BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

Like most historical figures of the early 19th century, Hannah More is not someone I thought I would be bringing up in casual conversation. That changed soon after I started reading Karen Swallow Prior’s biography of this remarkable author, educational leader and slave-trade abolitionist.

I had heard positive buzz about how “Fierce Convictions” was a quality book, researched with academic rigor yet presented in engaging prose. However, as my interests do not include Victorian-era England, a biography about the so-called “first Victorian” Hannah More wasn’t likely to wind up on my to-read list. What eventually pushed me to grab the book for myself was when I registered for an intensive course on Christian Education and Formation at North Park Theological Seminary, and one of the pre-reading requirements was “a biography on someone who made an educative/formative impact on society.”

In terms of fulfilling that course requirement, Fierce Convictions succeeded. To offer a snapshot of what can be found in the book about education: as a child, More had a unique educational journey, living in a time when views towards female education were impoverished but nonetheless having the fortunate advantage of being raised in a family of educators. More grew up to be a educator herself with an approach to teaching that perhaps is as refreshing today as it was back then, an approach exemplified by her warning to fellow educators: “Do not fancy that a thing is good merely because it is dull” (p. 27). Yet, More’s greatest legacy within education was perhaps the numerous “Sunday schools” she established with her sister Patty. These schools brought in thousands of poor children who simply wanted to be literate, Sunday being the only day the kids had off from farming or other labor.

However, More was not just a leader in education. Within London high culture and beyond, she made a name for herself as a playwright, poet and author. For the uninitiated, Prior does a great job of explaining how More’s various works fit within More’s life and English society. My interest in More was piqued to the point of wanting…well, more More. For those of us interested in further reading, perhaps the only thing lacking here was an annotated bibliography that mapped out which of More’s works are actually timeless and which are better left for the scholars.

What has got me talking about More the most was her moderate-yet-effective politics. For example, she used her celebrity to play a major role in the abolitionist movement commonly associated with the evangelical parliamentarian William Wilberforce. More never quite identified as evangelical and remained committed to the established Church of England, and in so doing proved that ideological purity is not prerequisite for making a positive impact in society. The 21st century reader will rightfully disagree with More on a number of her sensibilities that were shy-of-progressive, such as the role of women in society or her beliefs towards class (and in these cases, Prior does a good job explaining More without excusing More). Nonetheless, the Hannah More portrayed in Fierce Convictions exemplifies the sort of bridge-builder and pragmatic leader who we could use more of in our world today.

Chapter 12, “Burdened for the Beasts”, outlines More’s concern for animals subjected to cruelty. It is unclear why there is an entire chapter dedicated to this topic (as Prior admits, “animal welfare was never a central focus of [More’s] work” p.195). Despite the importance of the issue both then and today, readers in a time crunch can pass over this chapter without interrupting the narrative flow of the biography.

With that caveat, I can sincerely recommend the whole of Fierce Convictions — not only as an enjoyable read, but as what appears to be a well-researched portrayal of a historical figure who certainly deserves more fanfare than we have given her.

Review cross-posted on Amazon.com.

Update: Dr. Prior called me out on my one point of critique. I’ll let her have the last word here.

BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

Historic “Clean Power Plan” Announced: What America Is Doing and What YECA Already Did

Today, Administrator Gina McCarthy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the proposed Clean Power Plan for existing power plants. Less than a year after President Barack Obama promised cuts in domestic carbon as part of his Climate Action Plan, the reduction standards released today are aguably the Obama Administration’s most significant climate action to date.

As a young evangelical who, as part of my Christian discipleship and witness, is working to encourage our national leaders to act swiftly and responsibly on climate change, you can imagine I looked forward to today with at least a little bit of eager anticipation.

Read more of my thoughts for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action here.

Historic “Clean Power Plan” Announced: What America Is Doing and What YECA Already Did

The Secret Sauce for Volunteer Management

This post is cross-listed on Medium — check it out!

As a non-profit professional, volunteer management is an integral part of my work — and by corollary, doing volunteer management well is a key ingredient for any success I may ever hope to achieve.

As the part-time youth minister for a neighborhood church on the north side of Chicago, I have a team of nearly a dozen volunteers who help me lead programs, drive the group around to events, and spend time getting to know individual kids so that the kids know they loved and cared for.

As the part-time communications assistant for a network of young adults organizing for climate change action, I consider every activist who signs our “Call to Action” or dons our signature orange t-shirt at a rally as a volunteer. Furthermore, those who contribute content for our website or cover social media on my days off are also active volunteers, even if my only interaction with them is through e-mail.

