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  • Writer's picturePastor Liz

Vivid Questions

Sunday, February 25, 2024



From what feels like a different life, I have a masters in library science with an emphasis in higher ed. librarianship and I spent several years as a reference librarian at Evergreen State College. In all of my interactions at the reference desk supporting students and faculty with research and projects we started with a question. Which would often frustrate the students who just wanted the answer.


But to find the books, articles and resources that could help write the paper, they first had to come up with a really good question. The question you ask matters and shapes the rest of the work. The more refined and specific the question can be the easier time you have with research. The better the question the better the paper will be. 


75% of what I did at the reference desk, other than telling people where the bathroom was, was helping to refine the question. The databases and catalog of books are easy once you know what you are looking for. 

Tell me more, explain it to me.

What do you find interesting about this topic.

Is there another, more specific word? 

Is there another way to phrase this question?


In my time at the reference desk I learned a little bit about a LOT of things. 


A friend of mine was writing their thesis for the masters in teaching program on teaching strategies to help students with math anxiety. For lots of people, myself included, math feels hard and intimating. I never felt confident and facing mathematic equations was always panic attack inducing. I assumed, and had been told, that I bad at math. My friend, who was going to be a middle and high school math teacher, wanted to find ways to reduce the math-panic for students like me. We spent a long time searching for articles, studies, and resources on math anxiety but we kept hitting dead ends. 


Eventually we realize we were asking the wrong question. Instead of, “What are teaching strategies for alleviating or reducing anxiety in the math classroom?” We needed to ask, “What are teaching strategies for improving self-efficacy in the math classroom.” Self-efficacy is someone’s ability to feel successful, and when we feel successful we feel less anxious. 


We weren’t getting anywhere until we changed the question. Part of it was figuring out academic research speak, but with the shift in the question we found everything my friend needed.


The questions are key. 

Wether we’re asking about math teaching strategies, biblical interpretation, or what does it mean to be human, the question is more important than the answer. Even though it sounds like a cheesy library “Read”posters, a good questions open doors.


Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, who composed and read her poem, Praise Song for the Day

for Obama’s 2009 inauguration. One stanza,

“We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider.”

In a conversation with Krista Tippitt in 2011 she talks about those words, words that shimmer. She says that as a mother, her sons have taught her to look for words that shimmer, language that shimmers. Individual words with power. 


Krista Tippitt worked as journalist and diplomat in Cold War Berlin, in the 90’s she attended Yale Divinity School and in 2003 she launched a National Public Radio show, On Being. She invites people from all walks of life to join her in conversation and dialog in the places between religious, spiritual, and moral aspects of human. She brings much of that experience together in her book, Becoming Wise, An inquiry into the mystery and 

art of living. She writes;

In journalism we have a love affair with the “tough” question, which is often an assumption masked as an inquiry and looking for a fight. … My only measure of the strength of a question now is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits. If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. … it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question.

But not all questions are meant to be answered. Generous questions, as she calls them, are social, art and civic tools that are to be pondered or dwelt on instead of answering. Or at least do not require an immediately answer.


We need generous questions. Questions that shimmer. Vivid questions.


Over the next three Sundays we have some folks who will join us for "On Being" style conversations. We'll ask some vivid and shimmering questions as we ponder together;

What does it mean to be human?

How do we want to live?

And who will we be to each other?


March 3, Lindsey Surrell

March 10, Rabbi Seth Goldstein

March 17, David Radcliff, New Community Project






Tippett, Krista. Becoming Wise (p. 30). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

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