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Transcript: Get Your Spirit in Shape: When We’re Bad at Being Good

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J. Brent Bill, author of Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker

J. Brent Bill, author of Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker, shares tips on how to deepen our spiritual lives and what to do when we fail or fear we don't measure up. Photo courtesy of J. Brent Bill.

Joe Iovino: I’m on the phone today with J. Brent Bill, the author of a new book that I think is very appropriate as we enter into a new year. The book is called Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker: A Humble Stumble Toward Simplicity and Grace and is published by Abingdon Press of the United Methodist Publishing House. Brent, I’m really pleased to be talking on the phone with you today.

J. Brent Bill: It’s a pleasure for me to be on.

I’m a life-long United Methodist and since this is a United Methodist podcast I’m guessing that the majority of our listeners are United Methodists. So, I wonder if you could help us understand a little bit about the Quakers and how your faith has shaped you.

Sure. I’d be happy to.

I will say I’m not completely unaware of Methodism. When I was in college I served as a student associate at a United Methodist Church in Ohio, helping run the youth group program was kind of interesting because here I was a Quaker doing the youth group at the United Methodist Church. And the Quaker church couldn’t find a pastor, so they hired a United Methodist. So we kind of switched. We were switch-hitters for a while.

But yeah, I grew up a Quaker and...but I’m also what many Quakers refer to as ‘a convince Friend’—‘Friend’ being our official name, the Religious Society of Friends. And that’s because when I was in college and went deeper into our own faith tradition it became clear to me that it was really something I needed because it had things that don’t come naturally to me, like being silent and still and listening, being a peaceful person, trying to live simply. They all went against sort of my grain, I guess.

I’m just not naturally peaceful. I have a feeling that there’s probably somebody who could benefit from a good slapping. You know. That’s not officially approved of in Quaker circles.

Talk to me a little bit more about those Quaker ideals, those things that you seek to live into as a Quaker.

Well, I mean, one way that’s probably helpful for a lot of people to think about what makes Quakers unique in some ways, among Christian traditions, is to start with what they know about Quakers, which is generally (for most people) oats. They hear about Quaker Oats. Quakers don’t have anything to do with that. But we do have what we call ‘SPICE’ and it’s an acronym for some of the things that we call testimonies, which for a Quaker a testimony is kind of belief translated into action. It’s not a sharing of our personal story so much as it is a statement of how we should live our faith.

The spices are: simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality. We understand the gospel of Jesus requiring us to be peaceful people and to live that out in our daily lives, to take time for simplicity, not to live lives of ostentation, but as one saying is: Live simply so that others can simply live. Also, to live lives of integrity and truth, to do this all in community and to treat every person as equal in the sight of God and ourselves instead of some better-than-others or lesser-than-others.

We think Jesus taught all those and so it’s part of living in the Jesus way. We try to add SPICE to our life and some of us like oats. I do. But they’re not a requirement.

The Quaker tradition, it sounds like, is similar to the United Methodist tradition in John Wesley’s style of the life of faith is a journey.

Right. We don’t feel like we’ve ever arrived. And I think Wesley would have made a good Quaker. We pre-date the Methodists by about a hundred years. But we’re a little too loosey-goosey on doctrinal things, I think, probably for John and Charles both, because we don’t have a creed. We don’t have certain rites and rituals. We don’t even have a formal Book of Discipline, as much as what we have book of what’s called Faith and Practice. It outlines various beliefs and how they should be practiced in daily lives. And many of those are illustrated from examples by Friends who have gone before us. So they tell their stories. And so when we want to see what Friends have learned about peace over the years, it’s not a lot of theological statements; it’s more how people have experienced it.

In that sense we’re like the Wesleyans in the idea that if there’s not a heart change it really doesn’t matter. So while Methodists had their hearts strangely warmed, we felt ourselves quaking in the power of the Holy Spirit, which is where we got our name.

You found yourself, or you call yourself, a ‘bad Quaker.’ What do you mean by that?

Well, I don’t mean I have a lot of bodies in my trunk or I rob banks or anything like that. It’s mostly I’m just not very... I’m bad at being good, I guess.

I seem to have a disconnect and have throughout my life with knowing what I believe and how I should be, but not always living up to that, often running off on my own spiritual energy instead of involving God quite as closely as I should.

So there’s this popular image of Quakers as quiet, and pious, and very well-meaning folks who work against social injustice and so forth, and I just don’t always live up to those ideals. That’s why I say that I’m a bad Quaker. I’m just not good at being a Quaker.

