How to Be Here: A Conversation with Rob Bell

by guest writer, Laura Turner

It was a wakeboarding accident that led to Rob Bell’s latest book. He was trying to do a backflip in the summer of 2000 when he hit his head and landed in the hospital. “I couldn’t remember a lot,” Bell recalled. He had trouble accessing his long-term memories, so “I got a tour of my life and saw it as if I’d never seen it before.” His mind couldn’t reach into “the past, which is where regret comes from, or the future, where worry comes from.” He had only the present moment.

Bell, a popular author and the former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was in San Francisco to talk about his recent book, How to Be Here. “Do you ever feel like you’re skimming the surface of your own existence?” the book jacket copy asked. “Like you’re busy, but it’s not fulfilling?” It’s a question almost all of us could say “yes” to at some point. Maybe you could. Maybe you do, still, today.

“It isn’t just, ‘Be on your cell phone less,’” Bell told the audience. Spending less time on your phone may be good advice, but “to have a rhythm of life…means challenging the very notion of ‘busy-ness,” he said. To be busy is often to be preoccupied, to have less and less time for the things that matter most in life. This is especially important for people of faith to remember: “You create your life and we create the world together. This is the understanding communicated by Genesis and the ancient Hebrew scriptures–which, by the way, is poetry, and not a scientific manual.”

To create a life, it is important that a person understand his or her own uniqueness–or, as Bell likes to say, “‘You’ haven’t been attempted before.” In the universe, there is only one version of you, created by God. This isn’t always easy. “It’s totally normal to have awkward and bad things happen,” Bell said, “and you have to extend yourself some grace.” It’s often in the process of learning from hard things that we also learn more about who God created us to be, and how God can only meet us in the present moment.

“Humans mirror and imitate what we see other people do,” asked Dr. Scot Sherman, who was moderating the conversation. “Rather than living my own life, I envy someone else’s life. What are some of the steps you’ve taken away from resentment and toward choosing your life?”

Bell paused. “One thing to remember is the importance of not doing what you aren’t supposed to do. When I have done that, the pain from it forged in me the fact that I have my own path. I will have key moments when I have to challenge conventional wisdom and assumptions about what has to be done.” Bell recounted a time he was in a meeting that became about other meetings. “And then, someone else scheduled a meeting to talk about the effectiveness of this meeting. I was headed to a meeting about this meeting about other meetings.” The absurdity of this wasn’t lost on the audience–many of us had found ourselves in similar situations. Until someone challenges conventional wisdom, nothing will change. We can go on living unexamined lives consumed with worry or regret.

But when we are able to find ourselves in the present moment–really here–things begin to change. Focusing on success “split me in two–saying, ‘I’m here, but my joy is up ahead on the road.’ I’d meet people and some of them would be on the same track, but some of them would have this honor and quiet dignity in their work,” Bell said. “They often worked in the most normal, unself-conscious jobs.” Bell described an interaction with a woman at a rental car place in San Francisco–he was struck by her patience, her engagedness, her ability to be totally present in the moment.

“In my own work it was the craft that always saved me,” Bell said, “the humbling nature of the work and the fact that in most professions you get better as you get older. Success asks the question, ‘What can I get?’ Craft asks the question, ‘Can you believe I get to do this?’ Success is always stuck in the future.”

One of the audience members–Mickey Maudlin, who happens to be Bell’s editor at HarperOne–asked Bell about his move from Michigan to California. “You moved to Los Angeles, and that was really a leap. What did you learn from that?”

The move happened as Rob and his wife, Kristen, realized they were ready for something new after years of church ministry. “I had this deep conviction that there were an untold number of people who were more spiritually hungry than ever but couldn’t do the traditional packages as seen,” Bell said. “We couldn’t build another temple. (Our next step) needed to share the idea that everything is a temple. All of life is sacred, all of work is holy. It kind of felt like a leap, but it also kind of felt like a natural next step.”

The next step for the rest of us, Bell said toward the end of the evening, was to think about the role that fear plays in our lives. “Fear can ride in the backseat,” he said. It’s one of the emotions that most constantly keeps us from living in the moment. In order to counteract worry about the future, Bell talked about one of his favorite daily practices–using the nice china for every meal. His family takes it out and eats on it regularly, as a reminder of what’s important. Ask yourself, “What are the tactile reminders of who you are and what you’re doing here? Find them and stick to them.”

AUDIO