Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Smashing Ice with Rob Bell

Back on Nov. 25, I saw Rob Bell in Pittsburgh for his "Fit to Smash Ice" Tour.  I had seen some of his stuff online and on DVD.  I had never read any of his books, although Love Wins is sitting on my shelf in my reading queue.  I went partly to experience him live and continue to feel out what his draw is.  I wanted to see what his delivery was like and what sort of people came out to see him.  I am not a fan per se, but I do think he gets some things brilliantly right even though he gets some things just as wrong.  And here he was in Pittsburgh on the night after Thanksgiving when I would be at my parents' house just north of Pittsburgh.  My wife and I could attend and we would have free babysitting.  So we went.

The crowd was small compared to the hall we were in.  The Carnegie Library Music Hall in Munhall, PA is a medium-size hall, but the crowd only filled about half of the lower level.  Mostly everyone was young and white, although a few older couples were there... older even than my wife and I. It seemed like a church group was in attendance since one couple (coincidentally the only African-American couple, I think) walked in close to the beginning and half of the people in front of us all waved and greeted them.  A group of four young folk in the row in front of me had note paper out.  One young man had even separated his paper into three areas: inspire, offend, confuse.  The young woman next to him just wrote almost constantly during the time.

The lights went down and a woman's voice came over the speakers and told the story of Joshua Sloacum, the first man to circumnavigate the globe solo. (An account of Sloacum's story can be read here.)  At the end of Sloacum story, we hear the phrase "fit to smash ice," although it was not clear to me why Bell had used that phrase.  Sloacum's story is great, but even now, the connection that Bell wants us to make is not immediately apparent.  I am all for telling stories and letting people make connections, but Sloacum's story might be a little too unclear.

After the story, the lights came back up, Bell came out on stage and began telling stories.  He is a gifted story-teller.  He said that this tour was because he had a bunch of stories that his wife was tired of listening to and he needed to go tell them to someone else... which is likely true, but it is not the real reason for Bell's tour.  More on that later.  Bell went two hours without a script, although he did have what I assume was a one-page outline.  More impressively he went two hours without a drink of water.

Bell's main theme throughout the time was vocation.  He talked mostly about his own life and weaved his own story with the biblical narrative. He does an impressive job also with using Jewish midrash and stories throughout as well.  It is clear that Bell takes serious the tradition that scripture and its stories come out of.  The audience paid attention.  Clearly everyone who was there was rapt.  With the exception of the young woman in front of me, who never seemed to stop writing, everyone listened closely.  His stories were so personal, it felt at times like we were all just sitting around a room sharing.  At times we laughed a great deal.  His stories had great characters.  The one about the jawbone of the ass and the border crossing was hysterical.

Near the end, Bell rang truer about the reason for his tour than just having to tell this great group of stories.  As he talked about vocation (although he never used that word), he got to encouraging people to do what brought them joy.  He had talked about God not using perfect people but real screw-ups at times.  That he could work with.  He might not be the smartest, best read person out there but he was engaged in something that spoke to him.  And then he made a veiled reference to the controversy over his book Love Wins.  If someone in the audience knew nothing about Bell before he or she came to the tour that night, that part might have gone under the "confuse" section of the page of their notes.  But I did.  In essence, Bell has gone out on tour in apologetic mode.  Not in the way of saying "sorry." In the way of defending his own right to be there.  He was going to keep on doing what he has been doing.  Writing and speaking about God and people's lives.  He simply was not going to let other people's opinions stop him.

Now, for him, that works.  Even though there are areas where I disagree with him, I know that during that night, I heard him speak the gospel.  He has clearly worked at allowing God to form him.  Some of the stories he told were about his early years of being a pastor and how bad he was at some things.  And this part of the talk was where he wove it well with God's story.  There was much that evening that edified and uplifted me.  It was a good evening.  I heard in his story a connection to my story and I gave thanks that I shared in the task of speaking about God to others that their lives might be transformed.

However, some of the way he talked about vocation was problematic.  And it isn't just him.  There are some who talk about vocation as if God creates us to do one particular thing in our lives.  And I am just not sure that is so.  Plus whether or not something brings us joy might not be the best measure to use when we evaluate and discern what we should be doing.  It might be too easy to be those folks on the audition weeks of the reality television shows who might love what they are doing, but are just plain bad at it.  Very often they have deluded themselves into thinking that they are great, because they love what they are doing.  And we are taught from very early on that we should do what we love.

Now if we are not good at what we do, and God has created us to do one thing and one thing only in our life, then we are in trouble.  I think we are created as multi-faceted people who can do a number of things.  We will not always find joy in what we have to do.  Such is the power of sin.  Bell described the power of sin in his evening but interestingly enough never used that particular word.  And it was clear that he had worked toward a level of excellence in his writing and preaching because he is far better at it now than when he began.  I am think he would agree here, but to hear him at the end, I think there might be many who would have heard what he said and wondered why things were not going the way they thought things should despite their doing what brought them joy.

When we speak of vocation, it is important I think to understand that we are engaged in a communal process of discernment.  If I had pushed forward with being a physicist, and physics the subject brings me great joy, then I would have had likely ended up in a full-blown depression, because it was the doing of physics that I did not like.  But God created me with a number of ways to live.  Even when I considered becoming a pastor, I realized that I had to ponder other possibilities as well.  In other words, I needed a "Plan B."  So I thought about it.  I laid out two possibilities.  Go to seminary.  Go to culinary school and open a brew pub.  Both were appealing. I had worked in restaurants since I was fifteen.  I had some well-developed albeit amateur skills in the kitchen and I had made some good beers as a home brewer.  However, I also had some important people tell me what a good pastor they thought I would be, that I had gifts and talents for Word and Sacrament ministry.  I love what I am doing, but if the door to ministry had closed (and believe me there was a real possibility that that could have happened), I still had something else to do that would have been enjoyable and that I could do well.

In the end, I suppose this reality that we are not just created to do one thing in life makes me wonder about that opening story of Bell's about Joshua Sloacum.  In that story was I supposed to identify with Sloacum? Or ultimately with the ship?  I think the way Bell tells the story, we are supposed to think we are Sloacum who took the crap of his life and became great.  But I think more and more we are the ship.  Sloacum basically rebuilt the ship from a rotting pile of timbers into something magnificent.  I think we might be rebuilt several times during out life.  And the hand that transforms us takes us to places we might never have imagined.  God has a way of calling his followers to places they never could imagine. That ship went around the world.  Sloacum captained it.  I think we are the ship being captained through various channels and oceans, being refitted when necessary, by a hand who loves us.  It won't always be easy but that is why God never abandons us.

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