172: Conversation With J. Brent Bill, a Sturdy Quaker Guide to Spiritual Tools

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“T
he divine compass asks us to travel by faith and put to use the various maps we’ve been given — maps such as the Bible, prayer, spiritual friends, and other faith practices. Our compass takes us to a fresh and deeper way of living a God-directed life — a life that eschews simple spiritual solutions and invites us into the deepest, most soulful parts of our being.
    “Keeping our soul’s eyes on the sacred compass leads us to the holy discovery that we can move through life with purpose and promise, even in those times when we may not sense with certainty what that purpose and promise are.”

from “Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment

J. Brent Bill’s latest and most ambitious book in recent years should carry a warning label on the back cover:
    1.) Your spiritual path may be dangerous to your health.
    2.) Do not attempt this journey alone.
    It’s those two truths that set Brent’s voice apart from a host of other spiritual writers who are crowding into bookstores these days with promises of 10 (or 30 or 365) Steps to Your Spiritual Success and often seem to send you off all alone on this personal quest for spiritual satisfaction.
    Brent is a Quaker writer, rooted so deeply in the wisdom of this centuries-old tradition that he can’t help but be honest about life’s destination (which always passes through death and, in some cases, involves tragic death). At age 57 as this book is released, Brent can feel it in every fiber of his being that God doesn’t want us to take this journey alone. God intends us to live in communities and to draw on the wisdom of those communities to help us discern the wisest spiritual paths ahead of us.
    It’s only natural that such a writer would point us toward a tool as the central metaphor for this journey. (If you’re dropping into our site just to read our Conversation With Brent, then you might want to read about the “tool pilgrimage” we organized this week –- and you may want to take our “tool quiz.”)

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    What tool does Brent select?
     A compass –- the hand-held device with a magnetic needle that points sort-of true North.
    He’s a practical Midwestern farmer, fixer and facilitator -– drawing deep water from a denomination that stretches back more than 350 years and played a key role in shaping American values from our colonial era. This makes him a substantial spiritual guide, but never in a flashy way. Think of –- oh, perhaps something like Mister Rogers Meets the Dalai Lama.
    Unlike a host of other books you’ll find in the inspirational sections of bookstores, this isn’t a book with lofty passages designed to lift your spirits in the morning -– but leave you sinking fast later in the day. This is a book jam packed with tips for organizing and shaping your journey into discernment.
    And, note that I said “into,” because it’s not “toward” spiritual discernment –- or “to” spiritual discernment –- as if you’ll arrive at a golden sign, hand lettered by the finger of God. Brent argues persuasively that this journey never ends and we’re never quite sure where it will take us. It’s that plain-and-simple honesty that I like best about this book. No false promises here. And, by the end of his book, just in case you didn’t “get” the solid tap-tap-tap of Brent’s rubber mallet on your forehead — one of his final chapters is about a Quaker who felt led to a war zone and never returned.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. This book isn’t somber. It’s not a downer.
    The golden Midwest meadow and bright blue sky on the cover of Brent’s book reflects his own grounding in the steady ethics and expectations of middle-American life. After all, he lives near Indianapolis on a small farm and he works for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, which is funded by the Lilly Endowment with a specific mission to help local congregations solve their problems. Over the years, he’s helped to solve hundreds of thorny problems.

Here are highlights of our Conversation With J. Brent Bill:

    DAVID: Thinking about the cover of your book, I’m wondering: Do you live on a working farm?
    BRENT: Yes, part of it has crops. But most of it is prairie grass and hardwood trees we planted. We’re trying to take most of the land back to what it would have looked like a couple of hundred years ago with tall prairie grass and forest.
    DAVID: Is it a family farm?
    BRENT: I’m a native Buckeye who married into a Hoosier farm family. This farm was in my wife’s family for so many years that one of their land grants was signed by Andrew Jackson. But their original homestead now is part of the Indianapolis Airport, so we’re actually on land that was a replacement for the other farmland.
    DAVID: And you’re the Executive Vice President of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. What do you do at the Center?
    BRENT: The center is a consulting and educational organization that helps connect Indiana congregations with resources to meet their most pressing, practical problems as defined by the congregations themselves. In the central-Indiana area, we’ve worked with 58 percent of the congregations.
    DAVID: For people not familiar with the Center — we should point out that it’s for all kinds of congregations. Your center is not Quaker in orientation, even though you’re known nationally as a Quaker writer.
    BRENT: Right. In my books I do try to share some of the practices of Friends that can benefit folks of all religious faiths.

