Tony Fernandez: Today, you can see our setup is a little bit different. The reason our setup is a little bit different is because today we have a treat. Instead of having a sermon today, we’re gonna have an interview with an elder from our congregation. Somebody that you guys know very well. But I… See more
Tony Fernandez: Today, you can see our setup is a little bit different. The reason our setup is a little bit different is because today we have a treat. Instead of having a sermon today, we’re gonna have an interview with an elder from our congregation. Somebody that you guys know very well. But I wanted to introduce him because in Galatians Chapter 5, verse 23, the Bible says, “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
I have never met somebody who embodies these characteristics we just described as much as the man we are going to be interviewing today. Joe Stearns has a perspective of what it means to have a new normal. And we’re excited about this interview. And so without further ado, let me invite Joe Stearns onto our set.
Last June, June 21st of 2019, Joe had a stroke. And as we were preparing for the sermon series, we thought that there would be no one better to share about their experience going from an old normal to a new normal than you. And so we’re gonna we’re gonna be talking a lot about what that meant and how you transitioned from one stage to the next. Before we get into more deep questions, let me ask you one to just kind of kick us off.
We’ve enjoyed a lot of worship here today. It’s a great thing as we always enjoy our singers and our musicians. And so I just want to ask you, just kind of off the top of your head, what is your favorite church song ever?
Joe Stearns: That’s a tough one, but perhaps ‘Lead Me to Some Soul Today.’.
Tony Fernandez: Why?
Joe Stearns: Well, I feel like I’ve been given a mission to share the gospel. And that song is a short song. I don’t know if you know what the word ditty means, like a short, little succinct song. And it captures this idea of wanting to help other people become Christians and doing it from the heart. It’s just a simple, straightforward song.
Tony Fernandez: Joe, you are one of the most mission-minded people that I have ever met. And I think that’s very fitting of a song for you. So, yeah, like we mentioned just before, our goal here is for hopefully some of the people who are listening to this interview to have some perspective about what it means to go from normal to something that you have to move forward through, that you can’t even necessarily hope to go back. But realizing that there’s an opportunity in what is before you. And so, can you tell us a little bit about what happened on June 21st of last year?
Joe Stearns: Yes. So, not to talk too long I’ll kind of separate the feelings from the events, so if you want me to talk about the feelings you can ask.
But on June 21st, which was a Friday, it was very hot. I don’t know if people remember, but last summer was very hot. It got to 96, 97 degrees. I was supposed to go for an appointment for lunch with our campus minister, Mike Degree. And I decided to squeeze in, instead of going to the driving range and hitting some golf balls before that appointment, I decided to fit in a short executive course round of golf. It usually takes like an hour and 15 minutes. I was playing alone and I was sweating profusely and I didn’t have any water with me. And I went up onto the 14th tee of Cooper Colony Golf Course just down the street. And I got up to hit the golf ball and I couldn’t hit it.
It was the strangest thing, it was like I got up on the tee box and I got ready to hit the golf ball and I felt like I’m not going to be able to do this. Like, I don’t exactly know what’s happening.
So I tossed the ball and it kind of squirted off in the grass. And I walked to follow the ball and I had trouble walking following the ball. And I’m like, I’m having a stroke. So, the very first thing I thought was denial, like I would keep playing this game, pretend like this baby never happened, you know? And I walked up and I tried hitting the ball again and I just couldn’t hit it. And I was still able to walk some and I walked over to my golf cart.
I’m sitting on the 14th tee alone on my golf cart going, I’m having a stroke, like, what am I supposed to do now? You know, my wife’s a doctor, but I’m not a doctor. I had heard somewhere that if you have a stroke, you’re supposed to get medical care as quickly as you can. I don’t even know why, but I’m like I really wanted to go to the 15th tee. And I drove the golf cart to my car and I was able to put my clubs away and everything like that.
And then I had a decision. Would I call for an ambulance or would I drive myself to the hospital? And I made the wrong decision, which was to drive myself. But nothing bad happened on the way. I made a phone call that, everything was happening so quick, but I had to call my wife and tell her that I was having a stroke, which that’s the feeling side, like maybe I could share that later.
Tony Fernandez: Yeah, I mean, you can you can certainly share that.
Joe Stearns: So, this is very cliche to say, but my life was going before my eyes like I was developing Hemi paresis, so I had a blood clot in my brain and the entire right side of my body was beginning to not function correctly.
