Rob Bell's Good-Bye Letter

dear  mars hill, to all the brothers and  sisters of this church to those who have  been  here from  the beginning—who remember the  old building, who braved that one ten foot wide hallway, clogged shoulder to shoulder with people leaving the  hangar to pick up their children who had  spent the  previous hour packed into oxygen  deprived classrooms to those who hiked  through the snow and  slush and  mud  that first day to sit on the floor

who idled  in long traffic jams to listen to sermons from the book of Leviticus on blood and  guts and fire and  then  to those of you who showed up for the  first time  last week

to those who have  complained  for ten years that  there’s no sign out front and heard me  respond time and time  again ‘yes, but you found it’ to those who were baptized in that nearby lake  in those early days—especially those of you who were baptized that  one sunday when we didn’t  know that  all of those  hundreds of fish had  died earlier that week  and  washed up on shore and so before you got baptized, you watched in horror as your fellow church members wearing waders collected the  dead, rotting fish in black  trash bags and  cleared out enough space for you to wade in and  celebrate your new life— and  then  to those of you who have been  baptized in this room, in an old former mall,  standing here soaking wet, surrounded by friends and  family, cheered on by your tribe, not sure how to put it in words but absolutely convinced that  you in some way were tasting heaven on earth to the young and  to the old

to the hunters in your trucks who can’t grill it if you don’t kill it, to the vegetarians in your prius’ wearing hemp underwear

to those on the right and those on the left

and  to those of you who never removed your ron paul  bumper sticker from the  last election, to the Dutch, and  to the not much,

to Lions fans and  to infidels,

to all of you wherever and  however you find yourself

whatever size, shape, color, perspective, history, and  background you bring to this gathering grace and peace to all of you on this day.

kristen and i were out to dinner with some friends in october for a last meal before we moved. they have been  beloved  friends of ours for ten years and at the end of the meal one of them  took out several folded  pieces of paper as she told us that  she had written us a letter, which she then  read. in the letter she took us back  through our ten  years together, remembering events and  people and  places and moments we shared, several of which i had forgotten about. many  times she would  pause when  she read about a particular experience we had all shared together, and we would look around the table at each other  as we found ourselves visiting that day long passed. when  she was done, there was not a dry eye around the table. it was a sacred moment. a glimpse of the eternal in the now.

so as i’ve been  thinking about my sermon here today, i found myself returning again  and  again  to the power of a good letter. someone may text you or ping you or email you or direct message you or contact you on facebook—but none  of those particular mediums of communication can begin  to compare to a letter in which the  person has labored over every word, going back over it again  and again  and  again, crafting the  phrases and  searching for just the  right word and  turn of phrase to capture precisely what you want  to say. technology has given us a wide array of methods to communicate and  because of this variety, it’s important we remember that there is a distinction to be made between diversity of form and depth, significance, and soul.

so, i’ve written you a letter. i’ll start with some thanks,

then  a lesson you’ve taught me,

and  then  some  warnings, and  then  a confession.

first then, some thanks. there is a pattern to the creative process. you start with an idea,  a hunch,  an image, a vision, a picture of the thing you want  to create. it may be a business or a painting or a mission or a cause or a new way to empower people to help themselves or a basic  need  that  is unmet or a song or a new way to landscape your backyard or a product or a project for school or a piece of furniture or a new color for the  walls of your downstairs bathroom because you just can’t stand that  awful shade of pale mustard that  for some unfathomable reason the previous owners thought looked  good. and  so you set out to make it, create it, change it, fashion it, form it, organize it, and  arrange it. and  it

takes something out of you. you have  to sweat, exert, and  expend yourself. you have  to gather or purchase or harvest the  materials. you make a plan,  you design  it, engineer it, make sketches, have meetings, do research. you study how others have done  similar things.

and  then  you get at it. as you work away, what  was once  just an idea,  an abstraction in your mind, begins to become a reality. whether it’s wood and  nails or words or paint  or a new flow of  resources in a new direction, at some point it begins  to take  shape. what once  existed only in your mind  begins to exist in actual time  and  space. you can see it, taste it, hold it, admire it. and  because it cost  something, because it only exists as a result of your sweat and  blood, you have a visceral attachment to it. it came out of you.

and  when it’s completed, you may be exhausted, spent, and  ready for a rest, but you are exhilarated.

it’s late  sunday night  and  you’ve been  painting all weekend, and  you’re sitting  there on the  floor in the hallway  outside that downstairs bathroom and  you’re exhausted and  it took way longer than you expected and  you smell and  you need  a shower and  you have  a bit of a buzz from all of those fumes, but you are the king and queen of your empire because those walls are no longer that  putrid shade of pale mustard. they’re magenta.

