Eighteen months ago, I was wondering what my future would hold. I had just wrapped up four rounds of chemotherapy in December 2019, and it had taken a tremendous toll on my body. Along with neuropathy, tinnitus, and brain fog, my energy was terribly low, causing me to sleep much of the time. Although few people had any idea what I was going through, some days I spent 19 hours in bed.
In addition to the physical toll chemo brought, my fatigue was rough psychologically. I had always prided myself on “productivity” – getting things done – and now I was accomplishing virtually nothing. Worst of all, I saw no improvement of my symptoms as the weeks and months ticked by. This lethargic lifestyle seemed destined to be my permanent condition.
Amid this battle to recover from cancer and chemo, another disheartening thing happened when my role at Inspiration Ministries ended after nearly 15 years. My job had been a big part of my identity, and I struggled to envision God’s purpose for me in the coming years. My unexpected retirement looked dismal indeed.
But thankfully, the Lord began to turn this frustrating situation around. No, I’m still not fully “back to normal” in terms of my health. And no, the turnaround didn’t occur in a single moment or as the answer to a single prayer.
Yet, during the past 18 months, God has begun to revitalize me through a series of simple, unexpected lessons. Even if you’ve never had to deal with anything like cancer or chemo, I’m confident some of these lessons will transform your life as well:
- H.O.P.E. – Help One Person Everyday. When someone posted this acronym on Facebook last year, I found it extremely encouraging! I realized that although I might not be able to save the entire world, at least I could find the strength each day to help ONE other person.
- One day at a time. I began to practice my mom’s favorite Bible verse, Matthew 6:34. Jesus said we only need grace for the problems we will encounter today. Then at midnight we’ll get a new 24-hour supply of grace to handle whatever new challenges will come our way. His grace will always be sufficient, but only for one day at a time (Matthew 6:11, 2 Corinthians 12:9).
- Changing my focus. In May 2020, I spent time complaining to God and journaling about my pathetic lack of energy. His message to me that day was life-changing: “Jim, instead of focusing on the energy you DON’T have, you need to utilize the energy you DO have.” I told the Lord this was a ridiculous idea. After all, I only had a few “good hours” each day, and the rest of the time I was in bed. But gradually I realized how profound this principle is. Though I only had a few good hours, what would happen if I started to gratefully praise God for them? How could I start utilizing those precious few hours to touch people’s lives in a positive way? Once I changed my focus, I began to realize that my few good hours were sufficient to do everything the Lord was calling me to do.
- My 70th birthday Legacy Book. My daughter Molly and her cousin Amy came up with the idea to create a Legacy Book for my birthday this January. They obtained page after page of encouraging notes from people I had helped in various ways over the years. It was SO eye-opening to realize that these friends weren’t commenting on my powerful sermons or insightful books and blogs. Instead, they were expressing gratitude for how I had taken time to personally invest in their lives. It was like the closing scene in “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” where people showed up to express appreciation for a retiring schoolteacher who felt his life had been a waste. The Legacy Book showed me that, even with diminished energy, I still could meet people for breakfast, lunch, or coffee, just like I had been doing for many decades. When one of my friends asked about my vision for the remaining years of my life, I immediately answered, “To add more pages to this book – changing more people’s lives through my encouragement.” Having a renewed sense of purpose was incredibly energizing.
- A church staff position (you’ve GOT to be kidding!). Another big step forward came when Davide Colletta, the lead pastor at my church (www.missioncommunity.cc), asked if I’d be willing to help with pastoral care for 10 hours a week. Just a few months earlier, I had emphatically told friends I would absolutely never agree to serve on a church staff again (based on my low energy and memories of unpleasant experiences on previous church staffs). Yet I decided to give it a shot, and it has been a FANTASTIC experience. Basically, my job is to get together with people for breakfast, lunch, or coffee to encourage them, provide discipleship, and offer Biblical counsel. I get to do exactly what I’ve always enjoyed doing! And I’m particularly excited about opportunities to mentor young people – leaving a legacy for a new generation of leaders. Things at church have been even more fun than usual in recent weeks, with a mini revival breaking out in our Sunday meetings. Perhaps I will share details in a future blog.
- Starting to take walks again. When my oncologist asked me 18 months ago whether I was getting any exercise, I told him definitely not. My longest walks were between my bed, bathroom, and kitchen, and once a day I walked down my short driveway to get my mail. It seemed unfathomable to consider walking any further, for I was simply too tired. But this year I decided to push myself and see what would happen. First it was just 500 or 1,000 steps a day. Then I got up to 5,000 steps. Now I’m sometimes hitting over 10,000 steps, which is a mind-blowing change from where I started. And here’s an amazing and paradoxical discovery I’ve made: The more energy I expend, the more energy I gain. Wow! The change has been almost unbelievable.
- The power of grandchildren. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my good friend Bernard Baker 5 years ago. Bernard always sees the bright side of things, and this conversation was no exception. After listening to me complain about something in my life, Bernard said, “Jim, just wait until you have grandchildren. It will change your life!” In contrast to how Bernard sees the bright side, I pointed out the gloomy side that day: “If I have grandchildren, I’ll probably be even more depressed, because my children all live so far away.” Well, Bernard was right all along. My four grandchildren provide one of the coolest and most energizing parts of my life – a reason to keep on living awhile longer. And next month two of my grandkids will be moving from San Diego to the Carolinas, less than an hour away. What a remarkable development!
My friends, I don’t know what you may be going through at the present time, but I DO know this: God cares about you, and He is able to revitalize your life in ways you never dreamed possible. I don’t know if it will take Him 18 months or some other length of time, but He can do it!
Let me leave you with one of the most powerful verses in the Bible, the words of Jesus’ mother to those serving at the wedding feast of Cana: “Whatever Jesus tells you to do, do it!” (John 2:5). Are you willing to do that? This story had quite the happy ending when these men followed Jesus’ instructions: He had saved the best for last, just as He wants to do for you!