And I’m like, am I going to keep being able to speak? I don’t know. Like, I’ve heard a lot of people, when they have strokes, I can’t talk anymore. Am I going to lose my intellect? Am I going to lose my reason? I mean, it’s probably not appropriate to share but would I be able to be intimate with my wife? Would I be able to pick up my grandkids?
Sorry. I think the thing that hit me the most was I built my life in the ministry around attempting to help other people. And I’m like, am I going to be able to have any impact on people from this day forward?
Now I have to call my wife, because she’s going to be impacted by the changes that are happening to me, just like I’m being impacted.
I had a friend when I was in college who had to take care of his uncle who had a stroke and that uncle was bedridden. And I’m like, is that what my wife is facing? Like, I’m going to go home. I’m going to be bedridden the rest of my life. So, I’m making that call and my wife’s a physician. She’s going to know in an instant there are the ramifications of that. So I called her because she didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to.
I said, Pam, I’m not kidding, I’m having a stroke and my right side doesn’t work. And she called Memorial Hospital and they had a stroke team that actually met me at the emergency room drive in there. So I’m really glad she called because that made a big difference.
And I don’t want to go too long in this, but I had a moment that was just this astonishing moment where I walk in the E.R., this is not the astonishing part, but the security guard guy goes, you can’t park there. I said, Buddy, I’m having a stroke and I toss him my keys. I said, you can move my car. And I walk into the hallway. Actually, they put me in a wheelchair.
And this physician who’s leading the stroke team it takes him about five minutes to evaluate me, and this was the astonishing thing I was going to share.
He said, we can give you this clot buster medicine called TPA. That’s the acronym for it. There’s a 96 percent chance that your life will go better to stay forward because you take TPA. There’s a 4 percent chance that it’ll cause extensive brain damage and you may lose the full function of your brain.
I’m like, are you dropping this one me? And he was he was like, so what would you what would you like to do? This is the whole rest of my life and I could get gorked out right now. I’m like, well, let’s do the 96 percent.
You know, and that lady in the hallway, an RN, took that TPA right there in the hallway, after a CAT Scan, and squirted that thing in me, I found out later was $150,000 dollars worth of medicine in that bag. And I think it’s been helpful.
So that’s kind of the summary of what happened on June 21st. It’s been eleven months.
Tony Fernandez: Well, thanks for sharing all that, Joe. I remember coming back from Brazil when you had the stroke. I was in Brazil on a trip with a bunch of the campus students. And I remember coming back into the hospital to go visit you and that first day and I was back and, you know, you talked a lot about what you had experienced.
But the thing I always remember is, you know, you told me the story and then you said there’s one thing we have to discuss, which is what’s going to happen with my job. You’ve been on staff as our community group leader and doing such a phenomenal job. And obviously, here as an elder in the church and the question you asked was about your job. And so I wondered and you also kind of reference this and this idea of impact. So I wonder what what’s the feeling like? What was the thing that went okay, I’m not going to be able to help anybody? Can you allow us to go into your mind a little a bit?
Joe Stearns: I think that’s what ministry is about, as well as the Christian life in general, is just being, as Jesus said, the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That’s kind of a baseline for what we’re supposed to be doing.
And here I was with a ministry position getting paid to do that at an enhanced level, like to really try to make an impact on people. And I didn’t know if I could. And the thing that I was thinking about for my wife that I didn’t want to be a burden to her, was what I thought about for the church. I’m like look, if I can’t make an impact on people, cut me off the staff, like find somebody in there who can take my place, who can continue to have an impact on people, hopefully do better than me and I can be retired or figure out how to work from a wheelchair or whatever I had to do.
You know, I didn’t know how things were going to play out at that point. When we were talking, by the way, thank you for coming to see me in the hospital.
Tony Fernandez: You were you were able to have some impact in the hospital, right? Even in that kind of state, there was some impact. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Joe Stearns: Well, so I had hoped that during the stroke I’d be able to help somebody become a Christian. And nobody gave me care in the hospital eventually became a disciple. At least not in these last eleven months. But I did believe that I’ve kind of developed, like you, a mature attitude about evangelism. Like some of the people you share your faith with will become Christians. But a lot of people, they may not make the decision to become Christians, but you can still have a positive impact in front of them. You can still be courageous about the gospel. You can still be genuinely concerned about them. You can attempt to be the nicest patient they’ve ever had. You know, rather than being one of those patients that drives them crazy.