And I don’t think I’m the only one. I mean, I think a lot of us, not just Quakers, but there are probably a number of bad Methodists and bad Presbyterians and bad Catholics out there, too, who see the ideal of their faith tradition or all of Christianity and want to live up to that sense. We sense that God calls us to something deep and invites us into a deeper life, but we somehow continue to miss the mark in daily life. And so we need to practice being better and to be involved in a faith tradition that has practices that encourage us in ways that perhaps aren’t natural to us, like I mentioned earlier. I’m not a naturally peaceful person. And so being a Quaker with its emphasis on being peaceful and not participating in war and even asking questions about the nature of violence, do I do things that instead of leading to peace cause conflict in people or whatever.

The Quaker way helps me think about that, not as a philosophical thing, but as a true religious thing, as a spiritual enterprise, as I’m on my pilgrimage to God. Am I walking more peacefully now than I was yesterday or 10 years ago or 20 years ago or whatever? Am I growing in the things of God on this path, realizing that I’m never gonna achieve perfection? Although I think some people probably do lots faster than I do. But hopefully I’m growing in these things; but I’m still not very good at it.

It’s interesting you brought up perfection, which is another.... Wesleyans live under that idea of going on to perfection, and sometimes I’m not the person that I would like to be, much like you talk about living into the Quaker ideals. How do you know that you’re growing? What tips do you give to kind of move somebody to lead into a place where you’re more peaceful?

We do a lot of self-examination. And some of those opportunities are in the book even.

Since we don’t have formal doctrine that’s written down, we ask what we call ‘queries’ and queries are spiritual growth questions that are sort of open-ended, but they lead to self-examination. And so even working today on kind of peace issues, I looked at some of the queries. And one of ‘em was: What do I actively do in my life to work for peace?

Let’s see. Have I been as pleasant to people whom I live with today as I should? Or, am I being grouchy? That’s a small thing, but I look at how I interact with people now as opposed to when I was, you know, 25 years old in seminary and knew everything. Am I a more generous, kinder, calmer person? Yeah, I think I am. Now, am I as good as I should be? No. And so I can choose to either beat myself up about that or admit: No, I’m still on the journey. I’m still on the journey.

I have made some progress, and to be able to own that, I think, is an important way to help us feel good about ourselves. Yeah, we can make progress, and that’s what Jesus invites us to do. He didn’t invite us into sainthood suddenly. It’s ‘pick up your cross and follow me.’ My cross is the cross of busyness and un-peacefulness—things that I should probably lay down more and more. So hopefully as I am growing towards God my cross maybe is a little bit smaller in some areas than it used to be. But then I probably picked something else up like I’m proud to be a humble Quaker or something like that.

Right. But you mentioned something there I think is really fascinating and something we don’t always think about. We look at these big kind of global problems and think we don’t have anything to offer. But you said it’s about what I do in my own little world. I mean, I can’t do something that’s gonna make ‘the world’ more peaceful, but I can make my sphere of influence more peaceable.

If I can carve out niches of peace and truth-telling and simplicity as examples in my life and to the people around me, how do I then.... If those people then are affected positively by that witness and then begin to practice pieces of it, there’s no telling how far it goes.

I mean, yes, it’s awfully hard to confront things like ISIS and go, “What can I do?” But the fact is, most of us aren’t being confronted by terrorists and trying to solve it. We’re having trouble with our boss, or our children or a spouse or.... We have our own issues and if we can’t expect to bring about world peace or simple lifestyle if we can’t even deal with it at the place where we live.

William Penn once said something that I’ve always liked. He said, about the early Quakers, they were changed people themselves before they went out to change others. The godly life really helps us change ourselves and then we can help work on the larger problems.

It is like the butterfly effect that you hear of, but rarely think of that in a positive sort of way. What small steps can I make in my Christian life that may seem like they’re not gonna make a big difference, but they make all the difference.

As we are getting into the new year, some of us think about making New Year’s Resolutions to make ourselves better. What are some places you would say or maybe for yourself that you’re thinking these are some things I’d like to do to move in a deeper direction or to improve my spiritual life, my walk with Christ?

Well, just like with all of life, I’m not very good at resolutions either. I make them all the time. Now I will be kinder to my children. I will be more patient with those other annoying drivers on the interstate.

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Oh, that’s a big one.

That’ll last for about 5 minutes for me. That’s why I don’t have any Quaker bumper stickers on my car. It looks bad to have some guy ranting and raving in his car and has a sign on the back that says, “Peace is the answer.”