Since both jobs are simply part-time, I often find myself being “two places at once” by having volunteers do what I physically can’t. Yet, even if either job was full-time, there would still be limits to what I could accomplish on my own, and so in theory effective volunteer management remains critical to unlocking the potential embedded in my organization’s mission/vision and resources.

Although I am far from being a veteran of volunteer management, I would easily rank volunteer management as one of the top skills I have developed and honed while out on the work force. (Apparently, even my colleagues think so — according to LinkedIn, I have received more endorsements for the skill of “volunteer management” than I have for my day jobs of “youth ministry” and “communications” combined).

It was only recently that I took a step back to reflect on my volunteer management style. My education was not in nonprofit management, so instead of following a prescribed set of best practices I have had to rely on my intuition (accompanied by a good dose of trial and error!). The result has been a personal volunteer management style that is simultaneously distinctive yet effective.

So what is my—if I may be so bold as to call it such—“secret sauce” to volunteer management?

Understand the difference between a “volunteer” and a “supporter”

Believe it or not, the “secret sauce” is just semantics. The terms “volunteer” and “supporter” are often used interchangeably, but there is value in learning to distinguish between the two, how they relate to you and your mission/vision.

A supporter is someone who believes in you and your mission/vision and is willing to resource you in order to carry out your mission/vision.

A volunteer is someone who believes in your mission/vision, but needs to be resourced by you in order to carry out that mission/vision.

Supporters will experience your mission/vision in the abstract — they might want give money in response to your annual report, for example. Volunteers will engage with your mission/vision in a “hands-on” way—they want to be in the trenches, at the intersection of noble ideals and nitty-gritty reality.

Some (partially idealized) examples from youth ministry:

Juan is one of my supporters. He has a van that he lets me borrow to transport youth for our off-site excursions. He knows I do not have a car of my own and he often offers me rides so I do not have to trek my way home in inclement weather. Often, when he is driving me home, Juan reminds me that he is praying for me and the work that I do.

Caitlin is one of my volunteers. She is a freshman at the nearby university, majoring in education. She is a leader for our middle school students during our weekly Youth Group night. Like me, she wants the best for the youth of the church and the surrounding neighborhood. She has offered to take students out to Starbucks to get to know them better. Caitlin has once revealed to me that she prays for the students on a regular basis.

See the difference?

Proximity to Mission and Values 2

An obligatory heads-up: you may encounter some people who might straddle both categories. Lars, for example, not only helps lead the weekly Youth Group (categorizing him as a volunteer), but is a financial contributor as well (categorizing him as a supporter). For me, the important thing is not to make Lars conform to predefined boxes of either “volunteer” or “supporter”, but to understand the multiple roles Lars fulfills for my organization.

Applying the Secret Sauce

Consider the secret sauce as a sort of marinade. You have to soak your organization in it before you get cooking. To do so, here are three questions, each to be asked at an almost mantra-like pace as you engage with your volunteers through the seasons.

Question #1 — Is this person a volunteer or a supporter?

For everyone who offers to help, it is up to you to discern whether they are a volunteer or a supporter (or both). Yes, it may take some intentional effort to learn where a person’s true passions and commitments lie — but learning this piece of knowledge upfront will save you from quite the headache down the road.

Because the main difference between a volunteer vs. a supporter is a matter of needing to be resourced vs. being able to resource, it is easy to stereotype volunteers as those who are not financially well off (e.g. students, unemployed) while supporters are those who have some extra money to give. Be careful about making this assumption! Some volunteers are looking to do something meaningful to complement their well-paid but not-so-fulfilling job, while some supporters might be providing forms of informal support that come without a clear price tag (e.g. a home-cooked meal, a consulting conversation, handiwork around the office, a shoulder to lean on).

Scaling up for larger operations, if you have someone in your organization who can help you manage supporters — for example, this might be a director of development or a board member — delegate. (If you are both the volunteer manager and the supporter manager, I’d be curious to hear how you ever get anything else done.)

Question #2 — Is this volunteer being resourced?

I can’t stress this enough: a volunteer needs to be resourced by you.

Too often, we chalk up volunteers as simply a resource for us to use and hopefully not exhaust. “Free labor” — an economic miracle if there ever was one.

