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Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker: A Humble Stumble Toward Simplicity and Grace by J. Brent Bill

Having recently read The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd by Mary Rose O'Reilley, I was curious about contemporary Quakers and how their religious beliefs are reflected in society today.

In search of answers, I came across J. Brent Bill’s book. Between the subtitle, “A Humble Stumble Toward Simplicity and Grace,” and the tag line, “For anyone who is bad at being good,” I knew that this is the book I was looking for.

The publisher’s description of this book:

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 by 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.

A quick shout out to Abingdon Press, the publisher of this book. Finally, a publisher who not only read the book, but clearly understood the value that reading this book would provide. The review is spot on.

In Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker, Bill outlines eight (8) life lessons he learned on his humble stumble toward grace that helped him weave a protective covering for his life. While each Chapter is a lesson, the Chapter subtitles demonstrate how Bill integrates the church’s’ teaching into everyday life and the struggles therein.

Chapter 1: Just Be Quiet - Stillness For Those Too Busy to Sit Still

Chapter 2: World at War - Forget the Middle East—How Do I Get Along with My Family, Coworkers, and Annoying Neighbors?

Chapter 3: To Buy or Not to Buy - Living Simply When I’d Really Like a New Mercedes—or Even a Honda!

Chapter 4: Red and Yellow, Black and White, They Are All Precious in His Sight

Um, Maybe My Vision Needs Checking.

Chapter 5: Truth Be Told - Integrity in an Often-Duplicitous World

Chapter 6: God’s Good Green Earth - The Call to Care for Creation

Chapter 7: Walking Cheerfully - A Little Levity Never Hurts Anybody (Well, except for that one guy)

Chapter 8: Closing Deep Thoughts - And a Word on Fashion

From the very outset, Bill demonstrates, with great insight and humor, that the actual practice of one’s faith, in everyday life, often misses the mark.

Bill starts Chapter 1: Just Be Quiet, by declaring he is not good at being quiet. He just doesn’t know how to be still. That even after years of practicing, he still forgets to do it—mostly because he gets so wrapped up in himself. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?

Rather than preaching or providing a listicle of the 7 ways to implement stillness into your life, Bill illustrates by example and leads the reader to their own conclusion using Quaker Queries. As Bill explains, instead of giving answers, Quakers go deep and get to the spiritual truth through the use of questions. Questions invite us to get quiet and hear the teachings in our souls. And with no right answers, only honest answers, you move towards grace.

Such questions as:

  • So what is the ideal time for me to listen?

  • Where could I listen best?

  • What clues does my body give me that I need a deep spiritual breath and some stillness in the midst of busyness?

  • How might a good word help me?

Busy outwardly, centered and silent inwardly.

In Chapter 3: To Buy or Not to Buy, my favorite, Bill declares right up front that true simplicity is not about how little he has or how much you have. Rather, it’s about why we have what we have. It is about saying to yourself (and to the world at large) that we can live for more than mere acquisition. That what we own says a lot about what we believe and what we value. Now that is a twist on simplicity I never saw coming.

To help the reader work through simplicity, Bill posits the following questions:

  • What do the things I own say about my beliefs or values?

  • Do I keep my life uncluttered by things?

  • How can I be more thoughtful about what I need and what I acquire?

  • Do I share my possessions with those who could benefit from them?

And so, it continues for all 8 Chapters. But it doesn’t stop there. Bill includes 5 Appendices of additional information. From Spiritual Songs for Imperfect Saints to A Handy Guide to Quakerese. I found Appendix 4: Some Good Advice—Friendly Food for Faith and Thought to be most revealing.

In Appendix 4 Bill explains that, as a non-credal people, meaning that Quakers don’t have doctrine or theological tomes to point to, they rely on the Divine speaking to their souls and in the collective wisdom of their faith community. In this section, he includes the ‘Advices’ of Friends past and present.

It is for this grace that we pray; that we, too, may love to excess even though it may appear foolish in the eyes of the world.

—Phyllis Richards (1900 – 1976)

What Bill demonstrates throughout this book is that faith evolves. And how we live it is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. We are imperfect, and at times we stumble. But with each stumble we learn a way of walking cheerfully through life no matter its circumstances; and humbly, we can continue to make our way towards grace.

Our lives demonstrate the values and beliefs we hold most dear.

Can I get an Amen?


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