By Rob Bell, Special to CNN
One Friday evening in the fall of my senior year of college I got a headache.
I took some aspirin, laid on the couch, and waited for it to go away. But it didn’t; it got worse. By midnight I was in agony, and by 3 a.m. I was wondering if I was going to die.
As the sun rose, my roommate drove me to the hospital where I learned that I had viral meningitis. A neurologist explained to me that the fluid around my brain had become infected and was essentially squeezing my brain against the walls of my skull.
So that’s what that was.
The doctor informed me that it would take a number of weeks in bed to recover.
This didn’t fit with my plan.
I was in a band at the time. We’d been playing shows in the Chicago area for a while and had just landed our biggest club dates yet in the city – all of them scheduled over the next several weeks.
We had to cancel all of them.
As this reality hit me, laying there in that hospital bed miles from home with a brain infection, I distinctly remember asking no one in particular “Now what?”
I was devastated. This was not how it was supposed to go. The band was my life, my future, my singular focus. We had just canceled our biggest gigs ever. Eventually I recovered enough to return to school but things weren’t the same. Whatever had been driving us in the band wasn’t there like it had been before and so we came to the mutual conclusion that it had been great while it lasted and now it was time for the band to come to an end.
I don’t think I’d ever felt more lost. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had all this energy and passion and I wanted desperately to give myself to something that mattered, but I had no plan.
I would walk around campus in a daze, muttering the same prayer over and over, which took the form of “Now what?”
Do you know that feeling when you’re playing soccer and you lunge for the ball but you aren’t fast enough and the player on the other team has already kicked it quite hard and the ball travels with ferocious velocity and force into your groin region and you keel over, gasping for breath, your voice several octaves higher?
It was like the existential version of that.
And then, things took a strange, beautiful turn.
In the days and weeks following the band’s breakup, people I barely knew would stop me out of the blue and say things like, “Have you thought about being a pastor?” Friends I hadn’t talked to in months would contact me and say, “For some reason I think you’re going to be a pastor.”
Me, a pastor? Seriously?
The idea began to get a hold of me and it wouldn’t let go. A calling welled up within me, a direction, something I could give myself to.
I tell you this story about what happened to me 19 years ago because I assume you’re like me – really good at making plans and plotting and scheming and devising just how to make your life go how it’s “supposed” to go.
We are masters of this. We know exactly how things are supposed to turn out.
And then we suffer. There’s a disruption – death, disease, job loss, heartbreak, betrayal or bankruptcy.
The tomorrow we were expecting disappears. And we have no other plan.
Suffering is traumatic and awful and we get angry and we shake our fists at the heavens and we vent and rage and weep. But in the process we discover a new tomorrow, one we never would have imagined otherwise.
I have interacted with countless people over the years who, when asked to identify key moments, turning points, and milestones in their lives, usually talk about terribly difficult, painful things. And they usually say something along the lines of “I never would have imagined that would happen to me.”
Imagined is a significant word here. Suffering, it turns out, demands profound imagination. A new future has to be conjured up because the old future isn’t there anymore.
Now I realize that what happened to me – the fluid around my brain swelling up and squeezing it against the walls of my skull – is nothing compared to the pain and tragedy many people live with every day.
But that experience irrevocably altered my life. Nothing was ever the same again. My plans fell apart, which opened me up to entirely new future.
This truth, about the latent seeds of creativity being planted in the midst of suffering, takes us deep into the heart of the Christian faith. We are invited to trust that in the moments when we are most inclined to despair, when all appears lost and we can’t imagine any way forward – that it is precisely in those moments when something new may be about to be birthed.
Jesus hangs naked and bloody on a cross, alone and abandoned by his students, scorned by the crowd, and yet defiant, confident, insistent that God is present in his agony, bringing about a whole new world, right here in the midst of this one.
This is a mystery, and one we are wise to reflect on it, because of the countless disruptions we experience all the time.
God is in those moments, grieving with us, shedding tears with us, feeling that pain and turmoil with us, and then inviting to trust that something good can come from even this.
So keep your eyes and your heart open. Be quick to listen and slow to make rash judgments about how it’s “all going to turn out,” because you never know when you’ll find yourself miles from home, laying in a hospital bed with a bad case of brain squeeze, all of your plans crashing down around you, wondering how it all went wrong, only to discover that a whole new life is just beginning.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rob Bell.