Remember, what motivates a volunteer is your organization’s mission/vision. At the end of the day, your organization’s mission/vision is just words on paper, something that can be copied and pasted freely. What keeps a volunteer from going “lone wolf” — and instead, joining forces with you — is acknowledging that you have accumulated the assets, relationships & opportunities needed to make the mission/vision a reality.

Don’t ask this question in the abstract, but drill down to the practical, tangible versions of this question.

Some example questions I try and ask myself in youth ministry:

  • Is this volunteer being properly introduced to kids and co-leaders? Does this volunteer know what to do in case of an emergency?
  • Does this volunteer feel empowered when I am there?
  • Does this volunteer feel empowered when I am *not* there?
  • Is my volunteer team a true community, or just a bunch of names on a roster?
  • Are there any conferences or workshops that might be beneficial for the volunteer team?

More example questions, this time from climate activism:

  • Does this volunteer appreciate the difference between individual and collective action?
  • Do our national campaigns make sense — regarding both 1) how to participate, and 2) what goals may be achieved?
  • Is this volunteer connecting with other activists and organizers, so that they can take local action independent of our own organization?
  • Does the volunteer know how to message climate change appropriately, in a manner that is not too pessimistic nor partisan?

Question #3 — Is this volunteer free to go?

If what keeps your organization humming is an army of unpaid labor, you cannot get upset when a volunteer decides one day to just move on or go on hiatus.

One of the hardest parts about letting a volunteer go from your team is knowing that it falls on you to replace them. Volunteer recruitment could be a whole blog post by itself, but these basic guidelines should suffice: 1) maintain an attractive mission/vision and be able to communicate it effectively; 2) maintain active volunteer recruitment channels; 3) maintain a roster of “substitute” volunteers, perhaps including some of your supporters, who you can readily call on for one-time commitments during a time of transition.

If you have a volunteer who is otherwise unemployed or underemployed, be a partner in their job search when possible. Help them network, add them on LinkedIn, forward them job postings worth investigating. Yes, this might mean their tenure as a volunteer gets cut short, but you’ll have a better sense of timing of when the volunteer’s gig will be up. Further benefits include 1) you potentially get to place an ally at a partner organization, or 2) the outgoing volunteer might reciprocate the favor and help you recruit a replacement.

Granted, in youth ministry, I need some sort of consistency so that the kids don’t feel abandoned. I usually ask volunteers to make commitments only as long as until either winter or summer break, at the end of which they are free either to renew their commitment or simply be done. This gives me some stability in maintaining an active volunteer team, but also gives the volunteer a sense of accomplishment when their time is finally up (as opposed to the endless marathon of an indefinite commitment, where the only way out is to quit).

When the time finally does come for your volunteer to go: celebrate. If you are a healthy organization with a compelling mission/vision, what will take your volunteer out of the picture is likely a task better suited to their skills and ambitions, an opportunity to do something better for the world.

Which, if you ask me, sounds a lot like good news for the world. As a non-profit professional, isn’t that what your whole job is about anyways?

Slideshare

The Secret Sauce for Volunteer Management

Three (not-so) novel truths about youth work

I’m a youth worker. Seriously, check my LinkedIn. In addition to multiple summers of camp counseling, and going on my second year of urban youth ministry, I have experience both “in the trenches” and also at the fancy-schamncy level of organizational leadership. Even the final projects for both of my non-youth-work internships were directly youth related.

This was completely unintentional. Despite an interdisciplinary major, I didn’t have a single undergrad course in education or youth ministry or something even remotely related. “The youth guy” was never part of my identity, because in college your identity is what you study, and at North Park University everyone and their cousin worked at summer camp, so the fact I worked with kids sometimes was not something worth mentioning.

It has slowly begun to hit me, however, that being “the youth guy” is a prominent part of who I am despite no conscious decision on my part. Which has led to some reflection: what is it, exactly, that I am doing? And what it is, exactly, about this work that fuels me and my volunteers? 

The typical answer is valid, despite tinges of self-righteousness. Youth work is about providing stability, a positive environment, attention, unconditional love, and mentorship. In short, we youth workers help make human flourishing happen amongst teenagers.

This should be enough to convince you that the work is worthwhile.

This, however, is not the full answer.

What follows are three truths I have learned about youth work, as someone not formally educated in youth work but rather with my own academic lens (global studies and conflict transformation, ha!) and a particular set of youth work experiences. They might strike you as novel at first, but upon reflection you might see how they have always been there. These not-so novel truths aren’t exclusive only to youth ministry, but I would argue have some resonance for the whole gamut of youth work: from teaching to coaching, from social services to student activism.

