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Heart surgery yields spiritual lessons

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Todd Starnes, a reporter and anchor for Fox News Radio and a former assistant editor of Baptist Press, has journeyed from open heart surgery and extreme weight loss to running the New York City Marathon.

Along the way, Starnes’ relationship with God became more relevant to his daily life. He still remembers a question posed to him before his heart surgery.

“One of the little kids in our family asked, ‘Cousin Todd, when they open up your heart, will they see Jesus?’ That’s a cute little question, but it’s really a profound question as well,” Starnes told Baptist Press. “Honestly, when I look back, I don’t think they would have [seen Jesus] to some extent. I’m a believer in Jesus. I was saved when I was a teenager. But I think we go through periods in our life when we just don’t follow Christ like we should … [when] we’re not totally sold to His plan for our lives.

“It was a tough question. It made me really think and ponder, ‘Am I a follower of Christ just in the good times when things are going great or in the bad times?’ I think I was one of those guys that was kind of following Christ in the good times and not necessarily when things got hard,” he said.

After leaning on his faith in Christ more during the surgery and recovery stages, Starnes said he came out on the other side “not necessarily some sort of a super-spiritual person who had these great epiphanies while I was out.”

“But I think I came to an understanding, really over the past couple of years, that it’s about living a daily walk with Christ and following Him every day. And it’s a decision you have to make,” he said. “Am I going to use this day to follow God and serve Him, or am I going to serve myself? I have to be honest. There are some days when that doesn’t work out all that great. It’s hard.”

Starnes has written a book titled “They Popped My Hood and Found Gravy on the Dipstick,” a humorous and sometimes irreverent look at the trials and triumphs along the way to a new lifestyle and a new understanding of God’s sovereignty.

“I think when people read this book — 2005 I had open heart surgery, 2006 my dad dies, 2007 my mom passes away. You look at those things, and those are overwhelming things that happen to a lot of people, not just me. My story is not unique” of facing “bad stuff in your life, but through the power of the Lord and the Holy Spirit, you can come out on the other side OK.”

“You can wake up with a smile on your face and know that God is still on the throne and He is still in control.”

Starnes kept an audio journal of his experiences starting with the news in May 2005 that he would die within months unless he underwent open heart surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve. And while balancing his job as an embed reporter with President Obama on the campaign trail in 2008, Starnes sat at his favorite Starbucks on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn and wrote his book.

“A lot of people like to isolate themselves and have total silence. They’ll sequester themselves in a hotel room,” he said. “But I was the exact opposite. I needed to be around people. And honestly there were a lot of tough things that I had to write about, and it just helped me to be able to be around people when I wrote about those things.”

Starnes attends The Journey, a Southern Baptist church in New York City, but he said it was First Baptist Church in Fair Oaks, Calif., that helped him through surgery when he lived in Sacramento.

“That church embraced me and loved me and encouraged me through some really, really hard times,” he said.

His Baptist roots mean everything to him, Starnes said.

“It gives me a sense of identity, and it gives me a sense of companionship. When I found out I was moving to New York, the first thing I did was get on sbc.net and look for ‘Church Search’ where I was able to search for Southern Baptist churches in and around the New York City area,” he said. “It gave me a sense of community. When I moved to New York, I realized I wasn’t alone but there were likeminded believers who were there.”

In his book, Starnes pokes fun at Baptists for knowing how to host a good dinner on the grounds complete with enough fried chicken to make Colonel Sanders blush. But in comments to Baptist Press, he warned of the sin of gluttony, which he said too many churchgoers overlook.

“I think food is great, but I don’t think it should become the god of your life. We’re really quick to preach about drinking too much or not smoking and doing things that are the obvious Baptist things,” he said.

“But I think we also have to take into consideration overeating and gluttony and know that’s one of the seven deadly sins as well. It’s physically deadly, not just spiritually deadly,” Starnes, who weighed 300 pounds before heart surgery, said. “I think to be an effective follower of Christ, you have to live a healthy lifestyle — to understand that, yes, food is good and you can enjoy it and you can eat fried things and you can eat chocolaty things, but you have to do it in moderation.”

With his weight under control and his heart working again, Starnes trained for the 2007 New York City Marathon and finished the race in 6 hours and 53 minutes. Next, he’d like to try an ironman triathlon, he said.

“It’s this idea of challenging yourself and pushing yourself. The ironman is biking and swimming and then a full marathon,” he said. “I always thought it would be kind of cool to do.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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