Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker: A Humble Stumble Toward Simplicity and Grace

Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker: A Humble Stumble Toward Simplicity and Grace

by J. Brent Bill

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On quick observation, the Quaker lifestyle boasts peace, solitude, and simplicity—qualities that are attractive to any believer of any denomination or religion. Yet living a life of faith is not as simple as it may look. In fact, it’s often characterized more by the stumbles than the grace.

“When someone asks me what kind of Christian I am,” says Quaker author J. Brent Bill, “I say I’m a bad one. I’ve got the belief part down pretty well, I think. It’s in the practice of my belief in everyday life where I often miss the mark.” In Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker, a self-professed non-expert on faith invites readers on a joyful exploration of the faith journey—perfection not required. With whimsy, humor, and wisdom, Bill shows readers how to put faith into practice to achieve a life that is soulfully still yet active, simple yet satisfying, peaceful yet strong.

For anyone who is bad at being good, this is an invitation to a pilgrimage toward a more meaningful and satisfying life . . . one step—or stumble—at a time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781630881320
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 12/15/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 951,608
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

J. Brent Bill is a Quaker minister, photographer, retreat leader, and author. He holds an MA in Quaker Studies from Earlham School of Religion (a Quaker seminary) and has been a recorded (ordained to non-Quakers) Friends minister for thirty years. He has also served as pastor in Friends meetings (churches) large and small, rural and urban. After more than eleven years as executive vice president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, Bill now travels and speaks across the country serving as the coordinator of a project to seed new Quaker congregations across the United States and Canada. Bill resides in Mooresville, Indiana.

Read an Excerpt

Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker

A Humble Stumble Toward Simplicity and Grace

By J. Brent Bill

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2016 J. Brent Bill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63088-132-0


Just Be Quiet

Stillness for Those Too Busy to Sit Still

There is a quiet, open place in the depths of the mind, to which we can go many times in the day and lift up our soul in praise, thankfulness and conscious unity. With practise his God-ward turn of the mind becomes an almost constant direction, underlying all our other activities.

Kenneth Boulding

Words may help and silence may help, but the one thing needful is that the heart should turn to its Maker as the needle turns to the pole. For this we must be still.

Caroline Stephen

Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you.


"Shut up," he explained.

Ring Lardner

I'm not good at being quiet. There. Got that out of the way. People assume that, since I'm a lifelong Quaker, I must have some genetic bent for staying silent — silence being a hallmark of Friends worship and witness, after all.

In fact, since I'm confessing to my badness, I may as well admit that when I first started writing this chapter, I opened a blank document — and iTunes. Stumble!

I live in the land of sound. I like it. When I built my house, I wired it for music and movie dialogue. When I bought my latest car, it came with AM, FM, satellite radio, a CD player, and a woman who reminds me when it's time to get my oil changed. No, not my wife, Nancy, but some other woman who lives in my dashboard and tells me what to do. And who is always right. Hmmm, maybe she is some relation to Nancy!

When I climb on my John Deere to mow between the rows of trees we planted to reforest the lower field and filter chemical runoff from farms around us, I put on ear protectors to keep out the droning diesel. Underneath the ear protectors, though, I usually slip a set of earbuds. I could go on, but you get the idea. In fact, you may live the idea. My life with sound might mirror yours.

I like my tunes, NPR talk radio, television shows. I also like bird song, urban noise, conversations, overheard conversations (bad!), and more. I fill my life with a fury of sound that signifies something: I just don't know how to be still.

Well, actually, I do. I just avoid it. Even though I know better. Now I'm not talking about the kind of quiet that my parents, grandparents, sisters, friends, bosses, neighbors, strangers on a plane, and others have been urging me to be. I'm talking about how to be deeply silent in my soul. Learning the art of spiritual stillness. Even after years of practicing it, I still forget to do it. That's mostly because I am so wrapped up in myself that I forget to be quiet. Especially quiet enough to hear God talking to me.

What about you?

When's the last time you were really quiet? Intentionally quiet? Spiritually quiet?

You're gonna find that I ask questions like that throughout our time together. That's because it's one of the main ways we odd Friends go deep and get to spiritual truth. Instead of giving answers, we ask questions. We invite each other to get quiet and hear God teaching us in our souls. So brace yourself — questions will keep coming.

The good news is there's no one right answer. Just give the answer that's honest to you and where you are. It may be comforting. It may be challenging. It may make you humble. Maybe even recall a stumble. It will move you further toward grace.

Stumbles in Bad Quaker History: Silence Would Have Been Golden

In October 1656, Quaker James Nayler and his friends went to Bristol, England, and reenacted the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Nayler rode on a donkey while his entourage sang "Holy, Holy, Holy" and strewed the muddy path with garments. The Puritans were not amused. They hauled him off his ass, tried him before parliament, found him guilty. They branded his forehead with the letter B for blasphemy and pierced his tongue with a hot iron to keep him silent. Oh, and then they tacked on two years of prison at hard labor.

