Joni Eareckson Tada, the founder and chief executive officer of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, is an international advocate for people with disabilities.
A diving accident in 1967 left Joni Eareckson, then 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. After two years of rehabilitation, she emerged with new skills and a fresh determination to help others in similar situations. She founded Joni and Friends in 1979 to provide Christ-centered programs to special-needs families, as well as training to churches. Joni and Friends serves thousands of special-needs families through Family Retreats, and has delivered over 100,000 wheelchairs and Bibles to needy disabled persons in developing nations.
Joni’s lifelong passion is to bring the Gospel to the world’s one billion people with disabilities. Joni survived stage 3 breast cancer in 2010, yet keeps a very active ministry schedule. She and her husband Ken were married in 1982 and reside in Calabasas, California.
EASLEY: What are your greatest challenges in the morning? When you wake up what comes into your mind? What comes into your head about the day? Is it staying in the marriage? Is it staying in the job? The fight at work? One of your kids that is breaking your heart? Is it a health issue? A financial issue? We all have them. Pain is the common denominator. It comes in different doses and different times. Today on the broadcast we have the extraordinary privilege of talking to a fellow pilgrim; a suffering pilgrim, unlike any I have ever known. Joni’s story may or may not be familiar to you. But as we talk for these two programs, you’ll get to peek into a person’s heart who lives with a disability that few understand and all multiple complications of that. And as you hear her story, it will embolden you to how you face your struggles, how I face my struggles.
Welcome to the program today. It’s a delight. It’s an honor; it’s a privilege. It’s just downright fun to have Joni Eareckson Tada in the studio virtually today.
Joni, thanks for coming on.
TADA: Oh, absolutely Michael. Anytime I can spend a couple of minutes with you and your friends to me is bolstering to my heart.
E: Well you know you have become one of Cindy’s and my, not just literal hero, but a dear, dear friend in the past six years. We so cherish anytime we get with you and Ken. Its always a delight to see you and now we can do this without someone else telling us what to do.
T:I like that. I like that alot.
E: For those of you who do not know, a young seventeen year old athletic specimen dove one last time into a lake and as a result became a paraplegic. Joni has been in a wheelchair for, is this the 47th year?
T: Well, I’m coming up on forty-seven years and I tell you, Michael, I’m not going to believe the lie that I’m too old or too disabled to do this. So I’m going to believe that despite the pain, despite the challenges of just getting me up in the morning in a wheelchair, I can do this. I can do this!
And Michael, I was so grateful, to sense this, I don’t know how you put it. It was just a wave of fresh grace entering my heart. It is just amazing to me constantly how prayer is such a means of grace that when we pray unceasingly here, there and everywhere, long prayers, short prayers, on the spot, on the moments intercessions, or petitions, God uses this as an incredible means of grace.
E: You and I’ve talked many, many times and correspond many times through e-mail. I marvel at your stamina because I’m not in a wheelchair. I just live with chronic pain, and I feel like a wimp when I hear what you do, and the tenacity that you have.
Joni, you went through about two years of rehabilitation, post your injury. After that time you were painting some fabulous art work, using your teeth and a brush. You’ve had to retire from that because of the pain it creates in your cervical region, correct?
T: That’s correct. It’s just been a little too hard, too challenging, for me to wheel up to my easel, park the brakes and twist my neck this way, and that, and lean to the left to the right, just to make all these exacting brush strokes. I realized somewhere along the line that probably, all those many years of painting and the many years that I drove my own van, I know that sounds crazy, but, yes quadriplegics can drive. The van did not have a steering wheel, but that’s another story. But all the years I was twisting and leaning over to steer and brake the van, and even to manage my brush strokes at the art easel, it was doing pretty significant damage to my spine.
E: Help us understand. How can a quadriplegic who has no use, per se, of your limbs, how can you sense pain?
T: That is a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. All I know is that for thirty years, I had no pain. If I were to close my eyes, I could of imagined that below my neck, I was just sitting on blocks of concrete. That’s what it just felt like. I felt like my body was a big block of concrete. But as soon as I crested fifty years of age, and forgive my immodesty, I went through menopause. Oh my goodness! Suddenly, I began experiencing searing pain in my hip and lower back and my shoulders. I still insist that that menopause had something to do with it, but doctors say, “No, It’s just an anomaly of spinal cord injury quadriplegia.” As spinal cord quadriplegics get older, they just have an increasing level of this inside kind of pain. I wish there was a drug for it. But no medication can really touch this. It is a strange anomaly. It is connected only with spinal cord injuries. So, for me its just a matter of taking deep breaths, deep breathing, stretching, drinking lots of water, making certain I’m sitting up properly, getting good rest, eating right, taking anti inflammatories. Anything I can do to live well and lean hard on the grace of God.
