It was many years ago when I learned the story of Joni Eareckson-Tada, who at the age of 17 lead a very active life. She loved riding horses and swimming. Then in 1967 Joni’s entire world changed. When diving into a shallow lake, Joni broke her neck, and at that time she became paralyzed from the neck down. For Joni, that accident was the beginning into a descent that she never imagined that she would have to take in her young life. She lost all feeling from pretty much the neck on down. She had to be placed in traction with her head shaved, holes drilled into her skull and the pins of the skull traction tongs placed into her skull, which assured that she would be unable to move her head. Joni wrote that she was put into traction with in a Stryker bed frame in the hospital, it’s a bed that sort of sandwiches the patient between two surfaces to allow for the patient to be turned over while securing their body. She went through rehabilitation for two years, and during that time, and the time that followed (though not as significantly), Joni struggled with discouragement, depression, despair, and suicidal thoughts. Friends and family rallied around her, and helped her work through the anger and frustration.
She had her share of well meaning people offering advice as to how this unthinkable thing could have happened. “I was sick and tired of pious platitudes that well meaning friends often gave me at my bedside. Patting me on the head, trivializing my plight, with the 16 good biblical reasons as to why all this has happened. I was tired of advice and didn’t want anymore counsel. I was numb emotionally, desperately alone, and so very, very frightened. Most of the questions I asked, in the early days of my paralysis, were questions voiced out of a clenched fist, an emotional release, an outburst of anger. I don’t know how sincere my questions really were. I was just angry. But after many months those clench fists questions became questions of a searching heart. I sincerely and honestly wanted to find answers.” Good Christian counsel, and introspection within the Bible, and within herself, helped her to understand that God could be served and glorified through her accident.
Joni says: “When people see us smile in the midst of chronic pain, cancer, quadriplegia, whatever. They will look at us and think her God must be pretty great to inspire that kind of loyalty, I think that’s amazing that she can smile in the midst of her affliction. I want what she has. I need her joy. Oh, what a rich testimony that is.”
It’s now 50 years later, and Joni is still in her wheelchair. She’s vibrant, happy, and she indeed has, and continues to, glorify God through her accident. She tells other that it would be an amazing miracle if she could get up out of her wheelchair and on to her feet. But, what she stresses is more important is that miracle of salvation that others come to as a result of her testimony. Salvation lasts for eternity, while this life is temporary. Joni realizes that one day she will rise out of that wheelchair, she will walk, run, and dance – all within the presence of God – and will be able to do so for all eternity. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14b, ESV) “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4, ESV)
Joni’s inspirational story reminds each of us that we choose where we want our focus to be when we are in the midst of trials, pain, and suffering. We can withdraw into anger, darkness, and ourselves. Or, we can choose to glorify God no matter where we are, for as long as we are here. Joni is extremely active in advocating for people with disabilities. She’s an accomplished artist. She has Joni and Friends a disability ministry that she and her husband Ken Tada operate. Joni is a living testimony that our lives don’t end after we face calamity and that if we turn to God, if we love God, He will work all things out for good.
If you want to learn more about Joni’s story, the internet will give you some insight. To write this reflection, I also re-read Joni’s autobiography: Joni: an Unforgettable Story
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, ESV)