By Jon Berry
MANY PEOPLE HAVE EXPERIENCED THE FEELING OF being led toward a decision by something larger than themselves. But what do you do with that feeling? Sometimes the practical tools for decision-making, like writing down lists of pros and cons, fall short. In his book Sacred Compass (Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2008; also available on Kindle and with a study guide for groups), the Quaker author J. Brent Bill has created a spiritual tool kit for the spiritual practice of discernment.
Drawing on his own circuitous spiritual, personal, and professional journey, as well as historic sources, and friends' and mentors' experiences, Sacred Compass is smart, wise, and disarmingly accessible. The book doesn’t promise easy solutions. Life brings challenges. Sometimes we get confused. Instead of turning away from those moments, Bill encourages us to work through our problems, developing the tools of discernment. I interviewed Brent a few years ago when the book first came out, then put it aside. Recently, searching for help in discernment, I came back to our conversation, and, with Brent’s permission, reproduce it now.
QUESTION: As someone whose life has followed a winding path, I found your description in Sacred Compass of the journey your life has taken, with “15 jobs, 16 homes, and too many cars,” to be refreshingly honest, funny in an I-can-so-relate way, and really different from what I often read in self-help books.
J. BRENT BILL: I’m not a spiritually perfect person. I do my best to make my way through this life and be true to my understanding of faith and what it calls me to do and be. I don’t get it right a lot of the time. So an expert voice doesn’t help me much.
If people have all the answers, I tend to distrust them. When I read those kinds of books, I just note my inadequacies all the more. As a reader, I look for fellow companions, people who are spiritually wise and a couple steps further down the road and willing to share their experiences.
Q: Have you had people in your life who are “a couple steps further down the road”?
A: In my writing life, I certainly have. Anne Lamott comes to mind. Kathleen Norris is another; her writing is so beautiful. The Quaker Scott Russell Sanders is another. I’ve been fortunate to have folks who are that way in my personal life. My wife, Nancy, is one. Our views are fairly disparate most of the time, but she’s one of the most spiritually sensitive people I know. There are other folks as well.
Their honesty, for me, is what sets them apart. I never feel like I’m with a professor who’s studied it, and I’m sitting at their feet. Instead, it’s “here’s how I’ve gotten this far.” That speaks to my condition.
Q: Let’s go back to all those jobs and houses and cars. Did you see spiritual direction at work in this circuitous path, or did that come later?
A: I would say both. I don’t feel that I ever took a job that I shouldn’t have. But there were times that I wondered why I did something I did, like being photocopier salesman.
Q: Tell me more about that job.
A: I’m not a salesperson. But that job came at a really important time in my life. I had gone through a divorce. I knew I wasn’t in any place to take care of anybody. I needed being taken care of. A friend of mine owned a copier company. He said, “Why don’t you come do this? You may not like it. But you can do it and it will put food on the table.” And it did.
Q: It must have felt strange to move into the workaday world after being a pastor.
A: A lot of my mindset was on just surviving the day. I was living in a new city, and trying to make friends. I realized I didn’t want to spend my life in commerce. I wasn’t going to stay with the company for 20 years and retire a district sales manager. That wasn’t going to be my thing.
But what would be my thing? I realized there’s a whole lot wider world out there. After having been a pastor and denominational staff person, I was so wrapped up in the Quaker world. Everything that seemed so important, that we fussed about at Yearly Meeting, really was not all that crucial.
Q: I love William Penn’s line about true love sending us out into the world. Problem is, when we go into the world, we have to deal with all the frustrations of that world.
A: On some levels, I think it’s easier to see spirituality at work in the business world. You’re examining significant questions. You deal with ethics. You deal with politics. “What would I say to make a sale? What would I do to meet my quota?” “Where is God in this person who’s just really giving me hell right now?”
"On some levels, I think it’s easier to see spirituality at work in the business world. You deal with ethics. 'What would I say to make a sale?' 'Where is God in this person who’s just really giving me hell right now?'"
My experience really forced me to seek that of God in everyone. What are their needs? I couldn’t look at a person as just a number or a customer. I tried to remember who I had bought things from. It was usually people who I felt I had some kind of human connection with, who looked me in the eye, or who I'd been out to lunch with. I also learned from the experience of being a copier salesperson that I was extremely introverted. I was not meant to be in such an extroverted profession.
