What is a spiritual journey? On some days it feels like I’m on a bus like the one in the film “Almost Famous,” and my mates and I are zooming down the road singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” at the top of our lungs. Cool like that. But it can also take on the dreariness of the Beatles’ bus in the film, “Magical Mystery Tour,” a ride full of colorful people tooling down the road waiting to see what would happen. Only nothing much did.
Most of the time, though, on my journey I’m in my car alone and I’m thinking—and I’m praying. I am seeking. What am I seeking? To strengthen my relationship with Christ and, through Him, God. As the song, “Day by Day” from the musical Godspell goes, To see thee more clearly / Love thee more dearly / Follow thee more nearly, day by day.
There are times like now when I know I’m on the verge of something that will take me deeper in this quest. But I don’t know what it is, or even if my thoughts make sense. I contemplate it over and over. It think has something to do with understanding a way of being. I’ve been coming to the realization that my “job” is to be Sophfronia, and this job requires me to discern in any given moment what that means. What is happening in this situation? Is there work here that is uniquely mine to do? But I wonder—are such considerations too self-centered? Especially when I feel these thoughts draw me ever inward. My profoundest experience of God is a personal one and when I sense His love during these ruminations I want nothing more than to withdraw, be alone, and contemplate that love.
And yet this doesn’t feel quite right either. I don’t think I’m supposed to be some kind of hermit or contemplative. BecauseI feel an outward tug as well, something pulling me out into the world. What’s going on here?
I’m not sure. So at this point in my spiritual journey I’ve been driving around a roundabout. I keep going around and around because I don’t know which exit to take. It would help to have signposts offering suggestions and direction. Turn here.Try this route and see what happens. What if you simply stopped now?
That’s where Rob Bell comes in. I stopped at the Rob Bell mile marker.
Who is Rob Bell? His website bio simply describes him as “a bestselling author, international teacher, and highly sought after public speaker.” He is all of those things, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.
He was the pastor and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church, a Michigan-based congregation that grew to 10,000 members under his leadership. He wrote popular books and was featured in a series of short films called NOOMA that, according to the product description, “explore our world from a perspective of Jesus.” In 2011 Time magazine listed Bell among its 100 Most Influential People. The same year he published his book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which challenged, as noted in the New York Times, “traditional Christian views of heaven, hell and eternal damnation.” It met with a maelstrom of criticism from evangelical Christians labeling Bell a heretic. Not long after this he left Mars Hill to pursue a different path of teaching and new ways of thinking about the word “church.”
I first encountered him in a Christian formation class at our church watching the NOOMA film entitled “Name.” Since I’m graced with the unusual moniker of Sophfronia, issues of name and identity, as you can imagine, are frequently on my mind. In the film Bell asked how much of our pain comes from not knowing the answer to the question, “Who are you?” We shouldn’t be afraid to dig and not only find the answer, but also live the answer. “Jesus invites us to be our true selves,” he said. His words intrigued me. I was also enthralled with what I call his “may you” messages he delivers at the end of all the NOOMA films. To me the phrase “may you” is a high form of blessing, calling you to a higher form of yourself. For example, at the end of “Name,” Bell said,
“May you do the hard work of the soul, to discover your true self. May you find your unique path, the one God has for you, and in the process may you find yourself comfortable in your own skin.” Yes.
Bell hit a new level of popularity when Oprah Winfrey tapped him to discuss his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God on her television show, then included him on her 2014 Life You Want speaking tour. At this point he also met with a new level of backlash, and weathered complaints he had abandoned the church for some vague kind of new age spirituality.
To be honest, I paid little attention to the brouhaha. As a former journalist I’ve observed enough backlashes to know when these things dust up, it has little to do with the person and a lot to do with others (institutions and individuals) serving their own interests, usually to attract publicity, at the person’s expense. But I can’t parse out the motives of others. All I can do is ask myself the question, “What is this person saying and does it speak to me?”
When it comes to Rob Bell the answer is and continues to be, “yes.”
From all I’ve read and from all I’ve sensed about him, my gut tells me this: he believes what I believe, and we go about our faith in a similar way. He is one of my people.
Notice I don’t say I am one of his people. My spiritual journey is not about following gurus or cults of personality. It is about connection—finding friends, kindred spirits, brothers and sisters. Once encountered, we tend to recognize each other.
In fact I felt an inevitability when a parishioner at my church sent the email saying Rob Bell would be speaking near us, at The Town Hall in New York City, and offering to order the tickets so a group of us could attend and sit together. It seemed it was time for me to see him in person.
Bell’s presentation, “Everything is Spiritual,” is essentially a long-form riff developing towards a new parable—a story that offers a different way of looking at ourselves and of wrestling with our rational minds. He used a whiteboard in the shape of a flat megaphone—a prop I found amusing and appropriate because in smile, height, and demeanor he reminded me of the male cheerleaders among my college classmates. And his message was a kind of extended, high-energy declaration. He drew a dot on the smallest end of the whiteboard, labeled it PARTICLE, and proceeded to tell us the story of expanding matter of the universe, from particles to atoms, to molecules, to cells, and how all this culminated in our place as humans in this miraculous happening.