or cranberry.

or sea foam green.

you have taken part in the  mystery at the  heart of creation. we’re here, somehow. our existence itself continues to be a profound mystery. being itself raises more questions than it answers. this mystery takes us deep in to the heart of the divine. when  we create, we are participating in that mystery in a real and tangible way. this truth about the creative process brings me  to you because you

were once

an idea.

this church, this place, this community, was once  simply a hunch.  a dream. a vision. a picture in the mind of a new kind of church for the  new world we find ourselves in. a church that  was fearless in confronting the injustices and  systems of oppression that  lurk around every corner and  at the  very same time  deeply  committed to the  personal, intimate experience of following  Jesus, of experiencing the  joy and  peace that transcends space and  time. a church that found the stale, old categories of liberal  and  conservative boring and irrelevant because we’d experienced resurrection, which includes and affirms anything  and everything that  brings  liberating, new life wherever it’s found,  irrespective of whatever labels and categories it’s been  given because of an abiding  conviction that the  tomb is,

after all, empty.

a church where the  main  thing  was actually  the  main  thing. a church that  understood that  there is a simplicity on the  other side of complexity, aware of all of the various interpretations  and  theological perspectives and  complicated systems of thinking and analyzing and  yet with a clear, resolute sense that  Jesus is doing something in the  world, bringing water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, peace to the restless, presence to the lonely  and  we are invited to join his movement. that Jesus is ultimately not a proposition you intellectually assent to but a person you say


what  matters then, is your ‘yes.’ with whatever you have,  and  whatever you don’t have.  with whoever and however you are or aren’t, wherever you’ve come from. what matters is our ‘yes.’ you,

my friends,

through you i have  experienced the mysterious joy of creation. i will never be able  to fully, adequately explain what it has been  like to have  imagined you, conceived of you—this church—and then  have you exist. from those earliest discussions kristen and  i would  have in our early twenties, eating lunch  at the taco bell on colorado boulevard in los angeles, imagining what  a church could be, to this very moment, you have brought me  the  joy of creation.

thank you. thank you. thank  you. and  then  a second thanks. in september when  you learned that i would  be leaving  you, for many  of you it was like a bomb  going off. you didn’t expect it, you weren’t looking  for it, you got an email on a thursday and  on the following sunday you heard it directly from me.  i have, since then, had  the  chance to personally interact with a large number of you and you have  been across the board extraordinarily consistent in your responses, which have  been two:

one: grief and

two: support.

this is significant, and  meaningful, for a number of reasons.

first, any change, even  if it’s good, is always a form of loss, and  loss must be grieved. that’s the only way it works. stuff it, deny it, repress or suppress it and  it will come back  to a haunt you, it will lurk in the shadows and  it will resurface later.

your grief then, is a sign of health. it demonstrates an awareness of your interiors, your heart, and your desire to face  and embrace what’s actually going on inside of you.

and  then  secondly, you have been  supportive. at times, shockingly so, at least from my perspective.

some of you only had  that thursday email and still, when  you saw me,  with no details, you expressed your grief and then  went on to make it  very clear that whatever we would  be up to next,  you were cheering us on. this is significant for a number reasons, namely, your belief that  God is big and  that any movement  to share this love of God with more people is movement in a life giving direction and that  this same  big, loving God is fully capable of taking care of all of us, whether we are together or apart.

a story, to tell you why this means what it does  to me. several years ago there was a well known  pastor who openly,  publicly  had a number of issues that  he was against, both morally and  spiritually and  politically. he was loud and  outspoken about these particular issues. it turns out that one of the  issues he was most vocally opposed to was something that he himself had  been  engaged in. upon  this being revealed publicly,  his church released him from his leadership position. shortly after this, a friend of mine  happened to meet him while visiting the same city and  when  they began conversing, this pastor-in-exile expressed a great  deal  of stored up venom for his former church that he had  started, venting about how they had  shot their  wounded and they hadn’t extended him grace and love and all that.  he was shocked that  they had treated him like they had. here’s what i find so startling: he was complaining about how they dealt with him, but he’s the  one who shaped and  taught and  molded them. he merely found himself on the  receiving end  of how he had trained them  to be. he created and  crafted the system to behave a particular way and then  it behaved in that  exact way. it’s easy to form a circle and  pick up stones, taking  turns quoting bible  verses the whole  time, ready to unleash those stones on the one who’s guilty. it’s another thing to be the  person standing in the middle of that circle, desperate for one person, just one,  to say “is any of you without sin?” those who have  ears to hear, let them hear. so that’s the  question you have as a leader, pastor, teacher,

the question you live with day in and  day out: “are they getting it?”

