer more than just an answer – they open up the state of the heart of the person in front of you.. . Perhaps we can take my little friends lead – and be invited to revisit and ask ourselves and others these generous question – as ones we haven’t considered in a while.

  • “What are you looking for”?
  • “Where are you left wanting for more of?”
  • “What about the connection/people around you? ”

This idea of a generous question – is one that relies on a posture of mutuality. And what I mean by that is that you – as the question poser – expect to discover as much about your own state of your heart, as much as the other – a receiving as much as giving kind of question.

Jesus’ forte are these generous questions.   They were embedded in the way he interacted and related to others around him…and we’ll get to take a closer look today!

Today we start a new spring series, that we’ve gathered some inspiration around – from a long-time friend of our church, Carl Medearis.  He recently wrote a book called “42 Seconds – The Jesus Model for Everyday Interactions”.

Now Carl’s premise is that if you take every single conversation that Jesus had in the Gospels, read them out loud, timed them, the average length of these conversations as recorded in the Gospels is 42 seconds long.  Taking in to account that some of those conversations were longer or shorter,and that some of what we read aren’t full conversations or what’s recorded in real time – Nevertheless….

MUCH of what we know of Jesus and how he related to people is found in these conversations.

The beauty of what this series invites us into – is not only the basics/maybe obvious points of faith (Kindness, be present, be brave – that STeve and Lydia will be up to share more about in the weeks to come) -but it invites us to think hard about “why”.  … Why does it matter that we take on these postures? WHy do we care? **And I think it doesn’t hang on an answer- but a question: “Who is Jesus to you”?

That’s a generous question! How does that generous question help us meaningfully go out in the world and live these ways out with people around us?

Attention Span:

A couple of years ago, a division of Microsoft published a 52-page report in 2015 that said the average human attention span had dropped from 12 (in 2000), to eight seconds in just over a decade. The report also offered this disturbing comparison: The average attention span of a goldfish, at nine seconds, was one second longer than the typical human.

Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.”  

*This study got lots of attention – some believe because it hit at a truth we all know and observe…. That *The true scarce commodity” of the near future, will be “human attention.” (NYT article).  That without a doubt the digital age is shifting us neurologically and not in a good direction….


These beliefs have impacted and shifted the way we put “content” out into the world..

IN many ways attempts have been taken to simplify and compress content (whether books, podcasts, blogs, sermons) – down to fit the attention span of a goldfish.


Yet others say this is not the complete picture – that shrinking our content might not be the best move… because our attention spans are not getting shorter – they are evolving – they are becoming more intensive, more efficient and able to extract more information more quickly.

So our evolving attention spans are actually nowhere near satisfied with eight-seconds worth of ideas or content.  ANd it’s not a matter of “length of time” – but whether the content is rich and substantial and worth consuming.

This take is interesting to me – because i can see in lots of scenarios where we are perfectly able to pay attention to what we want to—We can totally binge a Netflix series in a weekend if we want to…. Right?  Or in my husbands case, remember thousands of origins of wines, and their vintages and the type of soil that the grapes are grown out of – and the names of the growers and their family stories ,,etc..… when we are interested… (for instance)….

So perhaps it’s not our  attention span that’s in question – but more our interest span.

So if we can flip – and talk about our daily interactions with people on terms of INTEREST spans – I think it tells us something pretty interesting……What happens when we are in a grocery store line or waiting for the train… or at a traffic light….??  Or in the dentist waiting room? At a cafe? In an elevator? Do we reach out to the person near us?  Or do we tend to reach for our phones? Is this attention span or interest span?

Maybe a little bit of both – but it does lean a little more toward interest for me – and  begs for me the question – of are “we are really of interest to each other anymore?”  

And if it’s more an internal/heart matter of interest than attention …How do we ignite our interest span for one another again?  

I think part of what we might discover in that question if we give ourselves time to roam around in it a little bit – is that our interest for one another – might actually hang on our interest (where our heart is), for Jesus.  ***

So we are going to look to Jesus this morning and get inside one of his conversations and see if he can’t help us with this tool of asking a generous question – to help us grow our interest spans for one another …..

Let’s take a look!

Scripture #1:
Mark 8:27-30 (NLT)
27 Jesus and his disciples left Galilee and went up to the villages near Caesarea (says-a-ree-a) Philippi. As they were walking along, he asked them, “Who do people say I am?
28 “Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say you are one of the other prophets.”
29 Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?”
Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.”
30 But Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

So there’s a tendency I think to read this scripture – at least for me – and only look at the answers that the people and Peter give.. And I think the tendency then that can follow – is to want to categorize those answers…. Into buckets of “right” or “wrong”.


