Book Musings: Ellen's Corner
Curled up in a comfortable old reading chair beside the morning fire in my cottage high in the mountains of Vermont, I nudge the sleepy west highland terrier off my lap, reach for a steaming mug of tea, and pick up a copy of Quaker author Brent Bill’s new book, Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker: A Humble Stumble toward Simplicity and Grace.
The title is classic Brent. A little humor, a little insight, and a life-sized commitment to nudging us into God’s presence. It’s everything I’ve come to expect from Brent’s work since the two of us headed up the book review team for Friends Journal—an 8-year adventure that, as we worked with authors and reviewers, gave us a clear sense of Quaker faith, thought, practice, concern, courage and craziness all across the country.
Since then, Brent, who is also a recorded Quaker minister, has built on that knowledge to plant new meetings and worship groups from Philadelphia to Fresno as head of FGC’s New Meetings Project. He’s also launched a half-dozen practical workshops that help us live our faith, and written at least as many books—Sacred Compass, Holy Silence,Awaken Your Senses, and Finding God in the Verbs are just a few—all of which give us the tools to translate faith into practice.
As I flip through the pages of Humble Stumble, as Friends have nicknamed his latest nudging, I realize that in this book Brent tackles an issue that effects us all, even life-long Quakers: that, as much as we believe in the Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship of the earth, we’re just not that good atliving them.
As Brent once told writer Diana Butler Bass, “`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.’” … “Sometimes I have a hard time recognizing that of God in myself—let alone in someone who jumped in line in front of me in the boarding line of a flight!”
In Humble Stumble, Brent’s transparency about the less-than-Quakerly feelings he sometimes experiences is a gift to the reader. It allows us to see and admit—with acceptance, understanding and forgiveness—that every one of us is stumbling, tripping, and sometimes falling flat on our faces as we walk along the path to stand in the presence of God. Fortunately, the “Quick Quaker Questions” Brent offers in every chapter allow us to hone in on some of the particular obstacles that may cause us to stumble (“What do the things I own say about my beliefs or values?” “What daily life conditions overwhelm me?”), and the practical suggestions he offers to overcome them can help us live into our faith: to become the people God expects us to become—and that we expect ourselves to be.
As I sip my tea and think about my own meeting and what Brent’s written, I realize that Humble Stumble is a useful tool for anyone striving to live in the Light, and it would stimulate much thought and conversation in a book discussion group. But it’s also a particularly helpful resource to share with those couples in their 20s or 30s who show up at meeting once in a while with a kid in tow and perch nervously on a back bench—or to share with the 40-something seeker who comes alone and sits by the door as he or she searches for that of God within himself and us.
And for every newcomer or attender who says they want to read more about Quakers “and what would you suggest?”—Hang on to Friends for 350 Years and Besse’s Sufferings of Early Quakers for later. Offer them a Humble Stumble instead.
Ellen Michaud is the editor-at-large for Live Happy Magazine, and the author of Blessed: Living a Grateful Life, which was named the #1 spiritual/inspirational book of the year by USA BookNews. Ellen is a member of FGC’s Publications and Development Committee. She is also an alumna of the School of the Spirit’s program on contemplative living and prayer, the 2012 writer-in-residence at Earlham School of Religion and the former book review editor of Friends Journal.