Q: How did you resolve that? Did you try to become a bit more extroverted, or practice acceptance and find work that was more reflective of you?
A: The latter. I felt like this is obviously not who I was. I have friends who are super successful at selling. It’s who they are. I couldn’t do it. My next position, as a United Way executive, felt much more like ministry to me.
Q: Have you always had a sense of spiritual connectedness in your life, or did you cultivate it?
A: I think it was a combination. I grew up in a fairly religious family.
Q: What did your dad do?
A: He was a factory worker and independent electrician for most of my life. I grew up going to Friends Church in Ohio. We went to Sunday school, church, and Sunday evening service. Sometimes we went to a midweek service. My folks were always hospitable so when traveling ministers or evangelists or anybody was passing through they always seemed to stay at our house. I met ex-convicts who had gotten saved and were doing a ministry tour. A couple years later [Quaker theologian] T. Canby Jones of Wilmington College stayed at our house.
Q: How did those experiences affect you?
A: I felt pretty convinced by the time I was 12 that I was supposed to do what we called “full-time Christian service.” I did not have a Road-to-Damascus-type revelation. I’m a Midwesterner; we don’t have those kinds of experiences. God works on us long enough that we say, “All right, OK, that’s what I should do.” Frankly, a Damascus Road experience would scare the crap out of me. I need slow, steady revelation. I think God works with our teachability. God works with us where we are.
"I think God works with our teachability. God works with us where we are."
I was in some ways the kid least likely to become a minister out of our youth group.
Q: How so?
A: Even at a young age, I was a smart-ass. You don’t think of those kids as the ones who go on into service. Usually it’s the really good, pure kid who knows his Bible really well and prays in that wonderful, stained glass voice, or the reprobate who everybody writes off, then gets saved. Instead it was one of the normal kids in youth group who was a smart mouth. When we chose life verses – the verse to pattern our life after – other people would choose John 3:16 or the 23rd Psalm. I’d pick obscure references like 1 Chronicles 26:18 from the Old Testament, “two west at Parbar and three at the gate.”
Q: What does that mean?
A: It doesn’t mean anything. It was just so weird. I always had a questioning mind, asking, “Why is that in the Bible?” But I think God can work with anyone.
Q: That sense of examining things in different ways comes through in your writing.
A: I’ve known folks who have crises of faith: “Is there a God? How much is true?” I’ve never had that experience. God has always been a given for me. The questioning part, for me, is to say, “Let’s kick the tires on this thing and check it out.” If all truth is God’s truth, it’s got nothing to fear from my puny brain kicking it around asking questions.
"If all truth is God’s truth, it’s got nothing to fear from my puny brain kicking it around asking questions."
Q: That’s a good segue to talk about the book. Why did you write Sacred Compass?
A: A statement kept coming back to me from the old London Faith & Practice [the book of faith and practice of the London Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends] about “the art of living.” It connected with me. Living really is a kind of art.
Quakers talk about decision-making through “leadings” – “as way opens.” I started talking with other people about the topic, and they said they’d like to read something that doesn’t tell you what to do, but how to do things.
Q: How do problems of discernment come up?
A: A lot of times it happens in crisis. It can be a professional opportunity: “I’ve got a job offer. Should take it?” Or a decision about where to go to school. Or getting news about an illness. “Where is God in this? How could this be part of my path?” Sometimes, when people ask these questions, the answers that others give them are platitudes. “God wanted it that way.” “Your son got killed because God wanted another angel.” Well, that's not helpful. It often just wounds people. I wanted to say, “It’s ok to wrestle with these questions. Let’s explore.”
Q: If you were just meeting someone, and wanted to communicate the essence of your book, what would you say?
A: There are folks who say God loves you and has a plan for your life. The Sacred Compass says God loves you and has lots of plans for your life. Your life is a pilgrimage. It’s about a trip of going to God. The good, the bad, the happy, the sad, they’re all part of our existence. God is present through it all. Our ways as humans are unique, based on our personalities and life circumstances. God uses all of these, including our ability to be taught and led. At each season, God is with us and working with us.
"Your life is a pilgrimage. It’s about a trip of going to God. The good, the bad, the happy, the sad, they’re all part of our existence. God is present through it all."
Q: Why “sacred compass”?