Thanks for the kind words about the fruits of the spirit that you said about me. But you can attempt to exhibit the fruits of the spirit and bring glory to God, even if it’s in that kind of quiet example, rather than maybe having a life changing impact now.
So, yeah, sort of like planting the seeds or allowing people to connect with God based upon the fact that you serve God and this is the man that you are.
Tony Fernandez: You mentioned kind of you didn’t want to get too much into feelings, but I’d like to kind of poke and proud a little bit: as you were thinking about that ride, that ride from from Cooper Colonial to the hospital, you know, you mentioned kind of thinking your life was flashing before you. What were the things that you thought in that moment were over for you?
Joe Stearns: Well, I didn’t know a lot about what what a stroke would do to you. But I had some general ideas and I was afraid of them, you know.
I was afraid of not being able to speak. I was afraid of not being able to think. I was afraid of not being able to walk or talk.
And, you know, really, it came to a head five days later. There were things that I was losing, deficits that I was developing because of my stroke.
But I was doing the tough guy thing, you know? I played football, the job I had with my feed store, lightning. Yes, those were physically tough and mentally tough. My dad was a Green Beret Ranger, airborne soldier, I kind of came from that tradition of being mentally and physically tough, not letting things like that get to you.
So, I kind of was like dealing with the reality to some degree. But when I was in the hospital after two, three days on, thinking I’m going to have to face this and I’m going to have to grieve about it. It didn’t hit me all at once emotionally. After five days in the hospital, I’m like when Pam comes again, I’m going to cry with her. And I was able to make this conscious decision. And I can’t do like actors do where they cry when they’re prompted, you know, but I’m like, this thing is building up inside of me.
And it was hitting me that I had lost the ability to do some things. I wanna show you this. So, these are some of the things that have happened to me. So, with my left hand, which is my good hand, I can point. This is me pointing with my right hand. I can’t I can’t point anymore.
I can open my hand. I can close my hand. But I can’t do fine motor skills with his hand. And I cannot do that with my arm. I can’t do with my leg, and I can’t do with my foot. And I’m putting this together, you know, like I’m never going to be an athlete again. I’m an old athlete.
I’m 62. I was 61 when I had my stroke, but when I was 60, you and I played basketball together at the men’s retreat.
I mean, I was a old and overweight, but I still love that, you know. And in my 50s, I did some triathlons and I loved to ride my bike for exercise.
And I’m like, I’m gonna lose it all. I will never play basketball again.
You love basketball, so you can connect with me there a little bit, if you can just imagine it’s not a choice. You don’t have a choice anymore. I’m like, I don’t know if I can swim. I don’t know if I can ride a bike.
And then my voice was changing in the sense that I couldn’t sing like I used to and singing was something I was really, maybe sometimes sinfully, proud of. But I loved to sing. And I’ve been a song leader in this congregation and stuff. And I’m like, I’m singing flat and I know it. And I can’t hit the tenor notes. And I’m a tenor, except I’m not anymore. Like maybe never again.
And so there’s these areas of my life and I’m like, I’ve got to face this and grieve over this. And kind of like I’ve heard that when people get a limb amputated, they grieve over it like you’ve lost a family member or something. I know I can’t do the denial thing and the tough guy thing forever.
Pam came. I never cried like that, it was humiliating. Like I was wailing, like I’ve never cried like that before in my life, like snot was coming out. I was sweating in the arms of the PTA and all of the hospital personnel because I was loud. I couldn’t even control myself.
And I kind of got it out of my system. And I still grieve every now and then. It’ll hit me again, you know? But that was therapeutic for me.
Tony Fernandez: Joe, you mentioned all the stuff that you kind of you lost physically. I appreciate your vulnerability even showing us here at your hand and all that and the way your arm functions now and even thinking about what you lost as a as a man to like thinking about some of these things.
And I guess as we kind of make a transition, the fact is that lots of people are going to lose things because of this virus. They are going to be there’s going to be some deficiencies, some something that happened. Maybe it’s a job or maybe it’s just the the feeling of security with their finances or whatever.
