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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.