i have  tried to teach you about a big God, who holds all things, including us, in an unconditional, loving embrace. i have tried to teach and  model for you an unswerving hope  and  trust, that change and risk and leaps of faith are normal and  at times absolutely necessary for our growth and  the continued expansion of our hearts. so when, in this change, this loss, this transition, this departure, you have  responded time

and  time  again  with largeness of spirit and  bigness of heart, with confidence that the God who got you this far is fully capable of taking  you the rest of the way, deeply attuned to your own emotions and responses and  at the  very same  time  convinced that  everybody will be just fine because what  could possibly separate us from the love we’ve tasted and experienced, the love of Christ that holds  and sustains us all?

oh my. it’s so moving  to me. thank  you.

thank  you.

thank  you.

with those two words of thanks, then  onto a lesson that you’ve taught me. for many  people, the simple dualisms of right and  wrong and  good and  bad are the sole prism, the lens, through which they look for God in the world. so if things go well, then  ‘God is good’ is how the thinking goes, and if things  don’t go well, all kinds of questions arise about God and  hope  and  faith and  was it all just a grand illusion in the  first place? the life we’ve found together, however, is far more  subtle, nuanced, and  complex than  those simple dualisms, and i’ve seen you discover this deep  well of insight as it shapes you in profound ways. i’ve seen you get cancer and  struggle with infertility and  attend funerals of people you love and  get let go from  your jobs and  lose tens of thousands of dollars and  get sued  and  find out your kid is using drugs— and  at the  same  time  i’ve watched you find God in the  mess. in the  tension. in the  chaos. i’ve seen you find peace and joy and calm  and rest in situations in which everybody else is convinced that peace and joy, much  like Elvis, have  left the  building. there’s an ancient midrash about jacob who wrestles the  angel. they say that he walks with a limp afterwards, but at least he’s experienced God.

i’ve watched many  of you walk with a limp. it’s a deeper wisdom you have attained,

a higher level of consciousness,

a more refined and  ultimately more enduring way of seeing that  you have acquired.

it’s a spirituality that doesn’t need  quick and  easy answers, it shuns the  trite and  cliché,

it understands Christ is here somewhere in this mess, and  no matter how dark or foreboding it gets, we will at some point see him,

friday will give way to sunday

and  while there are blood and  tears and  heartache

and  at times we’re barely holding on by our chiny chin chin

when  we do stumble into the  daylight, when  we do find a little respite, a sliver of shalom, when we eventually do meet the resurrected Christ

it will be real and  it will matter and  it will be true and it will satisfy.

i’ve seen you lament and laugh, cry and  celebrate, weep  and  wail

and  then  whoop it up,

pull your hair out from pain and frustration

and  then  dye it bright  colors because someone’s throwing a party.

you have taught me  not to fear the  full spectrum of human experience but to embrace it, to celebrate it, to wallow in it and  soar  with it. many  Christians are eager to point out that Jesus said he was the son of God and  that’s the  wedge  issue, the  crux of the  faith, the  divisive point you have to take  a stand on. i believe  he is. and  in the  same breath, i remind you that he also referred to himself a shocking number of times as

the ‘son of man.’ you know what  ‘son of man’ means?

human. now that’s shocking. take a stand on that. what  he stressed, what  he thought was a big deal, what  he called  himself time  and  time  again, was son of man.  it is a big deal  for a human to be divine, but if you’re looking  to provoke, and  if you want  to focus in on astounding claims he made about himself, how about the mind-bendingly revolutionary claim  of the divine being human? weeping, spitting in mud, eating,

drinking  so much he’s accused of being a drunk,

letting  people clean  his feet with oils, inviting people to touch his wounded sides.

humanity, now that’s interesting. Jesus invites us into the  full spectrum of human experience, from  lament to exhilaration and  everything in between.

from  basking in the presence of God,

to cursing at the  top of your lungs from the rooftops because God is nowhere to be found,

shrieking till you’re hoarse ‘my God, my God, why have you screwed me’

now that’s life. that’s real. that’s divine.

you’ve shown me  how to find God in the  full spectrum of human experience. so, there are some thanks,

and  a lesson you’ve taught me.

now, some warnings.