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    DAVID: The opening passage in your first chapter talks about this common Quaker phrase, “if way opens.” I was struck by that. It reminds me of Muslim friends who will talk about doing things “nshallah,” or God willing.
    BRENT: Sometimes, Friends will use the phrase in a lighter tone, sort of like saying ‘The Lord willing and the creek don’t rise …” But folks also use it in serious conversations about issues of discernment. We’ll say, “We’re traveling to Africa on a relief mission — as way opens.”
    DAVID: And explain why that’s so central to this sort of spiritual thinking.
    BRENT: On a very basic level, it talks about our “way” in life as a kind of a path. It almost has the journey aspect to it. We’re not saying exactly, “If God is willing …,” but we are saying “If a pathway opens for us …” That is a very important concept for folks because part of the discernment we need to make is to keep looking around us.
    We may think we should go a certain way, but if we just blindly take that sense — and head out blindly on that path, then we may miss some of the signs that we should have seen along the way. Perhaps as we’re traveling, we should have turned left somewhere, but we weren’t even looking anymore — so we missed it. If we’re obedient and listening to the Spirit’s call and direction, then we must watch where the way is opening for us.
    DAVID: That may sound like a simple idea, but it’s really a profound reorientation — a shift away from this idea that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to faith that’s as simple as X-number of steps — steps that everyone should follow. Just a couple of weeks ago, our Wednesday Conversation was with Ken Wilson, who made this same kind of point: The spiritual life is a journey and we’re called to make that journey together — and we may be surprised by some of the pathways people need to take.
    Or, I’m thinking about a book we recommended about a month ago by Nanette Sawyer, “Hospitality — the Sacred Art.” You’re pointing people toward these same kinds of truths — that our spiritual journeys are not going to be the same, but that we need to make room to hospitably welcome other travelers around us.
    BRENT: Yeah, that resonates with me. I share this idea of theological hospitality. I think most of us are tempted to think of whatever our experience of faith has been — and then decide that should be normative for everybody else, too. We want to require that other people do things the same way we did them. We can start to think this is how discernment should be done.
    And that’s not it. What I’m describing is that we’re on a pilgrim path — and other people are on pilgrim paths, too — and their path doesn’t threaten us. God can lead and direct people along different paths.

    DAVID: Even for an individual pilgrim, you talk about discernment as far from the idea that there’s a single, fixed, point-to-point journey. You use the “Sacred Compass,” precisely because it isn’t a GPS course all mapped out precisely in advance.
    I like that traditional tool as a metaphor — but you’re not the only one to use it these days. There’s also “The Golden Compass” in fantasy novels and in a movie, too. So, how is your compass different from that compass?
    BRENT: I’ve read “The Golden Compass” trilogy. I didn’t find it quite as alarming generally as some folks did, especially when the movie came out. The idea of the Golden Compass, as I understand it from reading the novels, is that, if it was used right, it would answer questions for the asker.
    The Sacred Compass I’m describing functions more like a true compass in that it’s not giving direct answers. It’s pointing a way and the way is always toward spiritual true North, toward God. By minding it and minding our way — obeying, paying attention and so on –- the Sacred Compass constantly leads us toward God.
    What that means is that, although sometimes we may find ourselves slogging through thigh-high mud, we’re not irretrievably lost and we can find our way back. That concept is a lot different than the Golden Compass.
    Plus, the Golden Compass was accessible to only a few who had the knowledge and the Sacred Compass is available to all of us. We all can learn to read and follow a Sacred Compass.