Jesus doesn’t seem to focus too much on the answers given..  And infact I think he invites us to shift ever so slightly these scriptures in the light –  and read them through the questions that are posed.

“Who do people say I am”?  “Who do you say I am?”

WHat do these questions offer us?


Offers us the opportunity to imagine – at the very least right now to engage with a LIVING GOD in these scriptures – who might be showing us each a lot of different things!   FOr me – I can entertain the idea that the people’s answer really isn’t that wrong – or bad… that infact within their story and exposure and their journey at this point – Jesus did fulfill the types and symbols embodied in these characters of john the baptist and elijah….

It exposes that they could be actually interested – that there’s conversation happening among the people and crowds…… that they could be curious, (possibly trying to form and label and categorize Jesus) – but they also could be pondering – and leaning in to think about who this Jesus could be at a heart level…..what this Jesus they hear of, could mean to them…


And it offers me the opportunity to see that even an answer of Peter’s, which me might consider closer to the mark, “He is the Messiah!” – even if it’s the right theology in the moment  – it might still require more of a journey – more of an experience with Jesus – than a “right answer” can truly convey in a moment in time.


AND it allows us to see the heart of Jesus …. To see that he wasn’t quick to categorize,  “right or wrong” – but quick to engage, quick to try to build an interest span and model the value of space and conversation –  for the disciples.


“Don’t go and tell anyone about me”.

(yes – he likely wanted more time to do what he came here on Earth to do)…

But he warns really strongly!  Why?

I think it has something to do with this “content idea”….

Jesus might say:
“You will kill my content.”

“If – I, Jesus have content – then it is about a journey, it is about connection, it is about this deep participation at a soul level – a conversation with teh people around me. This is what I am about – this is who I am.”


“If you go and declare right now, while people are curious –  that “I am the MEssiah” – and I’ve have had no chance to get to know these people – and they’ve had no ENCOUNTER with me – then what is introduced to them in the word “Messiah” – is as empty as an answer that only seeks to be “right”.


“Who I am – does not fit in to an 8 second sound-byte. “

“I am rich – and I am worth consuming – and that builds through relationship and through living with me – and living out a life that values and roams around in questions.”


And so Jesus helps me here…..reorder the way I generally VALUE answers….   And invites me to consider that the questions themselves are the vehicle to waking our hearts out of dormancy for one another….. And that CONVERSatiON…. This very basic human method of relating – is the supernatural TOOL that Jesus gives us to build the Kin-dom of God here on earth – now…


“Who do you say I am?”


This question, is one that not only opens up who Jesus is to us – but also opens up our own human-ness….. That we were made and designed to ponder, to long for things, to be curious and to be in connection –     AND with that as a backdrop It gets back to my little pre-schooler’s questions…  What are we looking for?  What are we seeking? How am I seeing you, feeling you, interacting with you – Jesus? When we can move in those questions – we can find ourselves alive again to each other.


If it’s true that as a follower of Jesus – we tend to imitate the kind of God who is real to us…. Then we should be generous to ourselves and ponder this question that He poses, TO EXPLORE HIS CONTENT….“Who am I to you”? – It’s a crucial one as we move about in our world.  It undergirds – why we aim to be kind – why we aim to be present and why we aim to be courageous.



We had a conversation around this very question at our table –  several months ago – as a family: “Who is jesus to you”? And let’s just say  we got a medley of responses: “Ranging on the spectrum from Jesus being Lord and Savior …….“I’m not even sure Jesus is real”….


No where on that spectrum of responses were the labels I would have sought to teach my kids – – if I had taken that route of providing answers … there was no “God is my teacher, my friend, my companion, my guide, mother God, ….the MESSIAH!


But what did follow was a heck of a lot more conversation that I don’t think would have happened – had I just dropped who I thought God was…. Our conversation was short on answers – But LONG ON generous questions….and the encouragement was to not tighten content  – but to encourage thinking and ASKING….


In Matthew it says:

Ask and it shall be given to you”…..

I always read thru a particular lens – that whatever we need – we ask Jesus for it – and he gives it to us…this still holds true for me… but….