And even if you don’t believe in God, he noted, it must be acknowledged something amazing is going on. There is something divine about our design. On a certain level we are, he said, “finely calibrated arrangements of stardust” and yet we can dream, have compassion, we can love. “Your soul can soar,” he said. “You are an exotic cocktail…an epi-phenomenon.”
Yes, I could agree with that. I’ve always believed in the t-shirt motto, “God Don’t Make No Junk.” I have an outsized belief in my specialness, something I’ve had since I was a child, and I know it can even be unsettling. It is the foundation of this sense I have of my “job” to be Sophfronia. I know I am a beloved child of God.
But in listening to Bell talk about molecules and stardust and dark matter, I began to think he would take me no further along in this rumination. I thought what he was saying was intriguing and interesting. Yes, it’s great we’re all here, we’re fabulous, conscious beings on some unknown trajectory. But are we all on this trajectory as solitary individuals? It seemed that way. I admit I was thinking, “Does Rob Bell have something to tell me? No. Not tonight.”
Then, as though he’d heard my thought, Bell began to address the “what’s next.” He drew several stick figures at the wide end of the whiteboard and talked about community, about vocation, about connection—topics so much on my mind I’d been discussing them with a friend that same afternoon. It was as though Bell had been sitting there with us at my friend’s table the whole time.
He explained how it is possible that as we expand and grow (and by “we” he means not just people but the very essence of what we are on a subatomic level, the whole being of existence and matter as it were) we come to a point where we are not being pulled apart, but pulled together. “Human beings bonding with others of similar essence and substance” is what he called it. It is the next level. “Is there something we are being pulled together to form?” This of course could be another way of thinking about the Body of Christ and “an energy both universal and personal surging through us.”
This would explain the outward pull I feel. He said it is a natural progression, even necessary.
Let’s go back to that thought about my “job.” I am a writer and I come to my desk each day hoping that something I write will serve others. It is my vocation. But this “being Sophfronia” I think is my greater “work” in that it communicates I am a beloved child of God. It is of utmost importance to my soul that I understand and believe this. And in his discussion of how we are drawn together Bell affirmed for me the what and the why of this position: When I carry myself with the spirit and confidence that comes of being beloved—and this also goes for any well-loved child—it does serve others and can contribute to whatever newness that people are being pulled together to form.
Marianne Williamson wrote, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” Often when I’m with a group of people whether on campus as when I was getting my MFA, or at church or some other public forum, someone will comment on how well/content/happy I look and I like to respond by joking, “Yes, but it’s my job to look this way.” However I’m coming to realize it’s not a joke—this really is my job—to create and love and show it is possible to be a certain way in the world.
Now, where do I go from here? Bell said all our own personal stories have existed within us in a “pre-life form” before emerging and manifesting in real life. He asked, “What exists now in you in a pre-life form that hasn’t come out yet?” I liked this question. I liked the feel of its forward motion. And here, to my ears, was a way to move toward the answer:
“The more you are you, the more we can be we,” he said. The more fearless, joyous, creative you can be, the better it is for everyone. I just have to continue to find those moments, the sweet spots of eternity in which I know I’m reflecting divine light and feeling God’s pleasure that I’m doing so.
Earth-shattering? Life-changing? No. But this gives me much needed illumination and affirmation. It does make a difference. Shine a little more light on the road and suddenly I no longer have to putter along in uncertainty. I can see I will keep discerning my own special work. I will pay attention to how it plays into the context of what might be formed with others. I can shift into a higher gear, get off the roundabout, and hit the freeway.
By the way, I think Bell recognized me as a kindred spirit. How do I know? Not because of the warm two-minute exchange we had while I took a picture with him. (He looked at me and said, “Whatever this is you’re doing, keep doing it. You have to make sure you keep putting this out in the world.”) It was because, as I stood waiting for my friends to get their pictures taken, he turned back to me a couple of times to ask me questions.
He was asking about my name.
With that, Rob Bell and I had come full circle.
Photo credit: Rob Bell, Copyright 2015. Used with permission.
How can we welcome this place calledHere—this unyielding stranger that bears no resemblance to the future we had dreamed? What I know to be true is that profound beginnings often have their start in places that appear void, formless, parched, and foreign.
The book is no mere introduction to Catholic worship for outsiders; it is a piece of spiritual autobiography that invites us into the vulnerable moments of reflection, resistance, reawakening, and simple rejoicing that occur on “an ordinary Sunday” in the course of the Mass.
This quiet, then and now, makes me feel like I’m cupped in the palm of a hand. But who is holding me? Is someone beyond the summer speaking in this silence? I’m not sure it matters—not as long as I keep listening.
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