Have You Ever Heard God Talking To You?

Back in the seventies, I sang with a group that called itself "The Sure Foundation." TSF was a Youth for Christ musical group that was a sorta low-rent, very Christian version of the Spurrlows. (If you don't know the Spurrlows, just Google!) Yeah, while some of my friends and relatives were doing things that made them unable to remember the seventies, I was doing music and other things I'd like to forget. I was bad at faith back then but (despite my long hair and normal mischievousness) was pretty straight. We — three sopranos, three altos, three tenors, three basses, a rhythm section, and a horn section — traveled around Ohio singing at youth rallies, for youth groups, in church services, and more. The things I'd like to forget are the cheesy songs (especially the musical "updates" of hymns such as "Love Lifted Me" and "Trust and Obey"), the really lousy matching polyester outfits we wore, and the few times they let me solo. My voice is not made for soloing!

One of my favorite songs from that time was "Did You Ever Hear God Speaking to You?" by Sonny Salisbury. It was upbeat, poppy, and asked if we'd ever heard God saying that we were needed if God's work was going to get done.

Now the phraseology isn't very ... Godlike (it's hard to imagine Charlton Heston as God intoning "And I'll sure be needing you if it ever gets done" in a Cecil B. DeMille biblical blockbuster). But it is a good question.

If you happened by a Quaker meetinghouse on a Sunday morning (which would have to be by accident, since we always locate our meeting places on side streets, upstairs conference rooms, back alleys, or other hard-to-find locations) and looked in the windows, you'd most likely see a bunch of people sitting in a circle, heads bowed, and what looks like nothing much going on.

As YouTube's satirical church-hopper Betty Butterfield says of Quakers, "It was eighteen adults settin' in a circle. It was like an AA meeting, but nobody was sayin' nuthin.'"

Well, she's almost right. Maybe humans weren't sayin' nuthin', but God was. At least that's what we believe. That's why we shut up — to listen.

Many of us Quakers are naturally noisy people. While we're silent in worship, we talk a lot at other times. Just come to an after-worship potluck. Or a meeting for business! I admit that I'm a driven, Type-A personality. Yes, I'm one of the most annoying of the personality types. I'm much better at talking — especially giving directions — than listening. Especially listening for directions. Directions for me? I'd rather talk about God's directions for you!

Worshipful silence, though, is the way we still our inner and outer noise long enough to really listen for the God who says. ... You might ask, "Says what?" That depends at least partly on us and what God knows we need to hear. God knows what I need to hear may not be what I want to hear! When we're silent and still, we sink down into a quiet that lets us feel the stirrings of the Spirit in our souls. Our inner ears open. Christ comes among us as we center in silence, just as He promised — "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I'm there with them." Christ comes to teach His people Himself. He most often teaches me in the deepest, richest, most silent part of my soul.

I need silence. To remind me to listen! To God!

Now, I'm not saying that God speaks only when we're silent. Even a bad Quaker like me knows that God is speaking whether I'm listening or not. I'm a parent. I have often talked — very helpfully! — when my kids (and now their kids) weren't listening. All they heard was that rising and falling "wah-wah-wah" sound of an adult in a Peanuts cartoon. So even though God speaks to me constantly, I'm just not listening. That's why I need silence. To remind me to listen! To God!

God's getting our attention is not only a modern phenom. Just look at all the times God spoke to humans in the dead of night — to young Samuel, Mary, and more. Or sent angels to get people's attention. Or used a talking donkey.

But we can't always expect God to reach us via angelic visitation, heavenly dreams, or animals with the gift of speech. If I had to choose among the three, I'd take the heavenly dreams. Dreams I can handle. Mostly. Angels? From everything I've deduced, angel visitors must be somewhat scary. Sorta like Seth, the character Nicolas Cage played in City of Angels — black-clothed, brooding, and ominous. "Like a stalker," says my friend Stephanie. Indeed. Maybe that's why they always say "Be not afraid" when they show up.

I've always found talking animals a bit creepy, too. Even in cartoons. And Francis the Talking Mule of 1950s movie fame — who needs a talking donkey? Oh, I guess Balaam sorta did.

Well, I'm just glad God doesn't use clowns. I'd really freak then.

Now you might think that we Quakers came up with the whole idea of silence in a kinder, gentler, quieter time. Wrong! Friends started practicing spiritual silence in a time when religion was a blood sport. Literally — armies of religious soldiers fighting for their faith and against the other guys. A Friendly friend of mine says it was sort of like Jehovah's Witnesses with guns! Instead of The Watchtower it was "Watch out!" Men and women (at least the women were getting some equal rights!) were thrown into prison for their faith.