Today – I consider an additional layer – that the “ask and it shall be given to you”… is really about us – asking the questions..  That Jesus LOVES when we ask questions…. … ask yourself – ask others – ask God…. put into words what you are hoping for, living for, longing for, wrestling with, ask why it is you are having a bad, bad day – day after day….   What will be given to you is – I think – an invitation to keep walking that question out – in EXPERIENCE – AND in CONNECTION with a living God who is just as curious about your questions…  


The famous poet – Rainer Maria Rilke says, “Be patient toward the state of your heart (where all of these questions lie) and try to love the questions themselves….. like books that are written in a very foreign tongue….((or songs that have NO REAL WORDS)!!!    The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”


So I could have tried to reframe the responses of my children, and I would have given  them the impression that answers are more important … I could feel bad myself that I haven’t taught Jesus correctly…. OR I could take seriously who Jesus is to me right now – to move out of that place….and see the beautiful journey in their  answers – to value exactly where they are (and not kill the content of Jesus for them).   Here I can see that just posing generous question is the gateway to the truest expression of the multi-dimensional love of God – that doesn’t hinge on a set of static beliefs… it goes beyond certainty, agreement, common ground – AND YET – it sparks INTEREST in me – of them ….. and it makes space and invites “honesty and integrity and dignity”. (Krista Tippett on Becoming Wise).


WHich if I take a step back – I can see that Jesus too, might just be a fan of these things!



This ancient tool of Jesus’ to keep us talking to each other in generous ways…Is a survival skill of today.   In our everyday actions to re-infuse our humanity with a sense of attention and interest.  Jesus asks questions to cut into a whole new level of understanding, not just used as a data gathering or informational data source – this is an incredible tool.


We are eager to have our attention matched at every turn – – but in very little ways grow our attention for each other… Conversation is a way to correct this  -to build interest and love for one another into the bones of our society.

Jesus shows us – this again and again….These generous questions are HOLY questions…He encourages us  -Ask generous questions….


Now – I get that it would likely feel a little odd to go up to someone at your bus stop – and pose the question, “You know – I’ve been standing behind you for a good 3 seconds now – and I was just wondering , “WHO AM I TO YOU?”

… and yet I think we ask generous questions everyday – we just don’t frame them as such …  A question Like: “How are you”?  – is actually a very generous question!


The real intent of that question is a genuine curiosity – “how are you?” – In many Muslim cultures this simple question is an entirely generous one – it means “how is the state of your heart?  How is your heart at this very breath, this moment?” It is a question that can build relationship – it communicates that you don’t want to label or presume what that person might be feeling.


I got a text a couple months ago from someone who I was just getting to know and the text came in – in the morning and all it said was, “How are you today?”

I waited – stared at my phone – waiting for the follow up text, of some detail of her life – or a question that I might be able to help her with… and that never came…

“How AM I doing?” (I have no idea!)

It seriously gave me pause – and the gift in that was it actually did allow me to check in with myself – and with God – where was he?  How was the state of my heart at that very moment?…and to pause because someone else prompted that pause – was even more meaningful.


Generous questions are the breath of humanity – it’s what keeps us receiving from the world around us – and giving in interest and attention to the world … this mutuality is where the Holy Spirit loves to hang out.  This is how we keep relating and engaged and thinking and leaning in toward each other…. And where we discover Jesus aknew again and again.


Jesus used questions to yes, know better the people in front of him  – BUT to also help them get in touch with and know themselves.


As we do this – and regard questions as a tool to better know ourselves and aid others to do the same- it will build our interest spans – and it will start to build a world around us infused with MULTI-DIMENSIONAL LOVE…


I want to end today – with this scripture  -where we read Paul’s prayer in Ephesians – and a pray for all of us today….

Ephesians 3: 14 – 18 (NIV)

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.


It seems strange to to think that tiny, ordinary interactions could build something as majestic as a world of multi-dimensional love – and  yet as a society – we are revisiting and asking questions that we thought we had settled and answered long ago – and turns out we hadn’t.. . . but it’s in the asking that we are building forward…


“Who is Jesus to you?”  Keep this question live – in your hearts….ask it again and again – …  Build forward with it… BECAUSE a heart in touch with this question is it’s own powerful content – to the world around it!


The Message version says:  “ LIVE  this LOVE – live it’s length – PLUMB the depths – RISE to the heights!!!  GO! – LIVE this love into being…… one that you can’t fall in and out of – and one that is found in the life of every person in heaven and on earth….found in every, normal day of your life.


To try this week, if you are up for it!:


  1. This week ask people a generous question like, “How are you?”
  2. Give your full  ____ second attention span to someone and be open to radical love.
  3. Use this tool of conversation to be an architect of multidimensional love.
  4. Journey with Jesus’ question, “Who am I to you?”
    1. Grab the centering prayer card and candle in the Dome Gallery.
    2. *also likely to have Carl Medearis book in our library next week.