So, the things I try to do as I think about the coming year is, what are the things I need to work on in some ways that I can incorporate into spiritual practices? One of the most important spiritual practices for me is getting quiet, to actually get still.

I know as a Christian I often talk a lot to God or at God. But I very rarely listen to God. I don’t get still enough where I can hear the voice. We think of Elijah hiding out in the cave and God passes by, but he’s not in the earthquake, wind and fire. He’s in the sheer voice of silence, it says in one translation. And so one of the things, I think, that can help us grow deeper in our lives and see where we need perhaps improvement or tweaks, they come those times when we get really still. Where we can get quiet, not for quietness sake, but for the sake of saying, “Speak, God, for your servant is listening. Tell me what I need to hear.”

And so to even take 2 or 3 minutes throughout the day to just pause. And that sounds impossible at one level because we go, you know, I have all these emails I have to answer. I have this phone call that I have to return. I have all these sort of things that are happening. And if I take time, then I won’t have time to get anything else done.

But if we really believe that God is a God of daily life, which is one of the prime Quaker tenets—that God teaches us in the stuff of our daily life and that God’s hand is always resting lightly on us—if we get quiet perhaps God might have a solution or two even for the pressing business problem. And we find our days instead of being shortened, actually enlarged—maybe not in real time, but in a sense that all of a sudden we’re calmer, we can look at things more rationally, an idea then pops into our head that never would have if we’d of kept trying to think things through. If we’d just stop and listen to God and say, “Here I am. I’m present. I’m listening. What have you got for me?”

That thought about God is a God of daily life, can you say a little bit more about that?

As I said, we got rid of all our rituals and rites as Quakers. And so Quakers develop more of a total sacramental view of life with the idea that if a sacrament is a visible means of grace that points us to God, then all of life has the potential to be that. So every meal that we would eat, every act that we partake in, God is potentially there if we see it with sacramental eyes, if we open ourselves to that.

And where do we live our lives? Most of us don’t live our lives in a congregation with the host around us at the time, or being baptized, you know, every day 24 hours a day. We are out in the work-a-day world. And so we need help for the living of these days. So where’s God gonna find us? God is gonna find us where we are.

Every possible thing that we would encounter, even a spreadsheet on the screen, could somehow connect us with God if we are willing to look at it through the eyes of faith.

Yes, I love that idea. You use an interesting phrase. In the title of your book, actually in the subtitle, I guess. ...about you call it ‘a humble stumble.’ One of the problems I have with resolutions is sometime in January, or February if you make it that far, I will make a mistake and suddenly it seems like, “Well, that’s out the window.” But you seem comfortable with the idea that we’re gonna make mistakes along the way. Is that what the humble stumble is about?

In some ways. I don’t know that I would say that I’m comfortable with it, so much as I realize that it’s a reality. It’s not that I want to stumble or am saying I wonder when it’s gonna be. I just know it’s gonna happen for me. And I think that I’m not unique.

I was watching a talent show on television last night, and a young woman forgot the lyrics right in the middle of her competition. And every one of the judges said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it; we’ve all done that.’ We have all done that. You know. Even as professionals. It’s like, of course we have.

But we try to live so perfectly that we then fail, somehow. We stumble. It’s not even a failure, I don’t think. We just trip and start to go down and we can decide do we just lay there and go, “Well, that’s done; I’ll never do it again, and not even try to do this anymore.” Or, do we pick ourselves back up and go, “Well, okay. Dang, my knee hurts. You know. I scraped it pretty good that time. But now I know. I learned something there.” What did I learn there?

I don’t even mean that was the purpose of the fall. But to rather take purpose from the stumble to say, “Yeah, I see what I did.”

It’s like when I ask my doctor one time, I said, you know.... He goes, Does it hurt when you do that? And go, Yeah. And he goes, Then quit doing it. I wish it was so simple. But then in some ways in a spiritual life, you know, you learn. Well, that hurt; I don’t want to do that particular thing again. But it’s part of life. It’s not like God didn’t know I was gonna make mistakes.

But you seek to learn from them or to grow from them in some way.

I think so. And I think that that’s the whole exciting idea of grace. One mistake is not the end. There is redemption everywhere we look. Everywhere God is working for the redeeming of this world, and that includes us.

If you look at nature, how it constantly renews itself. Trees, I mean, are they dead? Oh no, they’re dormant. They’re coming back to life. We do the same sorts of things. You know. We may have periods where we feel like our soul’s a little fallow or whatever. But life is possible in there. And God is a God of redemption and walking alongside with us going, “Where are your condemners? I don’t see them. Go and sin no more.” So I don’t want to waste God’s grace. So I seem to use it a lot.