Between the gunfire and the theological arguing, the Quakers began worshiping in silence. They wanted to get beyond the clamor and opinion of theologians, Anglican priests, biblical scholars, Catholic priests, Puritan divines, and nonconformist preachers and hear directly from God. They weren't any holier or better than other Christians (well, admittedly, some of them thought they were). What they were was hungry for an immediate, direct experience of God. They found that they experienced that better as they settled into silence together and listened as one to the Divine.

That's why silence is important to Quakers today. It helps us listen. I, for one, need the reminder to listen that silence provides. Otherwise I'll be be-bopping through life wearing earbuds and oblivious that God is trying to get my attention.

Quick Quaker Questions

Remember, no one right answer. What's your soul say?

• Have I ever even considered the thought that getting quiet might be a good way to hear God?

• Have I ever listened carefully so that I could hear God?

• Have I ever heard God speaking? How did I know it was God?

Oh, Do Shut Up

That's a line from one of my favorite flicks — A Fish Called Wanda. There are a lot of "shut-ups" in that film. The people in it just didn't know how to do it. Let's face it, many of us don't. At least not anymore. We were probably at our quietest, in some ways, when we were kids. I was. Except for those times I was terrorizing the neighborhood or caught up in extracurricular classroom conversations, I often spent time quietly. Reading. Using my imagination. I see that in my grandchildren. It's we adults who are especially bad at being quiet. Even in circumstances that call for silence.

I was at a writing conference once where the emcee announced that Fred, who was a regular attendee and whom most people there knew, had died recently." We will now have a moment of silence in his memory." We no sooner bowed our heads than he excitedly announced the luncheon speaker. We didn't have a moment of silence. We had a nanosecond.

We need to learn to shut up. And shut out — the noise. The rush. The clamor and clatter.

But how?

One of the things I love doing is volunteering for a week to be a visiting pastor on Bald Head Island in North Carolina. While you might, as my grandchildren do, think it was named for me, it wasn't. I tend to talk about something sorta Quakerly during my week — on peace, simplicity, and so on. One thing I always do is include a period of waiting worship. I explain how our worship is rooted in silence. I also explain that we don't do silent worship — we're not worshiping the silence. Instead we do waiting worship — we wait on God to speak.

Now the folks who gather at the Village Chapel of Bald Head Island are not Quakers. They are a mix of Episcopal, United Methodist, Baptist (of various stripes), Catholic, and more. A Quaker occasionally shows up, but not often. So I'm always a bit nervous about asking the congregation to be quiet for five minutes to listen to God. Would it be like the writing conference? Or the fellow who came to dinner at a Friend's home and, when they sat down to eat, observed everyone just sitting there. "There was this really awkward silence," he said, "so I just told a little joke and broke the ice."


So, standing up front, looking out at the congregation, I got nervous. I wondered if I should skip or shorten the silence. So far the good people there had never failed to get quiet. I mean quiet. No shuffling feet. No uncomfortable throat-clearing. Nothing but spiritual listening.

We need intentional spaces.

Following the benediction, as folks filed out of the church, more people than I could count said something like, "Thank you for the silence. I needed that."

Don't we all? We need intentional silent spaces.

So one way you can begin to learn the way of spiritual silence is to create your own space for it — and then invite yourself to attend.

Dear (insert your name here) —

God cordially invites you to attend a period of listening silence at 10 a.m. this morning. No RSVP needed.

That may seem sorta silly, but it is one way to get started. Then you follow it by actually creating space. For me, it means making two kinds — a physical space and a permission space.

Let's start with the second one. If you're like me, you may think that taking time to be quiet means not doing anything. It may be what someone peering in our windows would think (but then what are they doing looking in our windows?). Society teaches us that productive, useful people do not just sit there. Besides, there are a million things to do: mow the grass, do the laundry, do the work someone's paying us to do, wax the cat, write a book on sitting in silent listening.

So the first thing you're going to have to do is give yourself permission to stop! Stop, sit down, be quiet. I could give you all kinds of reasons why it is perfectly okay for you to sit in silence. I have to tell myself that it's more than okay to take some time with God. If I'm going to try to live Jesus' way, it might help for me to hear a little bit from Jesus. I remind myself that all that to-do stuff will be there when I get back. It's not going anywhere (no matter how much I wish some of it would). Well, that's not completely true. Sometimes it does go away when I get quiet and listen for and to God — because an answer that Spirit has been waiting to give me arrives in the silence. An answer that I didn't hear in the noise. So it's completely okay, as a person of humble, stumbling faith, to quiet my soul and listen for the voice of the One Who Loves Me More Than I Know.

You have permission, too. I give you permission. If anybody asks, just say, "Brent Bill, head of the Bad Quakers, said I could take a couple of minutes to listen to God." Who's gonna argue with that? Well, the last part anyhow. Kinda hard to rag on someone who's listening for God.