So what do you think is missing from the conversation about the new normal? About what people are going to experience based on your own circumstances and how you were able to go from Joe 1.0 to Joe 2.0? And what do you feel like is maybe missing from the conversation?
Joe Stearns: I think that there’s things about the Christian life that can help the Christian that I wish people who were not Christians had those things. So there’s constants that I can rely on that have carried over from the old normal to the new normal. But they could survive, those constant things could survive any change, not just a pandemic. And it’s a long conversation that’s beyond today, but to try to succinctly hit just a couple of the things that God has provided for us.
One thing is that I have the hope of the resurrection. So I actually believe it talks about this in 1st Corinthians 15. I believe I’m going to get a new body that my old body is corruptible and that my new body will be incorruptible. And I believe in that. It’s a basic hope of the Christian. Now, one 100% of people are going to lose their health. And God has decided that we’re in a system where we’re going to get ill. We’re gonna age, we’re gonna die.
And I think if people will put their hope in the resurrection, they can weather the loss of their health. I mean, some people lose their health immediately through accidents or from dying suddenly. But most people go through a gradual decline in their health. And to have the hope of the resurrection can help see people through that.
Tony Fernandez: Totally. Yeah. That’s so good. When you think about going into a new normal, what do you think were some things that allowed you to move from from old Joe to new Joe seamlessly besides kind of the idea of the resurrection? What are some things that you were able to hang your hope on?
Joe Stearns: Sure. We had talked a little bit about my favorite song and the mission of evangelism, but evangelism is only a piece in a bigger idea and that’s the idea that I am called by God to make an impact on other people out of love. I don’t mean try to get something out of them.
My calling is to love other people, to love my wife, to love my children, to love my grandchildren, to physically, literally love my neighbor like my next door neighbor. But neighbor, of course, is used figuratively in the scripture to mean the people around you. Whoever is close to you.
And so that carried me through, as you said, the 1.0 into the 2.0. I could do that. I can’t do basketball, but I can show love for other people. And so it was calming.
I think a lot of people get narcissistic when they have hard times. They get very self-focused and like, how can you avoid the pity party? How can you avoid feeling sorry for yourself when things take a turn for the worse? And I think God has provided a great buffer, and that is to love other people.
And of course, to love God, which is the greatest command. But man, as long as I could talk and as long as I could think, I could very actively show love for other people. And so, you know, I wish I could still do a lot more physically active things, but I have found great comfort in two things, which is counseling other people or receiving counsel from other people and teaching the Bible. I love to teach the Bible. And I actually thought I might lose the ability to teach the Bible. And that was a big fear of mine. And you guys have let me teach a lot of Bible since my stroke. I found it incredibly fulfilling to teach the midweek Romans class shortly after my stroke. I found a lot of comfort in that.
Tony Fernandez: If you’re watching us now and you’re thinking that there might be some people in your sphere, that that would need to hear a message like this or are going through some hard times, this might be a great time to share the post now, because the next couple of questions, I think will be helpful for anybody who has gone through a hard time or maybe is soon to be going through a really difficult time.
Joe, I want to ask you, were you mad at God?
Joe Stearns: What a good question. I’m going to give you a disappointing answer. I did not get mad at God like most.
Tony Fernandez: Really?
Joe Stearns: Yeah.
Tony Fernandez: What was that like?
Joe Stearns: I had some I had some doctrine in place. I had some theology in place before the stroke that carried me through the stroke.
I’m going to say something now that a lot of people maybe have never heard in a sermon, but it’s a very key principle of the Christian life, and that is that we are destined to die because we deserve to die. And a lot of people have never looked at death that way. But because of our sin, we’re supposed to die.
And I had already accepted this idea before my stroke that I will age and have illness and have death as part of a randomized process, that God is built into the fabric of humanity, that we will go through that process because we deserve it. And so when I when I had the stroke, I thought not that I deserved the stroke per say, but that I’m part of this process where you age and you get sick and you die because that’s the lot of man. That is the punishment we have for our sins. And the great mercy that God shows us is actually not to avoid physical death, but to have the hope of eternal life, which is which is wonderful.
But when when I had this stroke, I already believe that God was not supposed to treat the Christians better with this issue of death than people who are not Christians. In Matthew Chapter 5, it says God sends the sun on the righteous and the unrighteous. He sends the rain on the evil and the good.
