I am excited to share my interview with J. Brent Bill!
Brent is a writer, photographer, popular speaker, retreat leader, and a Quaker minister. You can learn more about J. Brent Bill at BrentBill.com.
I had an opportunity to meet Brent at his Holy Silence book reading at Pendle Hill in December of 2016.
I have made my way through Holy Silence, Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker and most recently Sacred Compass. (Here are my reviews of Holy Silence and Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker and a meditation based on a quote from Sacred Compass.)
Look for a review of Sacred Compass in the near future!
Now on to the interview.
What prayer methods do you practice on a daily basis?
My prayer practices vary throughout the seasons of my life. My usual practice is silent prayer/worship — stilling myself so that I can grasp and then articulate the deep concerns of my soul and then listen for God’s reply. At other times, I do pray the hours, use poetry as prayer, or take my Nikon on a hike and “pray with my camera” — which I find centering.
What does Jesus have to say about prayer?
Well, obviously, the first thing that comes to mind is when he teaches the Lord’s Prayer to the disciples. I think what he speaks most loudly though is through his example — the times he took for prayer and in what circumstances.
How has your prayer life evolved over the years?
As I say in Finding God in the Verbs, a book on prayer I co-wrote with my friend Jenny Isbell, in my youth I was taught that unstructured, informal prayers that sprang from my heart were the only authentic prayers. Liturgical and written prayers were not truly prayer because they were the vain repetitions that Jesus preached against. As I’ve matured in my faith I’ve come to realize the fallaciousness of such thinking and to value the Book of Common Prayer and other prayer books and prayers. They have enriched my prayer life and continue to do so.
What advice do you have for beginners to prayer?
To be authentic. Use your own words! There will be times that the language may feel awkward. Or out of sync with your faith life. Be open in fresh ways to the Great Lover of Our Souls. Risk using your own words will help you to know God (and yourself) a bit more as you are known by God.
What one or two mystics have had a huge impact on you and why?
Meister Eckhart is one of my favorites. I first read him as a teenager and was captivated. I return to his writings again and again. I find him both spiritually profound and practical. Thomas Kelly is a modern mystic who speaks to my heart. His A Testament of Devotion is never far from me. It challenges and inspires me.
How many Quakers are there in the United States? Worldwide? Feel free to share any facts about the demographics.
Not enough! Ha. There are around 80,000 Quakers in the United States and almost 400,000 worldwide. The majority of Friends (our official name is the Religious Society of Friends) are in Africa, due to 19th century educational and health missions that Quakers started there. Today Quakers are found around world — though there aren’t very many of us.
What attracts you to the traditional silent Quaker service?
Expectancy. I go expecting that Christ will be present and that, in the silence and messages given by those present, that he will teach our souls in the same way he taught the disciples and other followers when he was physically alive. For me, this worship is truly communal — we are silent together to hear the words of God together — instructions for us as a faith community and as individuals.
Why is silence important?
Primarily because life is so noisy and God speaks in a still small voice (as Elijah discovered) or sometimes “sheer silence” as the NRSV translates 1 Kings 19:12. I think we need to become quiet to hear that voice — and to hear our own authentic spiritual lives speak to us. Silence helps us give more than a passing nod to God.
Including you, who are some of the other popular Quaker authors?
Oh goodness, there are so many much more popular Quaker authors than me. Philip Gulley who writes both fiction and non-fiction is very popular. Richard J. Foster writes profoundly and well about incorporating spiritual disciplines and practices into our lives. Haven Kimmel’s fiction and memoirs are amazing works of spiritual writing (my favorite is her The Solace of Leaving Early. Quakers, though small in numbers, have had a huge writing ministry from the very beginning. My book Imagination and Spirit: A Contemporary Quaker Reader showcases a number of them.
What methods do you use to discern God’s will for your life?
That’s a complex question that requires more than a short answer. But, in the interest of brevity, I tend to ask myself a series of questions (we Quakers are big on questions as tools opening spiritual wisdom). My main questions are
Does this start in my soul?
Did this begin with a prompting from God?
Does it call me to some action?
How does it present a way forward – a way to act?
Is this nudge, this leading, persistent?
Does it feel me with joy?
Do I feel calm assuredness about this?
Is the leading clear?
Is it consistent with my understandings of God’s teaching? Does it fit with the fruits of the spirit:
Can you tell us a little bit about your next book project?
I am still developing my next full length project — various ideas are bouncing around. One I am very drawn to is how discerning God’s will for me needs to involve the questions of beauty, truth, life, and love. These four words, I believe, move us beyond doing things correctly into doing them right. Beyond doing the right things, even, and doing those that are ours to do.
Brent, thanks for taking the time to let me interview you! I look forward to your future books. In the meantime I will continue to check out your existing books.
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I just finished Presence and Process: A Path Toward Transformative Faith and Inclusive Community by Daniel P. Coleman and Intimacy with God: An Introduction To Centering Prayer by Thomas Keating. I am currently reading The Bible Makes Sense by Walter Brueggemann.
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Since the time of the Desert Fathers in the third century, Finley begins, Christian mystics have practiced meditation as a way of opening to the direct presence of God in daily life. Legendary seekers such as Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Meister Eckhart explored how meditation can lead us beyond the closed horizon of the ego, to an interior and holy refuge that is always available to us. On Christian Meditation, James Finley offers a gentle introduction to this all-transforming way of life, and the ever-deepening realization of oneness with Christ it leads us to. (Based upon his book, Christian Meditation.)
Check out my review of Christian Prayer Methods by Dr. Philip St. Romain.
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