Except for your boss or kids or someone else who thinks he or she is God.

I'm not suggesting that you start by giving yourself permission to take a week off for silence. Not that you could keep in silence that long! But you could give yourself permission to take five minutes. Five minutes isn't much. It's enough, though, to settle your body and mind. To breathe deep. To be aware of tension in your body and soul. And to say, like young Samuel, "Speak. Your servant is listening." Or, if you don't care for the servant language, ask, "What do You want to say to me?"

Decide the best time for you. It doesn't need to be the most convenient time (though it's easier to justify it when it is). What's the best time? For me it's between 10:00 and 10:05 a.m. I don't have a very long "best" time. When could you get the most out of silent listening? When will it refresh you the most?

• Before the rest of the family gets up?

• After the family goes to sleep?

• After they've headed off to school or work or ...?

• At work, during your scheduled break?

Notice I didn't ask, What's the most convenient time? If I picked the most convenient time, it would be between 9:55 and 9:56 p.m. — right before I drift off to sleep. But I don't need the silence so much then. Besides, God has all night to visit me in my dreams. I need the silence in the midst of my busyness. My overbusyness. At the times I think, I just can't take time for silence right now. Which is the same as saying, "I don't have time for You right now, God."


Excerpted from Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker by J. Brent Bill. Copyright © 2016 J. Brent Bill. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Just Be Quiet: Stillness for Those Too Busy to Sit Still,
2. World at War: Forget the Middle East — How Do I Get Along with My Family, Coworkers, and Annoying Neighbors?,
3. To Buy or Not to Buy: Living Simply When I'd Really Like a New Mercedes — Or Even a Honda!,
4. Red and Yellow, Black and White, They Are Precious in His Sight — Um, Perhaps My Vision Needs Checking,
5. Truth Be Told: Integrity in an Often Duplicitous World,
6. God's Good Green Earth: The Call to Care for Creation,
7. Walking Cheerfully: A Little Levity Never Hurt Anybody (Well, Except for That One Guy),
8. Closing Deep Thoughts ... And a Word on Fashion,
Appendix 1: Humble Stumble Hymnbook: Spiritual Songs for Imperfect Saints,
Appendix 2: The Good, the Bad, and the Quakers,
Appendix 3: Wanna Learn More?,
Appendix 4: Some Good Advices: Friendly Food for Faith and Thought,
Appendix 5: How to Talk Quaker: A Handy Guide to Quakerese,
About Brent,

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Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker: A Humble Stumble Toward Simplicity and Grace 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sometimes when you are Bad you are real Bad… … Brent Bill’s work… Bad in the way our urban culture uses the word to mean good/amazing…. and he does it with humbleness and humor... enough said. The author is a “cradle” Quaker. This book is a light -hearted discussion of Quaker Values and the deeper truths of the human condition. In my humble opinion, our world desperately needs more Quaker values individually and collectively. While reading this book, I felt like I was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea discussing these values with Brent. He shows us how we can be humble and imperfect… “bad”. For example, there is a chapter on Silence, a Quaker practice. Have you noticed there are no longer quiet restaurants for a quiet intimate dinner with someone you love? What about quiet in the home? “Let’s take a moment of silence” often lasts seconds. We can choose to “just be quiet” and learn how silence opens our heart to the presence of the moment. We can learn to listen and experience the presence of God …or the “Light within”, a Quakers metaphor. The structure of the chapters include a discussion followed by “Quick Quaker Questions”. Quakers use questions or a series of questions called Queries , as a framework for a more in-depth reflection. It is has lots of life example, humor and lessons. This book is a joy to read!
JessicaZolondek More than 1 year ago
Do yourself a favor a check out "Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker" by J. Brent Bill if you are interested in learning about the Quaker faith in a humorous and accessible way. The author explores issues that are important to the Friends: integrity, peacemaking, humor and silence. J. Brent Bill offers up stories from his own spiritual journey that illustrated his points. This is a gem of a book and is highly recommended for people who are interested in exploring the basic tenets of the faith. - See more at:
Peggypt More than 1 year ago
The basic value of simplicity in Quakerism belies its complexity. How can a denomination with no dogma or creed, sometimes without a minister, be understood and practiced? A Quaker minister, Brent Bill, examines the foundational values and practices of Quakerism and poses the important questions that people must ultimately find answers to from within. Brent supports the process of this discernment with examples of his successes and failures at living a Quaker life, sharing the perspective that the journey toward Christian ideals need not be all or nothing, but is a life-long, joyful, often bumpy process. Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker, a deeply insightful and learned book written with warmth and humor, is illuminating to those who seek to understand this often misunderstood faith, and encouraging to those who have encountered struggles in its practice. A must for any Quaker bookshelf.