And so I’m like, you know, I’m not supposed to dodge this because I had good quiet time, because I have a prayer life, or Bible study. I’m not supposed to get out of this because I’ve abstained from certain sins, like we’re all in this together, Christian or non Christian. And that really helped me. Now I was living the reality. It wasn’t a theory any longe.
I would say there was times I was tempted to be angry with God, but I could walk my way through it. I’m like, this is what’s supposed to be happening to me. And here’s a whole second topic, and I’ll go through this as quickly as I can. But I believe life is a test of your faith. I believe that’s a primary purpose of life. And so here I was having my faith tested like never before in my life. And I’m like, I will prove faithful in this. I’m not going to blow this test. I’m not going to do. Like it says in Job 1, it says, Job did not sin against God by accusing him of wrongdoing. I’m like, I’m not going to accuse God of wrongdoing. This is the lot of man. I will try to prove faithful and I will do my best to pass this test.
Tony Fernandez: That’s great. So it sounds like you had set up in your mind already this idea that like men are destined to die because of sin, that’s in us and through us and around us, and that God does not show favoritism to disallow death in his community, that we’re all going to die. But the grace of God is that we get to go to heaven one day. And so really if I want to put words in your mouth, really the greatest hope we have is in heaven. That’s even more of a reason to become a Christian because you have no hope here on Earth.
Tony Fernandez: You have no chance at anything here. Your hope is locked for you and heaven. And you’re probably not gonna get very much. I mean, you’ll have some days that are good, but life ultimately is decaying and dying and destined for failure. I wanted to ask you, as you know, lots of the people who are listening right now are going through some stuff or they’re trying to figure out and it’s not a stroke but it’s something else. You know, it’s a loss of a job or the the mourning of a past experience or whatever. But if you could give them some straightforward advice, just like something to take away, something they can hang their hat on and go, look, I’ve gone through a transition and you were to speak to them. Like, if they were in the hospital, or whatever their thing is, and they were just about to begin the moment of their transformation. What would you say to them?
Joe Stearns: Well, I think I would caution them to avoid a misunderstanding. I’ll explain that in a second. And then I would I would hang on to three things.
So, the misunderstanding I would avoid is this idea that Christianity, that God’s role in Christianity, is to help you avoid any hardship. Like the deal with Christianity is “God can you give me blessing after blessing? My life will be better than the other people. And then I’ll get to go to heaven with him.”
We all face the same hardships, whether we’re Christian or non Christian. And so I would take that misunderstanding and set it aside. And that’s a common misunderstanding. I think in 21st century Christianity, it probably has been all through the ages like “God is my servant. He’s gonna make my life easier.” I just think that’s a misunderstanding.
But the three things I would encourage people to hold onto, I’ve already touched on one is to have the hope of the resurrection.
Before I talk about the other things, I actually believe that eternal life has already started for me and that death is like a speedboat. You know, like it’s already begun for me. Like, I think the fabric of heaven, which, by the way, I believe will be a new earth. I think the fabric of heaven is what we’re beginning to experience in the church already. Now we experience it here imperfectly and it will certainly be better on the other side of the resurrection, but it’s already begun. So I hold on to that. So that’s a hope, the hope of eternal life.
But I’ve already started with the second thing; I’m having a mission of living a life of love. And the third thing is there’s a purpose we’ve been given and it’s to love God and to glorify God.
I have felt God with me through this all, like I haven’t talked much about my relationship with God because what really has helped me a lot is how I could try to help people. Almost as a comfort to get through the stroke, that I could focus on other people and not on myself all the time.
But the real, big deal in life is, God. This life is not about me. Not about you. It’s about God. It’s about his Son, Jesus Christ, and my relationship with God. It’s been an ethereal comfort, like a supernatural comfort. I feel like a little bit of a cushion from the full pain of it. Probably because I have the Holy Spirit, you know.
Well, God’s given me a full support system. Like he’s give me the spirit, given me the scriptures, given me the friendships and the church. He’s given me prayer. Like there’s all these things that God has provided for me. But I would hang on to hope, the mission, and your purpose.
Tony Fernandez: That’s amazing. It’s been an honor to ask you these questions and to hear from you. And I’m amazed by the way that God has taken your life and has has multiplied your impact in the midst of this time and has giving you more impact.
And what seems like a loss has produced a multiplication, which is so cool.