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    DAVID: You deal with life’s realities very pointedly in the book. You’re not saying people will heal every wound, or that they’ll never find themselves lost. You’re not promising that people will wind up living happily ever after.
    Deep in your book, where the “happy ending” might be in other inspirational books, you’ve got the story of Tom Fox, a Quaker whose body was found in Iraq, where he felt his compass leading him to carry out a peace-making mission. His body was found, you write, “riddled with bullets and wrapped in a blanket and black plastic bags.”
    You write, “A former musician in the United States Marine Corps Band, Fox left Virginia for Iraq in 2004 as part of a Christian Peacemaking Team mission. He believed that Christians needed to devote the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war. Fox’s work included visiting imprisoned Iraqis and accompanying medical shipments to clinics and hospitals.”
    So, was he mistaken in reading his compass? Was his compass wrong?
    BRENT: I would argue that he followed his sacred compass. He did what he felt called to do and he had tested this with the folks he felt had spiritual weight. Those folks supported that. I don’t know how we judge what happened to him in Iraq. I don’t know how we can judge what success means in a venture like that when you wind up with your body on a trash heap. Certainly not by the light of most judgment would you say: Oh that was successful.
    But, Tom Fox probably had lots more faith than I do because I probably would have gone: Oh, this is not going well. I probably listened wrong. I’m getting out of here.
    That’s not what Tom did. We’re not comfortable in our society with the idea that a radical obedience might lead to physical death but certainly various martyrs through history have felt that.
    Will we ever know the end result of his sacrifice? Will we ever know if it was worth it? I would argue not in this lifetime by the way we judge things. But, in the light of eternity, who knows what Tom Fox accomplished? What other souls did he inspire? What violence did he turn away because of his sacrifice?

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    DAVID: I was moved to read some of his Blog, “Waiting in the Light.” It’s still up online with the final post written in November 2005.
    BRENT: I included his story in my book because it’s one of the most powerful stories I’ve heard in recent years of someone who literally put their life on the line to follow the leading they’d been given. And his leading was confirmed by other people of faith — who said that this is what he was called to do.
    It does force us to take a longer view in our lives of what we can experience and feel in a physical sense. This calls us to the mystical, to ask: What kind of beings are we really? Are we paying lip service to our claims we are spiritual beings? Do we really believe that we have a soul that lives on to become a part of God’s eternity? Or, are we saying the highest value I have is this physical life and, when my heart stops, I’m done — my “good” is over at that point.
    I think we have to ask: Is Fox physically dead in a bullet-riddled body? Yes. But, then we ask: Is he still alive? Yes.
    One way is that his Blog is still up there and still drawing lots of people all the time.

    DAVID: I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that your book, overall, is this somber — because the book is just jammed with practical, hopeful, optimistically minded suggestions for waking up your spiritual awareness — and working with others in community to help discern your way.
    It’s the sort of book that you, you know, want to grab in your fist and head out into the world determined to live your life in better ways.
    So, finally, I want to ask you, overall: Are you worried about the future? Or are you hopeful?

    BRENT: Well, I think it is true: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. I’d use that line myself if somebody else hadn’t written it already.
    I don’t think things are any more dire than they’ve ever been — and I’m not sure things are looking more hopeful than they’ve ever been, either. I think people are the way people have always been, in some ways. That’s one of the encouragements of reading the Bible for me. We can see that the human heart and the human soul longing for God — that hasn’t changed much in all these years.
    The dilemmas and hungers and lusts and sadnesses in scripture are present in us, today, which is why scriptures still speak to us today.
    I am hopeful in lots of ways. I think there’s a — a — I don’t know if there’s another great awakening here right now — or if we’re just on the edge of it — but there does seem to be a real interest among so many people in spiritual life — and not just in going off as individuals. There are so many ideas for finding new ways of worshiping in communities, whether you’re drawn to an emerging church or a mega-church or a home church or — well, there are so many choices now.
    A whole lot of interesting new things are happening right now. And I think that’s very encouraging.

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So ends our Conversation — but do you want to know more?

    There’s Brent’s Web site, www.brentbill.com, which is a great place to find out where he’s traveling across the U.S. (He’s heading to Washington DC. this week.) Plus, there are links to other resources related to his work.
    For more substance, I recommend Brent’s Blog, “Holy Ordinary: Quaker Thoughts on Life.” You’ll also find links here to subscribe to Brent’s podcasts via I-Tunes.
    Brent also set up a Facebook group for his new book. It’s not a terribly active group — “Holy Ordinary” really seems to be the overall hub for Brent’s voice and daily updates. But, if you’re on Facebook, check it out. Both ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile and I have joined Brent’s group.
    Stop by the group and say, “Hello.”
    “If way opens,” that is.

    Tell us what you think. Click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online version of this story. Or, you can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.

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