When I was 32 years old, I received a phone call from the Friends World Committee for Consultation, asking if I would serve on their Executive Committee. This was a big deal in Quakerism, like being asked to serve on the college of cardinals and pick a new pope. I was certain a mistake had been made, but agreed to do it, knowing it would allow me to see the country on someone else’s dime, since I didn’t have many dimes of my own back then.

My first meeting was in Philadelphia, in the heart of American Quakerism. I flew in, was picked up at the airport by a local Quaker, driven to the Race Street Friends Meetinghouse downtown, and escorted to the room where the Executive Committee had gathered. People were staring at me, smiling, looking confused, which is when it occurred to me they had asked the wrong Gulley, and that the proper thing to do would be to step down so they could appoint the right Gulley, the Gulley they had intended to appoint, the recently retired President of George Fox College. But I knew they were too nice to ask me to step down, so I stayed put, and over the next four years traveled all around America–New York City, Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, Vermont, free of charge, meeting the most wonderful Quakers. I wasn’t asked to serve a second term. I heard on the grapevine it was because I lacked financial savvy, even though I was the only person in history to get the Quakers to pay for twelve mini-vacations around the U.S.. Crazy like a fox.

The Quaker lady who picked me up at the airport in Philadelphia was driving a raggedy old Honda Civic, who was apparently our automotive sponsor that year. Everyone there was driving raggedy old Honda Civics. But the lady driving me let it slip that she also owned a Mercedes, but never drove it to the meetinghouse because the other Quakers would frown at such extravagance. She had her Mercedes for going to the symphony and her Honda Civic for her Quaker duties, in deference to our testimony of simplicity. We Quakers take our simplicity seriously.

We’ve been talking about Quaker qualities, about democratic discernment and consistent compassion, so today I want to talk about simplicity, and want to suggest that we begin to think of simplicity in a new light, not as plainly dressed people living in tiny homes, driving old beaters, but rather think of simplicity as generosity. The problem with simplicity is its tendency to make us study one another a bit too closely, a bit too critically, in order to judge whether a fellow Quaker is sufficiently frugal. When the testimony of simplicity was emerging among Friends it was meant to serve as a corrective against mindless consumption that too often claimed our attention. Unfortunately, after a while simplicity became a contest to see who among us could appear more thrifty and prudent. Simplicity became less a spiritual discipline and more a competition, and once that happened, the sacred value was sucked right out of it.

The question for the Quaker shouldn’t be how much we earn, unless of course our earning is 1.) done through the exploitation of others or 2.) arises from an unhealthy compulsion or obsession with material wealth. I used to think if someone were wealthy, it was because their values and priorities were distorted. Now I think some people are born into wealth and some are not, that some people are gifted at creating things others want or need, and as a consequence generate wealth. Having wealth is not in and of itself a moral failure; misusing or hoarding our wealth is. The question for the Quaker should be the use of our wealth, the employment of our resources. In our old understanding, if someone lived simply while piling up oceans of money, they would be admired by their fellow Quakers as properly frugal. But who among us would say the obscene accumulation of wealth was a healthy spiritual practice?

This is why I would invite Friends today to shift away from simplicity and move toward generosity, which is a truer measure of our spiritual well-being. Let’s not think about how little we spend, but how extravagantly we share, how generously we give. It is not wrong to make money. Some people have that gift. The American publisher Malcolm Forbes once said, “I made my money the old-fashioned way. I was very nice to a wealthy relative right before he died.” It isn’t wrong to make money. But our use of money is a very real indication of our spiritual well-being. It reveals more about us than just about anything else we do.

Our privilege, the fruits of our labor, isn’t something to be ashamed of. It is a blanket we are asked to share with those who would otherwise shiver in the cold.

Got a story for you about a husband and wife I met a dozen years ago in Virginia, while speaking at a Baptist church. Their names are Marguerite and Paul. Marguerite texts me two or three times a week asking how I am and if I know of anyone who needs prayed for. Marguerite and Paul like the old church songs, so back when everyone had to stay home because of Covid, they started each day singing and playing a song, recording it on their phone, then sending it out to a hundred people or so. It’s the first thing I look at each day. Paul and Marguerite singing a song.

They live in a part of the country where there are old homesteads, the houses now gone, the pastures have gone back to woods, but you can tell where the houses once stood because of the daffodils the farm wives planted a hundred years ago. Decades ago, when they were still working, Paul and Marguerite asked the landowners if they could pick the daffodils. The landowners said, “Help yourself.” So every spring, Paul and Marguerite go out into the woodlots and pastures and pick the daffodils. Marguerite picks them and Paul totals them up in a ledger.

This year they picked 3,960 daffodils and took bouquets to 117 people, mostly lonely, poor, sick folks who no one else pays attention to. What Paul and Marguerite do is share their blanket with people who would otherwise shiver in the cold.

I don’t care if Quakers live simply. That’s up to them. I care if Quakers live generously. I care if we use our money, our music, our flowers to bring a little joy to those who need it.

Let’s not impress each other with our simplicity. Let’s inspire each other with our generosity. Share our money. Share our song. Share our flowers.