Youth are subversive.

We all know the stereotype: the rebellious teenager standing defiant against all authority. Whether they do it for attention, as a vent for adolescent hormones, or maybe even because they have the seedlings of a particular political consciousness, we know who these particular kids are.

The rebels aren’t who I am talking about. Not specifically, at least.

All youth are, by definition, subversive. They represent a certain threat to our authority, structures and institutions, simply because they have not yet learned how to fit into our categories. Youth have, so to speak, fresh eyes for the world.

This may sound overly political. But if you have ever known a choir room used for a hide-and-seek game, or a sanctuary balcony used as a place to sneak a kiss, or a church building that has a freakin’ gymnasium in it, I guarantee you that somewhere along the way youth were involved. And, truth be told, I am not quite sure what can be considered more political than redefining spaces according to how one sees fit.

Youth subversiveness is not limited to spaces. Youth challenge relationships, customs, hopes, prejudices, ideas, and plans. This is part of what we call “not knowing any better.”

So we try and teach our youth how to fit in. We help them behave properly and speak correctly. We give them the skills they need to survive in the world (specifically, our vision of the world), because we know the machine will grind against them if they do not know how to be a part of it, and we know the machine’s parts (that is, us) are always wearing out and in need of constant replacement.

This is the starting point for much of what we consider to be youth work, as it should be. But it overlooks the fact that the whole exchange is a two-way street.

When the adults engage with the youth in order to promote conformity, the return deal is that the adults might find their own structures lacking. Youth have the fresh eyes to call out the contradictions, cracks and collusions that we have grown blind to by way of seeing them too many times. We want them to ask the questions that we have answers to; we are much less comfortable when they ask the questions that we never knew were questions. Youth have the right to reform the machine that they are destined to be a part of, and we would be foolish to wait until they grow up to fix the mistakes that they can see now.

So while we need to figure out what to do with the rebellious teenager, we can be thankful that youth are inherently subversive. The challenge of the youth worker, in this case, is to figure out how to properly channel that subversiveness into something constructive for all of us.

You don’t get too old to work with youth.

Just like how the subversiveness of youth can refresh our institutions, the energy of youth can refresh us as individuals.

To borrow logic from “Dipsea Demon” Jack Kirk, you don’t stop working with youth because you get old, you get old because you stop working with youth.

I have to speak carefully because as a twenty-something youth worker I am far from knowing what “old age” feels like. That said, I count it a great blessing to have a game of dodgeball built into my weekly work schedule, when many of my peers are taking office jobs spent almost entirely behind desks. Although I may not be too proud of the fact I can recite the names of the One Direction singers by memory, I find something particularly exciting about being able to speak the language (which is less a language and more a particular set of communication practices) of the generation after mine.

Yet again, it runs both ways. Youth can refresh the elders, while elders can inspire the youth.

When recruiting volunteers, I keep my eyes open on two particular age groups. The first isn’t surprising: those in their 20’s and 30’s. We are old enough to command the respect (and occasionally, awe) of teenagers, but still young enough to not resemble their parents. The second age group, however, are the “empty nesters”: roughly those in their mid-50’s and 60’s.

Why 50-somethings?

1) Because youth are always subconsciously looking for the role models that their immediate family can’t provide. The same reason those in their 20’s and 30’s inspire awe in teenagers isn’t that much different from why those in their 50’s do as well. Youth are looking for role models, not just for the next stage of life, but all stages of life.

2) Because, assuming they have had kids of their own, they are veterans of the teenage drama, and sometimes your average twenty-something youth leader needs a little extra wisdom on the leadership team.

For those of us “professional” youth workers, our work is sometimes seen as a way of getting one’s foot in the door, before the adult world finally accepts us for bigger and better things. Kind of like a glorified internship. That may be true, but more and more I realize that when (if?) the day comes that I have to leave youth work, I’ll resist like the dickens, unless the next job has an office-wide dodgeball tournament built into the schedule.

Youth work is timeless.

I work in youth ministry, a particular form of youth work that has been around for about two centuries, although it has looked radically different from generation to generation. While it seems that every youth minister — and most youth workers — are constantly on the cutting edge of culture, the work we do has been around as long as civilization itself.

I’ll make my case with Ancient Greece, because Ancient Greece seems to be where everyone wants to make “as long as civilization” arguments. Exhibit A — Socrates hung out with a bunch of youth teaching them the Socratic method and other counter-cultural things, one of those youth being Plato, Plato being Aristotle’s mentor, and Aristotle in turn being Alexander the Great’s youth worker (aka “tutor”). Exhibit B — the Spartans, despite implementing a number of strange practices, nevertheless developed an intricate system of youth work, from which they built their legendary militaristic society.