A: A compass points us in a general direction. It’s not “turn left here, go down the boulevard, then turn right.” In workshops I have people do an exercise of creating a life map, with the different points in their life. “Has it been a straight line – or curvy and twisty?” “Looking back, why do you think you went there? Did you learn something?” The idea is to see our lives as journeys. Often things pop up that people have held down or forgotten.
Q: I really like your idea in the book that it’s important to learn to listen to how lives speak, and that our lives speak in different ways, through our individual dreams, stories, problems, opportunities, inclinations, even our bodies. How did you come to this?
A: Some of it’s based in my own experience, especially my experience of getting out of touch with my body and getting sick. Shortly after I turned 40, a whole bunch of physical stuff started happening to me. My body had been telling me things were going wrong for a while, but I had not been paying attention. Growing up fairly evangelical, I tended to think my body as an unreliable witness. Turns out, it was pretty reliable.
I started thinking, if my body’s telling me about this, what else is it telling me? I started noticing things. When I speak I have some of the same reactions as when I have low blood sugar. So what’s that telling me? That “this is important.” Otherwise I wouldn’t be tense. I never thought of paying attention to my body to teach me about my spirit.
When I researched Sacred Compass, I asked friends about their spiritual experiences. One person talked about God speaking to her through housecleaning; she hates housecleaning so much, God must speak to her through it. There are all these ways God tries to get our attention. Often times, we’re not paying attention.
Q: I like what you say about learning to trust our individual patterns.
A: We decided to start a little worship group out at our farm. I’d been fighting the idea for three years, and it wouldn’t go away. I finally said, “Well, OK.” It was beautiful and persistent and not from some ego need. Lots of signs were coming together. I had to learn to trust them.
Q: What signs speak most to you?
A: Love is a big one. Love is about caring for things. A friend of mine walked across the United States, from New Castle, Indiana, to Washington DC, in a walk for peace. She wore a vest that said, “Pray for Peace.” Some people wanted to join her at times and carry antiwar signs. She asked them not to. The idea of being for peace was much more loving than being against war.
Persistence is also big for me. I get lots of ideas and can get confused. I have friends who are writers who keep a pencil and paper right on their bed stand to write the idea down before they lose it. I’ve gone the other way. I feel if an idea’s still there in the morning or comes to me later that day, it’s worth recalling.
Q: You talk about the Quaker practice of asking for a clearness committee. Have you been part of clearness committees?
A: I’ve been part of them, and have used them. Sometimes they are formally named. Other times, they’re less formal. I’ve even done them electronically. I have friends across the U.S. and the world who can’t get together but whom I trust as a sounding board.
Q: What’s the difference between a clearness committee and someone telling you what you should do?
A: Clearness committees won’t tell me what I should do. Instead they ask questions that point me back to myself, to Christ my inner teacher. “Why do you think you should do this?” “Why do you think this is the right time for you?”
Q: Is where you’ve wound up where you expected?
A: About the only thing that is where I thought I’d be is the writing part. I always was a reader, and always wanted to be a writer even as a kid. But the rest of my life, no. I never would have ever thought I’d be living on a farm in Indiana with 50 acres, planting prairie grass and trees. I was a city boy. I still am at heart. Hardly anything’s turned out the way I thought it would. It wasn’t a direct route. And I’m exactly where I should be at this time.
Q: Talk about a time when you experienced everything coming together.
A: One of the times it became clearest to me, and probably put me in a place where I could write this book, was when I turned 50 and took a job at the Center for Congregations, and we moved to the Indianapolis area. The responsibilities that were called for in the position brought together almost every position I’d ever held. Even copier sales. I supervised an education program, and that involved conference planning. I had learned to put on trade shows when I was in photocopier sales. So far the only job I haven’t drawn on is running a go-cart track – though maybe I do, because people sometimes seem to be going in circles, so it’s my job to call them in for pit stops.
For more information on The Sacred Compass, or to purchase a copy, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Compass-Way-Spiritual-Discernment/dp/1557255598/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1298310374&sr=8-1
To read an excerpt from the book, learn about Brent's other books, or find out about his upcoming workshops and talks, visit his website: http://www.brentbill.com/
To read what Brent is writing about now, visit his blog, Holy Ordinary: http://holyordinary.blogspot.com/
The sketch of Brent Bill is by the Quaker artist Marcy Stacey-Reberdy.