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Finding strength in weakness

A conversation with Joni Eareckson Tada

Joni Eareckson Tada directs Joni and Friends, an organization in Agoura Hills, Calif., that accelerates ministry to persons with disabilities and educates the church to serve with them. Injured in a diving accident in 1967, Joni has used a wheelchair for 32 years. She is an artist and author and travels throughout the world. She recently spoke with Ann Floyd, associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

Evangel: What’s the biggest challenge in trying to educate churches about ministry to persons with disabilities?

Joni: The challenge is to change the landscape of the American church. First Corinthians 12:22 (NIV) says, "Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable."

Most Christians tend to think, Of course, we must include these poor invalids who have no one else to turn to. We’ll be nice to them. We will follow the Luke 14 mandate. We will have a banquet for these dear people, these precious people, and we will be such a blessing to them.

Jesus lands kind of a knockout blow to that perspective in Luke 14, when He says, "Go … and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame" (v.21). He says, "Although they cannot repay you, you will be blessed" (v.14). The church will be blessed.

So the challenge is to help the church see why she will be blessed. Why are the weaker indispensable? We learn in the Word that God’s power shows up best in weakness. The weaker members are indispensable because God showcases His power through people with disabilities in a church.

We often try to reach the professional athletes, businessmen, young people … those we perceive as assets. We think, If we get these people saved, what an asset they will be to our church. Jesus says, "You find the kid with cerebral palsy, make him come in, and you will be blessed because his wheelchair will then be the platform from which My power will infuse the other members of the congregation."

The challenge is helping the church to see the important link between God’s power and the ingredient of weakness in a church.

Evangel: Some people want to help persons with disabilities, but don’t know how. What do you tell them?

Joni: Follow the example of Jesus. In the Gospels, He’s connecting with the blind, the deaf, the lame. It irks His disciples.

In Mark 10 Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, is creating a ruckus and everybody is telling him to shut up. Jesus instructs His disciples to call Bartimaeus. To the crowd’s consternation, He does not deal with Bartimaeus; He deals with the disciples. He knows they can be a part of the solution in this situation. When the disciples see the high-life priority Jesus places on a blind beggar, suddenly they’re not saying, "Shut up"; they’re saying, "Cheer up! … He’s calling you" (v.49).

Don’t focus on the drool of a person with cerebral palsy or the deafness or the white cane or the walker. Focus on the Lord Jesus. When you get to know Him; when you have a passion for Christ, you will be passionate about the people He loves. You will not feel squeamish; you will not think any duty distasteful, because you will have become compassionate about Christ.

Evangel: What do you say to the person who has recently become impaired or is suffering loss to encourage him or her to live life to the fullest. Your life shows it can be done.

Joni: People look at me in my wheelchair after 32 years. I smile; I appear to be successful. But when I am with a person who has recently gone through trauma or grief — a spouse has left, she has given birth to a baby with multiple handicaps or has lost a loved one in an accident — I tell that person quite frankly about the way I wake up every morning.

Just because I’ve been in a wheelchair for 32 years doesn’t make me a professional. I wake up in the morning and hear my girlfriend come to the door. My husband has already left for work. I hear water running for coffee in the kitchen. And usually — 95 percent of the time — this is what I pray: "Lord, I cannot do this. I have no resources for this. I am tired of living in a wheelchair. Thirty-two years is a long time. For me to live is Christ, but to die would be gain. I have no smile for this woman when she comes to my bedroom door in a few minutes. I need You, Lord Jesus. I need You desperately. I need You urgently. Would You please give me power and strength and perspective? Would You please give me a smile for this woman who is about to walk through this bedroom door? Would You please let me borrow Your smile?"

Then when my girlfriend comes through the bedroom door, I turn my head on the pillow and my mouth cracks into a smile that’s sent straight from heaven.

God resists the proud; that is, the self-reliant or the self-resourceful. The people who, when the alarm clock rings, throw back the covers, hop out of bed, take a quick shower, give God a tip of the hat with a quick quiet time and race out the door on automatic. God resists people like that. And it’s little wonder that the church today lacks power. We are supposed to be boasting in our weaknesses; we are supposed to be delighting in our limitations and infirmities; we are to be glorying in them. Because, as the apostle Paul says, then we know Christ’s power rests on us.

Our weaknesses force us to go to God out of desperate need. Then God delights to pour out His grace.

Evangel: How do you keep yourself refreshed in the Lord?

Joni: My hobby is to memorize hymns — all the stanzas. There’s good theology in some of the ancient hymns. The lines are so full of wonderful hooks and barbs for my thought life.

I carry a hymnbook in my van. When I’m at a doctors appointment or at the drugstore in a long line, I often sing. That’s usually a conversation opener. People will say, "My, you’re a happy person." And I’ll use it as a springboard to say, "It’s only because I have a reason for living." And invariably they ask, "What’s that?"

Evangel: Tell us about your Wheels for the World program.

Joni: We collect used wheelchairs, by working with churches and/or Christian radio stations and ship them to one of three prisons where inmates fix them like new. We partner with corporations that ship cargo containers overseas. Occupational and physical therapists fit these wheelchairs to people with disabilities. The individual receives a Bible and is connected with a church in the community. We do disability ministry training.

Evangel: When God Weeps is your latest book. What has been the response?

Joni: I have gotten an unusually large amount of response from people who have been devastated by suffering and are in an absolute quandary to understand the goodness of God in it all. They feel like their lives are spinning out of control, but they read that book and realize that God is good in the midst of suffering.

We need to be reminded often that we’re stronger when we recognize our weaknesses; we’re richer when we recognize our poverty. That’s what Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.


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