first, there is a meta-movement in the  scriptures, an arc to the unfolding story of redemption. it is the movement from  word to flesh. think of the ten commandments. one of them  is ‘don’t kill.’ it’s absolute base level requirements here: could  you just not murder each other? but then the  story progresses, it evolves, and  so later Jesus says that greater love has no one than  to lay down their life for another. and  then  he gives his life, out of love. so the  earlier ‘could you try not to kill each other?’ grows into ‘could you love with such fidelity and devotion that  you’d actually give your life for another?’ the command, the words, to protect and  preserve life take on flesh and  blood, to the point where it’s an entire pervasive pattern of life, second nature, in which you seek the well being  of others ahead of your own. word takes on flesh. this is the story of Jesus, the word, the creative life force of the universe, taking  on a body and  moving  into the  neighborhood. so when Jesus talks  about the  kind of life God has for us, he talks about us experiencing in flesh and  blood a whole  new way of being.  serving, caring, discovering, thanking, forgiving, loving, tasting, embracing, doing whatever we do for the  least of these. it’s an embodied faith, one  that’s dirty and  bloody with sleeves rolled up and  sweat on the  brow. it’s one where there’s plenty  of wine at the  party. i write this to you because of how many  of you have  been  challenged about your participation in the life of this church, often with the accusation: but what  do they believe over there at mars hill? as if belief, getting the  words right, is the  highest form of faith.

Jesus came  to give us life. a living, breathing, throbbing, pulsating blow your hair back/tingle your spine/roll the windows down and  drive fast/experience of God right here,  right now.

word taking on flesh and  blood. and  so you’ve found  yourself defending and  explaining and  trying to find the  words for your experience which  is fundamentally about a reality that is beyond and  more than  words. so when  you find yourselves tied up in knots, having  long discussions about who believes what,  a bit like dogs doing that  sniff circle when they meet on the sidewalk, do this: take out a cup and  some  bread

and  put it in the  middle of the  table,

and  say a prayer and  examine  yourselves

and  then  make sure everybody’s rent is paid and  there’s food in their fridge and  clothes on their backs and  then  invite everybody to say ‘yes’ to the  resurrected Christ with whatever ‘yes’ they can  muster in the moment and  then you take that bread and  you dip it in that  cup in the  ancient/future hope and trust that there is a new creation bursting forth right here right  now and  then together taste that new life and liberation and  forgiveness and  as you look those people in the eyes gathered around that table from all walks of life and  you see the  new humanity, sinners saved by grace, beggars who have found bread showing the  others beggars where they found it

and  in that moment space


remind yourselves that

this is what you


remember, the  movement is word to flesh.

beware of those who will take  the flesh and want to turn  it back  into words

flowing from  this, then,  a second warning. there is a question that lingers in the air, the question that people actually talk about

the question, of course, is ‘what will happen to mars hill?’ now please don’t be deceived by this question,

thrown off by it’s ubiquity,

misled by the  way that it is freely, commonly asked, as if the  answer is somehow out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.

the way advertising works is you try and  associate the impersonal, inanimate product you are selling with something personal and  embodied. sometimes famous people are paid large sums of money to endorse a product, in the hope that  whatever this person is known  for, whatever they’ve accomplished or achieved, will, in essence, rub off on the  product. so that you’ll think  ‘michael jordan, the  greatest basketball player ever, is talking about this plain white  t shirt that  manages to keep its shape around the neck after

multiple wearings, so this must be the  greatest plain white  t shirt ever.’ that sort of thing.  the  effort, then, is to associate the  tangible product with an intangible value  or concept embodied by a person. several years ago apple  began running those annoying/clever  ads in which the  nerdy pc has a stilted

conversation with the  cool guy mac.  microsoft took a beating in those ads,  so they began running a series of counter ads in which groovy hipster folks look at the  camera and  say ‘i’m a pc.’ once  again, trying to associate an inanimate, impersonal product with actual  flesh and  blood, breathing, living people.

you, my friends, have  the  opposite problem. when  people ask ‘what  about mars hill?’ or ‘what’s mars hill going to do?’ it’s as if mars hill is a disembodied reality with a life of its own. here’s the twist: the church is not an inanimate, impersonal product. there is no ‘mars hill’ in theory. there is no abstract, disembodied entity  mars hill apart from  the people in this room who ARE mars hill. so when  people say what’s going to happen to mars hill? they’re asking what’s going to happen to you. what  are you going to do? how are you going to respond? you are the  answer,

because you are the church. mars hill is not a product,

it is a gathering of people. you.

that’s why there’s no sign.

how does a person find mars hill?

well, you have  to meet one.