The principle is simple: as long as there have been youth, there has been a need for youth work.

The next generation is not going to “get it” through osmosis, or “flourish” in passivity. It’s amazing what kids can learn from the Internet, but the Internet cannot teach kids everything. The next generation needs people who understand them, who pursue them, who help and care for them.

If we fail at identifying the right people for this task — and equipping them properly — the future of our communities, churches and societies all of a sudden looks rather bleak.

Despite all of its importance, there is a certain intangibility to youth work. leading to a certain angst among youth workers. We rarely get to see the finished product of our labors. We are artists molding with a clay that has a mind of its own, trying to make beautiful something (someone) that already has dignity on its (their) own.

From this intangibility arises frustration, and therefore youth workers have a tendency to “burn out.” Not before the task is finished, because the task is constant, but before the time is right for them to properly retire or move on to the next phase of life.

So, if not in the elusive sense of accomplishment, where then should youth workers find their perseverance? Their endurance? Their strength?

The answer is simple:

Our perseverance is in the past — this is a work as old as time.

Our endurance is in the future — the youth before us have so much potential to flourish.

Our strength is in the present — there is a game of dodgeball to be played.

I don’t usually dedicate blog posts, but I thought I’d take some space at the end of this post to recognize a certain someone. Someone who perhaps modeled these “three truths about youth work” before I could ever articulate them. I speak of a volunteer youth worker I had as a teenager, Margaret Legardwhose abrupt passing from this life provoked me to develop these thoughts I had been sitting on for a while. Peace to your memory, Mother Margaret, and thanks for all your years of sacrifice, care and wisdom. You will be sorely missed.

Three (not-so) novel truths about youth work

On Questions

Let’s jump right in and talk about conferences. A bunch of people getting together to ask a single question.

For example: how do we manufacture a better manufacturing sector? How do we, as institutions of higher education, use social media to advance our mission? How do we practice youth ministry in the city? How do we, as the world’s 20 largest independent countries, cooperate to achieve global economic stability and agree on international financial norms?

No matter how specific the question, the participants of each conference – speakers and audience and hosts alike – never leave with exactly the same answer. There was just too much information and personal opinion swirling around for everyone to be the same page. For some people, the success of a conference is measured not in “notes taken” but “business cards collected” or “photo ops achieved.”

Motives, goals, results will vary. There will be sub-questions and tangents.

Nonetheless, what holds all these elements of a conference together for its brief blink of unity, is that single question.

?

This summer, I was at a conference that was all about how Midwest-based, sustainability-focused non-profits could mobilize together to reduce the carbon footprint of the region enough to avert the climate change crisis (with the big assumption, of course, that the rest of the nation and the world does their fair share as well). It was the sort of conference with two separate dress codes – either business casual or hippie commune.

I was merely supposed to go and take notes, maybe get a few business cards along the way. When I arrived that morning, however, I found out that due to extraneous circumstances, the lead spokesperson for my organization, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, was unable to be there that day. With roughly 20 minutes until go time, I had to prep some preliminary remarks and represent us on the “Faith and Eco-Justice” session panel.

With three other panelists, I took all sorts of questions I had not had a proper chance to prepare answers for. “What are some the greatest challenges you have had reaching out to churches in the Midwest?” “How is your organization reaching out to African-Americans and other minority groups?” “What advice would you give us scientists and policy-wonks for reaching out to faith communities?” (The entire time, I wanted to ask what the difference between “eco-justice” and regular justice was. But I figured, as a panelist, it was best I not ask such a question that could come across as either pointed or ill-informed.)

I sat alongside some excellent panelists, and the conversation that ensued was at once frank, rich and insightful. Nobody in the room wanted it to end, and we were beginning to run over our allotted time.

“One more question,” declared the moderator.

That one more question came from a man sitting behind his 17” laptop. In subtle ways, he stuck out from the rest of the crowd. He broke both dress codes and wore a simple t-shirt and cargo shorts, while his overgrown stubble qualified him for neither the professional clean-shave nor outdoorsman beard categories. He had a few extra pounds on him — not that he was unhealthily overweight, just that at a conference of environmentally conscious folks who mostly ate plants and rode bikes, the fact that he was not slender was noticeable.

