Lessons from Joni
What some persevering people in difficult situations taught me
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Our current cover story in WORLD features our 2017 Daniel of the Year: Joni Eareckson Tada. You can read more here about the remarkable life she’s led as a quadriplegic and disabilities advocate since her diving accident 50 years ago.
Earlier this year, I spent time shadowing Joni at church, work, and home. Here are a few takeaways from that experience:
Her extraordinary life is fueled by ordinary Christian living. Joni’s gone to the same small church for more than 20 years. She’s loved the same Christian husband for more than 35 years. She’s worked in the same disabilities ministry for 38 years. And she’s prayed, sung, and meditated her way through the Scriptures for half a century.
As far as I can tell, that’s her secret: Simple, Biblical living rooted in yearly, monthly, daily, hourly, moment-by-moment dependence on God’s grace poured out by His Spirit. The means are simple, but the grace is amazing.
More than once, I heard her sing: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
Endurance produces character. Actually, the Apostle Paul said this first. But how you can see it in a life that has required a mind-boggling amount of endurance over 50 years, even for the simplest tasks.
It’s inspiring to browse the paintings in Joni’s small art studio, but it’s important to remember she didn’t put a pencil in her mouth and sketch a beautiful portrait the first day of her rehabilitation. She spent month after month drawing line after line until a picture started to emerge.
And so we’re called to spend day after day drawing line after line in our families, friendships, churches, work, and our ministry to others. It’s often messy and we often fail, though if we endure, a clearer picture starts to emerge. But sitting at the easel isn’t easy. There are no shortcuts to Christian living.
God’s strength really is made perfect in weakness. One of the joys of this assignment was meeting other people with special needs.
Earlier this fall, I traveled to New Jersey for a Joni and Friends conference, and on a Friday night in the fellowship hall of Trinity Baptist Church in Montville, N.J., I chatted with David Densel, a 36-year-old man who has been in the church with his family since childhood.
David has cerebral palsy, but he doesn’t allow that to stop him from serving other people. For example, when he learned another member of the congregation was deaf, David learned sign language. He gave up television time to watch VHS tapes of sign language instruction.
It’s not always easy, but he perseveres. “With my hands the way they are it makes it way harder,” he says. “But as long as they understand me—so what if you have to do the signs a little differently?”
Joni told the Friday evening crowd—including lots of people with disabilities—she was looking forward to a new body one day, but that she’s really excited about the promise of a new heart that’s free from sin. “That’s the finish line,” she told them. “We’re going to be with the Lord Jesus, and then the real story will unfold.”
David turned to me, his eyes grew wide, and a smile spread across his face. I wondered how many people smile like this when they think about heaven. And I thought about the advantage this man in a wheelchair has over so many others who think they don’t need Christ, or who never think about the life to come.
“She’s right,” he whispered with excitement in his voice. “This is only the beginning.”
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