I’m so glad you brought up the grace thing, too, because I was thinking about that as we were talking about this ‘cause as Methodists and people who are familiar with Wesley know that we talk about sanctification which is sometimes called perfection. It seems like every time Wesley brings that up (and I don’t know if it’s every time; but most of the time at least) the word grace is attached to it. It’s sanctifying grace. It’s perfecting grace.

Well it’s growing, I believe, from the fact that God is an ever-loving God. I mean, so perfect love casts out fear. And part of that is that grace just comes along and we’re made better partly because we want to be better. We see the joy in some ways of living a life that exemplifies the things that we believe in.

Fantastic.

That sounds a little preachy, though.

Nah, it’s good stuff. I’ll take you off the preachy part right away. This is a little...this is more than a little off topic, but I saw something in your promotional materials that said there’s something called International Talk Like a Quaker Day. And there’s something in your book that can help us with that.

Yeah. Every autumn on William Penn’s birthday, which is in October, they have International Talk Like a Quaker Day. And I have no idea, really, who started it. But it’s kind of a hoot because Quakers did, for many years, have a peculiar form of speech.

Some of our Friends still do that where they say thee and thou and they call the days of the week by numbers instead of the days that we do, and the same with months because, you know, right now we’re in December, obviously. December means the 10th month but we’re obviously not in the 10th month, we’re in the 12th month. So early Friends would call it 12th month. Or they didn’t say Thursday ‘cause that was Thor’s day and they weren’t gonna name a pagan god. So they called it fifth day.

Then we have these other quirky...quirky things like ‘that’s a thought that would not have occurred to me.’ And that means, “Well, that’s about the dumbest idea I’ve heard.” But it sounds kinder and gentler. So I do have a whole section at the end of the book called How to Talk Quaker, which you’ll be able to use on International Talk Like a Quaker Day. Or, you know, if you want to say something a little smart-alecky but you want it to be kind, you can use some of those phrases like, ‘well, that’s a thought that would not have occurred to me.’ I think you brought that up in a meeting at work, about some hare-brained scheme you heard. ‘Oh, well, that’s a thought that had not occurred to me.’

That sounds incredibly useful. That’s wonderful. And I’m looking and it says October 24th actually is International Talk Like a Quaker Day. Get it on your calendar so we can all play along.

Tell me a little more about your book, if you’d like. Where does the book take us, and what are we gonna learn as we read your book?

I’m really hopeful that folks who read the book will find it an encouragement in the sense that we want to live lives that more closely match what we believe. And sometimes I think we get discouraged and just give up. So this is a book that’s kind of saying, “Well, don’t. Keep at it.”

Lots of people made lots of mistakes through history, and the emphasis needs to be on the idea that God is walking with us all the time. It’s through common sorts of things like learning to live a life of integrity, true to yourself, who you are as a person, who you were created to be, how to learn to see other people as loved as equally by God as you are. Through those kind of things we actually begin to become molded more in the way of Jesus.

The question isn’t “What would Jesus do?” It’s more like, “What does Jesus want Brent to do?” You know, with all the quirks that Brent has and his propensity to rush and be busy and all this, how can Brent become more like Jesus? What does Jesus want me to do? And so the book is sort of about that, to begin to look at our own lives and say, “So, gee, I’m really pretty good at the integrity part, but I could use work on treating people equally, especially people that look different than I do or live in a different part of town than I do, those kind of things.”

So it has some practical applications throughout that invite us to reflect as well. What might we do to...to treat people better? Again, not as a philosophical thing, but because it’s what Jesus asked us to do. You know, to love one another. I really am hopeful that it’ll be an encouragement, something that people go, Wow, yeah. I messed up, but that’s okay. Grace is there and I’m picking up and moving on.

Well, the book is called Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker: A Humble Stumble Towards Simplicity and Grace. The author J. Brent Bill has been our guest today. Brent, how can we get the book? Is it available everywhere?

It should be. It’s supposed to be.

And where can people go to learn more about you?

Yeah, I have a website which is brentbill.com or I’m on Facebook, too. There aren’t very many Brent Bills in this world. So you’re sure to find me on Facebook.

We’ll add a link on our site for the podcast so you guys can just come to UMC.org/podcasts and find this episode. And then you will find the links to make that a little bit simpler for you. And we will also include a link where you can purchase the book. Brent, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation today. And thank you very much for this time.

Hey. It’s been a lot of fun. I really appreciate the chance to chat.

Thanks.