E: Joni, you had to face another issue with breast cancer.I mean when does it stop?
T: Well, I can resonate with what you’re saying. When does it stop? Well you know what? On this side of eternity, the Bible tells us, that “in this world, we will have trouble.” Those words came from the mouth of our Saviour Himself. We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And elsewhere, we’re told, I Peter 2:21. That’s such a mainstay. What’s it say, Michael?
E: I Peter 2:21, For this you have been called, for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.
T: Michael, I cannot tell you how often I think of that verse. And it touches me deeply, that my Saviour, Jesus, dying on the cross going through unthinkable, unbearable, excruciating pain, even while He was on “His deathbed” He’s reaching out to others. He’s ministering to the thief dying next to Him on the cross. He’s counseling His mother. He’s advising His best friend, the apostle John, at the foot of the cross. He’s still at HIs greatest point of need, crushing, bruising need, He’s thinking of others. That’s the example you talked about in I Peter chapter two. That’s the example, that we are to follow. It’s sets a high bar, but you know what, the Holy Spirit resides within us to give us strength, to give us courage, to give us the enablement, the divine functioning needed to follow in Jesus steps. I keep thinking, Michael, of that rich welcome the Bible speaks of. One day we will enjoy a rich welcome into heaven, and I want to do all I can down here on earth to enlarge my eternal estate.
I mean sometimes my days, my days, are miserable. They’re just, knock my head on the wall, I can’t stand living like this and when I start thinking that way, it’s so real, it’s so honest, it’s so human, I remember that if I persevere, I am enlarging my eternal estate. I’m increasing my capacity for worship, and service and joy in heaven and the finish line isn’t all that far away. Oh my goodness! I can almost hear the cheering crowds in the grandstands of heaven. I know that’s what spurs me on and I hope that’s what spurs my friends on who are listening.
E: We’re talking to Joni Eareckson Tada, author of more than fifty books. Joni has served on the National Council of Disability and Disability Advisory Committee for the United States Department. She is a Senior Associate for Disability Concerned for the Lausanne conference of World Evangelization, Advisory Capacity to the American Leprosy Society, the National Institute On Learning Disabilities, and on and on and on it goes what you’re involved in.
In all of this, you and I have shared on John Ankerberg show on a number of occasions. It takes you two people, two hours, to get you ready in the morning, and two people, two hours, to put you to bed at night.
T: That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?
E: It is a lot!
T: It is a lot.
E: I whine about having to get up and take some pills to take the edge off my pain, and I think of you. You don’t know how often I think of you in the morning and pray for you. And go “My word, here I am whining because I feel like a gravel truck ran over me and that poor woman, it’s taking two people, two hours just to get her functional.”
T: Well there are many days, and perhaps your listeners have heard me say this, but it bears repeating. There are so many days, Michael, my head is on the pillow, my eyes are closed, and I’m already either winning or losing, the battle for the day with my eyes closed. I’m thinking about what’s ahead: the appointments, the expectations, the routines, and it just feels overwhelming before I’ve even open my eyes. So before I do open them, I pray “Lord Jesus, I have no strength for this day. I can’t stand the thought of another bedbath, more toileting routines, someone giving my legs range of motion exercises, giving me a bed bath, strapping on my corset, putting on my leg bag, putting on my support hose, pulling on my slacks, flinging me into a wheelchair, pushing me to the bathroom, brushing my teeth, brushing my hair, ahhhh. “God, I am so overwhelmed with this routine, and it hasn’t even started. I have no strength for it. But, Lord Jesus, you do. You have the energy. You have the resources. Would you please get up for me this morning, because I cannot do it. Just fill this instrument, this weak vessel with your power, and your prospective. When my girlfriend comes in this bedroom to start this routine, to get me up, may I welcome her with a smile. Give me your courage for the day.” And you know what, by 7:30 in the morning, when the routine starts, I do have a smile sent straight from heaven. But, I tell you what! It does not come easy. It is rigorous. It is rugged. It is hard fought for, hard won, but I think that’s the Christian way to begin a day. God forbid, I should be the kind of person who would hit the alarm, throw back the covers, jump out of bed, take a quick shower, scarf down breakfast, give God a “tip of a hat” quiet time, and then zoom out the front door on automatic cruise control. Too many Christians live that way. I don’t think that’s the Christian way to wake up. You got to wake up needing Jesus desperately.
E: A passage I return to again, and again, and again. I’ve sent countless people through hand notes, and email notes, is 2 Corinthians 1: 3-7 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort; who comforts us in all of our afflictions so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any afflictions with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, “ we don’t talk a lot about that, do we?” So also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; Paul’s writing, or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.
Joni, how do we put shoe leather on that? It’s wonderful language. It’s other worldly language, but when you are at your dark places, when I am, when the afflictions are winning our emotions and our minds, how do you articulate, somehow Gods using this to comfort someone?