remember when  woody yelled  at buzz: ‘you are a toy!!!?’ i’m woody, yelling at you, buzz: you are a church! you are the  answer to the  question what will happen to mars hill. and  so please,

i ask of you,

i plead with you, to answer well.

prove them  wrong. bring your friends, give money,

get more involved. believe.


practice hope.

there is an essence to this place, a spirit. that’s how organizations and  institutions and  movements and causes are: they develop patterns and  energies that manifest themselves in fairly consistent ways over time. and  you know it the moment you walk through the door. you size a place up, you catch what’s in the air, you read the  body language of a place. you’re here because of the  essence and spirit of this place. people are welcome here,  and they know it. Christ is alive here,  healing people and liberating people and giving new life. there is mission here, cause, purpose beyond  these walls. and you know it. i know it.

it’s a reverent hum just below  the  surface of everything we do here. you can  taste it, feel it, smell it.

don’t  mess with that. protect that,  preserve that. you know what  i’m talking  about.

if you grumble and  complain and  become agitated and  divisive you will ruin the  pure, sweet, humble, captivating essence that is present in the  midst of this community.

when  in doubt, stop talking and  start praying. breathe.

stay calm,  be cool, be nonreactive. breathe some more.

once  again, mars hill is going to be in new territory, trying things, experimenting, learning together where the new life is.

it’s what  we’ve  been  doing from the  beginning.

if you want  this church to be some other church, then  please leave  this church and  go to that church. this church has it’s own unique path,

it’s own particular dna

and  you must be true to it,

or you will lose something vital to who you are, and  why God brought you together.

in the  coming days the  question for each of you is: are you bringing hope and  creativity and  life here or are you using your voice and  power to cut it down? are you destroying something beautiful? do you believe  that  this church’s best days are ahead of you?

if your answer is anything other than yes, you are already answering the question.

this leads me  to a universal truth:

people whisper  sweet nothings to their lover but they yell ‘fire.’

reflect on this with me. love, whispered. danger, yelled. fear, it turns out, is often louder than  love. sometimes fear is good, and  yelling even better, especially when there actually  is a fire.

but other  times fear is toxic, destructive, the opposite of love.

remember that. look for it.

and  call it out, confront it when  you come across it. fear has no place  in this place.

when  you’ve leaned over and  looked  into the  tomb,

when  you’ve ran huffing and  puffing  to your friends,insisting in between breaths, ‘he isn’t in there!’ fear is no longer the  game you’re playing. you’ve been  seized by hope.

and  hope has it’s own rules. and  now for a confession.

i have  tried my best to live at peace among you.

i have  done  everything i could  to the best of my awareness to keep my side of the street clean.

i have  tried to be a voice of hope, help,  healing, and  truth to you, year after year, sunday after sunday. i have  tried to apologize whenever i wronged you,

i have  knocked on some of your doors, asking  for your forgiveness,

and  you have been gracious, and  kind,

every time.

and  so,

with all of these years here, all these experiences,

all those sermons,

i confess to you today

that i feel like i’m just getting started.

like i’m a rookie, a freshman, a newb. i feel younger than ever.

i feel like the  world is big and  wide and  open  and  things are possible that if they were revealed right now, we’d turn to each other to say ‘no way! that’s awesome!’

i believe  that God has made this day, that it’s good,

and  you can have joy in it. even if you’re limping.

can  you make this confession with me  today?

can  you say with me  ‘i feel like i’m just getting started?’

you can  be old,

you can  even  be over 40,

you can  have a lot of life behind you, and  yet you’re being  renewed,

you’re being  reborn,

you’re wide eyed and  filled with wonder, you’ve tasted and  you’ve seen in such a way that you realize

you’re just getting started.

the past and  the present and  the future begin to meld into one giant  eternal now

and  you understand in that  moment

what  Jesus was talking  about when  he said he came to give us that kind of life.

i feel like i’m just getting started. i feel like i’m just getting started. i feel like i’m just getting started. from  quantum physics, we’ve learned that when  two subatomic particles are bonded, attached, together, and  then  they’re separated they exhibit  fascinating behavior. they demonstrate that they are aware of and affected by that  particle they were once  attached to. this is called  quantum entanglement. we’ve been together for a number of years, and now we’re parting, but forever we’ll be entangled. and  i celebrate that. and  so i stand today in your midst,

happy,  satisfied, anticipating magnificent tomorrows, feeling  like i’m just getting started,

and  i say, until next time,  with as much love as i can possibly muster:

grace and peace be with you. your brother rob