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Joni Eareckson Tada - My Suffering is Sacred

Joni Eareckson Tada has lived in a wheelchair for more than forty years due to a diving accident at age seventeen. She is the founder of Joni and Friends, a non-profit organisation founded in 1979 to accelerate Christian ministry in the disability community through various outreach and church training programs. Joni and Friends has distributed more than thirty-eight thousand wheelchairs worldwide through Wheels for the World. Joni is also an author of more than forty-five books, including When God Weeps and A Lifetime of Wisdom: Embracing the Way God Heals You.

Joni Eareckson was born on October 15th 1949 in America. She became a Christian at a Young Life camp in November 64 when she was 15 years old.

She was a real American country girl, taking part in the sports of horse-riding and swimming in particular. After a diving accident in 1967, she became a quadriplegic in a wheelchair not able to move her legs or hands. She says she became dangerously close to becoming clinically depressed.

The darkness that followed was lifted when friends from her church rallied around her family, offering help, hope and ascribing positive meaning to her affliction. It was the church that made all the difference.

During two years of rehabilitation, she spent long months learning how to paint with a brush between her teeth. Her high-detail fine art paintings and prints are sought after and collected. Because of this she became known in America taking part in several TV shows and in 1976 she wrote her first book, "Joni" and in 1979 World Wide Pictures' made a full length film about her life. It was that year that Joni began her ministry, began her radio show and got married to Ken Tada.

To date Joni has written 30 books and has visited 35 countries. In 1979, Joni founded "Joni and Friends" whose primary work includes: assisting churches to minister to individuals and families affected by disability, evangelising and discipling people affected by disability, mobilising volunteers and churches to participate in ministries such as Family Retreats, and Wheels for the World providing resource referrals and assistance to individuals and families affected by disability. She now works alongside other worldwide staff committed to Christian outreach into the disability community.

In Luke 14:13,25 it says "But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and you will be blessed - make them come in, so that my house will be full."

Joni is convinced that people with disabilities of all types will be blessed, but the key is that "you will be blessed". She says when we reach beyond our comfort zones, people are blessed by the realisation that we are all richer when we recognise our poverty, we are strong when we see our weaknesses, and we are recipients of God's grace when we understand our desperate need of Him.

For years, Joni was one of those who insisted, “Handicaps happen to other people, not her.” But all that changed on a hot July afternoon in 1967 when her sister Kathy and she went to a beach on the Chesapeake Bay for a swim. The water was murky, and she didn’t bother to check the depth when she hoisted herself onto a raft anchored offshore. She dove in and instantly felt her head hit something hard — her neck snapped and she felt a strange electric shock. Underwater and dazed, she felt herself floating and unable to surface for air.

Thankfully, Kathy noticed her plight and quickly came to the rescue. When she pulled her out of the water, even though her arm was slung over her sister's shoulder, she couldn’t feel it. Joni knew then that something awful had happened. Later, at the hospital, she learnt she had severed her spinal cord and would be left a quadriplegic for the rest of my life. She was devastated.

Lying in the hospital, she recalled that just months earlier she had asked God to draw her closer to His side. Now, stuck in bed, she wondered if her paralysis was His idea of an answer to that prayer. If this was the way He treated new Christians, how could He ever be trusted with another prayer again? Joni said in an interview, Obviously, God’s ways were far different than mine, and, for a long time, that idea both frightened and depressed me. But where else could I turn? To whom could I go? I remember praying, “God, if I can’t die, then show me how to live.” Many days after ward, I would sit in front of a Bible, holding a mouth-stick between my teeth and flipping the pages, praying that God would help me put together the puzzle pieces of my suffering.

Psalm 79:8 says, “May your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need”. Basically, she wakes up almost every morning in desperate need of Jesus — from those early days when she first got out of the hospital, to over four decades in a wheelchair, it’s still the same. The morning dawns and she realises: “Lord, I don’t have the strength to go on. I have no resources. I can’t ‘do’ another day of quadriplegia, but I can do all things through You who strengthen me. So please give me Your smile for the day; I need You urgently.” This, she says, is the secret to my joy and contentment. Every morning, my disability — and, most recently, my battle with cancer — forces me to come to the Lord Jesus in empty-handed spiritual poverty. But that’s a good place to be because Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).

Another anchor is Deuteronomy 31:6, where God tells me, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified [of quadriplegia, chronic pain, or cancer], for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you”. I’m convinced a believer can endure any amount of suffering as long as he’s convinced that God is with him in it. And we have the Man of Sorrows, the most God-forsaken man who ever lived, so that, in turn, He might say to us, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” God wrote the book on suffering and He called it Jesus. This means God understands. He knows. He’s with me. My diving accident really was an answer to that prayer to be drawn closer to Him.

God never intended that we should suffer alone, that we should suffer for nothing. This is why spiritual community is so important to a person who has undergone a catastrophic injury or illness — his family and the church keep him connected to reality, help ascribe positive meaning to his pain, bring him out of social isolation, and point him to the One who holds all the answers in His hand. Without family and the church, a person with a disability is adrift in a sea of hopelessness. We must not let that happen.

First, it’s okay to cry; it’s important to grieve. Romans 12:15 shows us that God doesn’t expect us to stifle our tears, so we shouldn’t expect it of each other. It’s a hard thing to first swallow a bad medical report or the birth of your child with a disabling condition, and it takes time to digest the reality. But sooner or later, we have to put aside the Kleenex and start thinking, start searching out God’s heart in the matter — because it’s not enough to merely cope or adjust; God wants us to embrace His purpose for the pain as good and acceptable (Rom. 12:2).

Inside every person using a wheelchair, a white cane, or a walker is a person who is just like you, someone with hopes and dreams, likes and dislikes, opinions and views, and memories of childhood and vacations. Try to look past the stroke ravaged body or the blind eyes or the wheelchair to see that this individual is an image-bearer of God — a person with human dignity and life potential. And look for ways to help that person discover his innate worth and purpose for living — realising that he can help you discover the same.

For more than ten years Joni dealt with chronic pain (very unusual for a quadriplegic like her). Piled on top of her quadriplegia, at times it seemed too much to bear. So she went back and re-examined her original views on divine healing to see what more she could learn. What she discovered was that God still reserves the right to heal or not to heal as He sees fit.

And rather than try to frantically escape the pain, she relearned the timeless lesson of allowing her suffering to push her deeper into the arms of Jesus. She likes to think of her pain as a sheepdog that keeps snapping at her heels to drive her down the road to Calvary, where, otherwise, she would not be naturally inclined to go.

In an interview she said, "I’m honoured to lead a gifted team of like-hearted believers who are passionate about making Jesus real among people around the globe who are suffering from all sorts of disabilities and diseases. Through our Wheels for the World outreach, gifted physical therapists travel with us to hand-fit needy disabled people in developing nations to wheelchairs. Plus, we give them Bibles and do disability ministry training in local churches. Joni and Friends also holds scores of Family Retreats each summer across the United States and around the world, serving more than thirty-five hundred disabled children, adults, family members, and volunteers."

Joni went on to say that she prays that God will give her many more years of strength and stamina so that she can continue to do the work He’s called her to. It’s why “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me — the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” That’s my paraphrase of Acts 20:24 and, for me, it’s what makes me get up in the morning with a smile.


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