T: Well I think the insidious thing about suffering, is that it demands to have a man alone. It’s just like sin in that regard. It demands to have you alone. But God never intended for any of us to suffer alone. As you were reading, Michael, that passage, I kept thinking how as we shared today, our struggles, and yet our victories, theses wonderful anchors from God’s Word, we’re not alone. They’re a lot of people listening to us who are feeling overburdened by the twenty four seven, non stop, day to day, routines that are just wearing them down from pain, or a difficult family situation, perhaps caring for someone with a disability in the family, maybe a child or an elderly parent. They are gaining strength. They are being built up. They are being enriched and encouraged by these wonderful Scriptural anchors that we are sharing. Yes, the sufferings of Christ come to us in abundance, but so does God’s comfort. I think if we can just break beyond the prison walls of silence and share our heartfelt needs and our weaknesses and just tell a close intimate friend, “I can’t do this anymore. I need you to pray for me.” That friend could very well be the means of grace through which God will pour out his enablement upon you. So, I think one way to put shoe leather on it is to call up a friend. Confess your weaknesses, describe your propensity to become bitter against God when the pain seems overwhelming, ask for help. These are all good ways to create spiritual community around yourself when you’re feeling so alone in the midst of your suffering.
E: Joni, you mentioned alone and of course that we couldn’t have scripted that any better. There’s a song of recent newsworthiness, “Alone,Yet Not Alone.”
E: AS we listen to that Joni, tell us a little bit of the back story. How did they come to you to sing it? I can see Ken in there pushing your diaphragm, helping you work that song.
T: That’s right. I should say it was last year around this time, that I was at the same National News Broadcast Convention in Nashville, and I was the main speaker for the closing banquet and in my message, I wove hymns of the faith in and out of my points. I would speak a little and then I would sing a hymn to illustrate the point I had just made. I must have sung about seven or eight hymns in this speech and afterward friends came up to me. I learned later on that they were connected with the production of the movie, “Alone, Yet Not Alone.” They asked if I would be willing to record the theme song of their movie of the same name. And my first honest to goodness response to them was, “Are you sure you don’t want Amy Grant? She’s a singer. I don’t make a career of it. I’m a disability advocate. I’m not a professionally trained vocalist.” They were insistent. They said, “No, the fact that I was in this wheelchair, they would give credence and depth to the performance of that song.” Well they weren’t kidding, because I agreed to do it and last fall I was in a little studio in Santa Monica, California, and I needed God’s strength singing that song. My husband had to, Oh, he had to push on my diaphragm to help me get enough lung power to hit the high notes, at least on somewhat good pitch.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a video camera. They were videotaping this song and then it ends up on youtube and people actually have a chance to observe, how desperately hard I am leaning on God and my husband and on prayer to perform this song. When I listened to it after it was finished, I thought, Michael, “That’s not me. Is that my voice?” Oh, my goodness. I felt that the Lord somehow in some way, must have graced, must have anointed that ballad in a very personal way during that recording session. Because it certainly was listened to by a great many people, not the least of which is a lot of people in the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts, and Sciences, who voted for the song to be nominated an Oscar, which to me was quite an honor.
E: It’s hard to stop talking with Joni. She’s such a compelling individual, such a great story, such a great attitude and she always encourages me. I hope she encourages you as well. Well on part two of our interview with Joni, we’ll pick up the story about the controversy of her song. But for now, I want to take you back to where we began. What are you struggling with? What are the challenges? What are the difficulties? What are the things that you keep you back? You look at a room like Joni looked at that overwhelms you, you look at a life, a day, you look at your marriage, you look at your kids, you look at some situation, your finances, and it just overwhelms you. What are you going to do about it? When I have trouble getting up the morning because of chronic pain, when my kids make poor choices, when friends of ours go through cancer, and all kinds of complications that we face in life. How will you do it? A part from a relationship with Jesus Christ, a part from His Spirit indwelling you and me, I don’t know how people do it. I marvel that anyone can. But I do know that God loves us. Christ loves you and He cares deeply about your pain. His Spirit indwells you. If you have trusted Christ and Christ alone as your Saviour, the very person of Christ, His Holy Spirit indwells you. He comes along side. He’s our Comforter. He comes alongside to help us to do that which we cannot do in the flesh. The most remarkable thing to me about the Christian life, is that we are not trying to make the flesh better. We’re not trying to better or smarter sinners. We’re trying to be controlled by His Spirit to follow Him to do His will. Its’ that simple. He loves you. He cares about you deeply. He provides His Spirit as the One to walk alongside and comfort you. When you and I expend our resources, there’s nowhere else to go, except Him. So why don’t we go to Him first? This is Michael Easley InContext.
Ready for Part II? Listen now.