“I have found this whole discussion really fascinating,” he began. “In fact, I want to ask a question to the Christians on the panel about how they see global warming in view of their doctrine of the apocalypse and the end times.” I made a quick glance at the other evangelical Christian who sat on the panel, who looked just as excited as I was to launch into this conversation about the rich theology of eschatology that goes way deeper than one finds among the Left Behind books and rapture-ready bumper-stickers which dominate Christian pop sub-culture.

“But I’m not going to ask that question,” continued the man who was beginning to look more and more like an internet troll. “Instead, I want to talk about a very important topic that none of the panelists have brought up. Nuclear power is an incredible energy source that is getting safer all the time, but for whatever reason the green orthodoxy has decided to continuously push it away…”

This so-called “question” went on for about a minute, only to end when the man turned his 17” laptop around toward the panel, although we sat too far away to make out whatever chart or map he had on the screen.

The panel was polite but unimpressed. Nuclear power was a topic about as relevant as homeopathic medicine at a Race for the Cure event. A great discussion for another time wound up riling up the audience into righteous chatter and crosstalk. I was livid if not a bit sorry, because this man’s initial question was great. It was his own agenda that defeated him.

(As another conference participant reminded me later: “what did you expect out of a room full of activists?”)

?

I had a friend in college who is the sort of friend you want to have in college. Anytime, really.

She was, and continues to be, the master of the art of asking questions.

My college friend was not just interested in what you did today or how you were feeling. She wanted to know how these were connected. She wanted to uncover the passion behind your hobbies, the hope behind your labors, the values behind your talk. Her questions were far from “small talk” – they were verbal processing prompts that in the process of answering you would learn just as much about yourself as she would. She found a sly, subversive joy in making you the star of the conversation.

Nearly an hour in, I would try to turn the tables.

“Enough about me, how are things going in your own life?”

“Good, good,” she would respond.

?

“Don’t the dogs under the table eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table?”

?

I want to master the art of asking questions. I am not sure if I can.

My instincts as a storyteller, as a moralizer, as an advice-giver often are the first to rise to the surface. If I ever come across as silent, it is more likely because I am busy formulating my own response than it is because I am listening intently.

I once tried to come up with a pre-prepared list of “50 great questions to ask anyone.” The hope was that I would always be ready to come across as a question-asking-master.

That list never came to fruition.

Maybe you are born with the “art of asking questions.” Or maybe the “art of asking questions” is really the “art of listening.” The best questions, after all, seem to come not from outside the conversation, but rather from the inside.

There might be a chance that I can still master the art of asking questions. At the very least, I am going to give it the best shot I have left in me.

?

What if a question could change the world?

We are quick to rush to the answers — especially when the issues our world faces are so urgent. We understandably want people to think the right things. We are going to be evangelists of our own good news.

As someone who believes in something out there called truth, the sort of truth that is able to be touched if not grasped, I have to logically conclude that the answers are of crucial importance.

But answers have a way of growing old, of turning into tired talking points that are not in harmony with the world around them.

Just because we have the right answers does not mean we can leave the questions behind. Like a guitarist tuning his guitar partway through the performance, the evangelist needs to make sure her favorite answers keep hitting the right note. Questions can do that.

At the ground level, however, “changing the world” is not so much about righting answers as it is about righting relationships. Peace (if I may be so bold as to suggest what peace may look like) finds its roots not in agreement but rather in trust.

And so, a challenge: let us not simply ask questions that are mere intellectual exercises or opportunities to look smart. Those have their place, and we have enough of those to go around. Let us instead ask questions that are of the sort that show we trust each other.

The sort of questions that are springboards for someone else to develop their train of thought, instead of wedges meant to exploit their inconsistencies and omissions. The sort of question where we look forward to the answer, not because it is “truthful” or “insightful” or even “interesting” but because it comes from another human being possessing that strange thing we call dignity. The sort of question that is on everyone’s mind, but nobody has been quite sure how to put it to words. The sort of question that comes from inside, not outside, the conversation.

Heck, we can even have a conference. One where we all get together and simply ask: how can we ask better questions?

Who knows if such a conference could actually change the world, or even nudge things in the right direction. There’s enough conferences as it is and most of them, we complain, are high on talk and little on action.

But, if we are going to keeping having conferences (and I don’t think they are going away anytime soon), we might as well give them the best shot we have left in us.

What are the questions that could change the world?

On Questions” is second in an ongoing series of meditations on life’s ubiquitous experiences. The first was On Notifications.

On Questions