The following is a transcript of “A Conversation with Joni Eareckson Tada,” S02 E09 of Beyond the Page, a Life is Story podcast.
people, book, disabilities, life, god, josh, jesus, church, johnny, chronic pain, disabled, 45th anniversary, readers, friends, promises, heal, boyfriend, weaknesses, read, find
Joni Eareckson Tada, Josh Olds
Josh Olds 00:14
Hello and welcome to Beyond the Page, a Life is Story podcast. I’m Josh Olds and today I have a very special guest. I’m speaking with Joni Eareckson Tada. In 1967, Joni was in an accident that left her quadriplegic. In the years since, she has become this incredible force for disability advocacy, founding her organization Joni and Friends, in 1979 – I hope I’m getting all these dates correct. She published her autobiography, Joni: An Unforgettable Story in 1976. That really put her into the limelight. And it’s that book that we’re here to talk about, although we’ll get into those other topics as well. Joni, thank you so much for being on the program.
Joni Eareckson Tada 00:54
Oh, Josh, good to be with you. And of course, all of our subscribers. Thanks for tuning in. And I trust our time together will be rewarding and enriching to those who listen. I’m very excited for it.
Josh Olds 01:06
It has been 45 years since you published Joni. That is…that’s a long time. Does it still surprise you that your book is still in demand? And that your story is still wanted today?
Joni Eareckson Tada 01:21
Absolutely, Josh, I mean, 45 years…you would think that no one would know about this book anymore. But I think part of the reason people are still reading the Joni book is, because it is I guess a classic, it is a story that is common to us all. And readers can flip through these pages and they can grasp for themselves how a person who goes through a traumatic injury that is life altering and is steeped in depression, how that person can find the Word of God to be her rescue. And so I think that the pages of the Joni book are filled with insights that apply to every reader, no matter what their hardship or what their limitations. So I’m, I’m just happy that the 45th anniversary edition has been out. It’s been released and people are reading it. Oh my goodness, that to me is such a surprise and a delight.
Josh Olds 02:25
Yeah, this was this the first time…here’s the…by the way for those of you who are watching on video, here’s a copy of the 45th anniversary edition. And that’s you right there on the cover. I think this was part of the cover of the the first edition as well.
Joni Eareckson Tada 02:39
Yeah, it is. And I think I was about 24 when that photo was taken, and I won’t even tell you how old I am now. But, what, I’ve been in my wheelchair 55 years, I injured myself at the age of 17. So you can do the math. And I’m no young person anymore. But I’m still learningm still growing, and still grateful that God is using that book.
Josh Olds 03:04
Yeah, this was a book that I can remember taking from my church library as a kid and reading your story for the first time. And my wife says that she still has sections of the book memorized because she read it so often as a child, and she’s actually she’s an occupational therapist now, and she was introduced to what occupational therapy was through your book. So you’ve had an influence on on our life just because of that. One of the things that really, I think…it’s captured me, it’s captured millions of people, is how authentic and honest this story is. You really, you speak very openly about the struggle that it was that, you’ve kind of gotten to a point where you talk about suffering and God’s glory, but those early days, those early days were really hard for you. And how important was it for you that people understood the realities of your struggle?
Joni Eareckson Tada 04:05
Well, let me correct something that you just said. It’s still hard. It is still very hard. In fact, the older I get, it gets harder. I deal with chronic pain. And so I look back on that book, Josh, and I’m just so grateful that the insights I shared from the Word of God still apply. I still wake up in the morning, even after so many decades of paralysis. I still wake up in the morning, saying, “Jesus, I need you desperately. I cannot do quadriplegia today. I am so tired of the pain and the challenges, but I can do all things through you, Jesus, if you would but strengthen me.” Now that’s a principle that everybody can grasp.
And that’s why I felt it would be important too, you know, when I wrote the book Johi, with my co-author Joe Messer, I thought it would be very important to be as honest and visceral and gutsy and open and transparent as I possibly could be. Because not everybody’s a quadriplegic, and I knew that the average reader probably wouldn’t even have a disability, but handicaps come at us in all shapes and sizes. And so I just wanted to focus on the Word of God in that book, so that the reader dealing with whatever his challenge might be, would grasp those biblical anchors and just run with them. And that’s why I’m, I think it might still be, you know, it still might be a book that people want to read. Because those biblical insights, indeed, are timeless. Those anchors are applicable, even to me, the author, so many decades later, I’m still waking up in the morning needing Christ desperately. And shouldn’t we all be in that position? Right? Just needing Jesus?
Josh Olds 06:11
Yeah. So obviously, over the course of 45 years, you’ve grown in your faith, you have you have sort of grown, in your experience, obviously, with quadriplegia. When I think about things that I wrote about my life, that happened five years ago, I look back on it, and I’m like, I wouldn’t…I remember it differently. I have a different perspective on it. You’re going back to a book you wrote 45 years ago. How much of that do you think, “Oh, I would really do that differently today.”?
Joni Eareckson Tada 06:48
Oh, let’s see. I don’t know if I’d share too many different things in that book. Although there were way too many boyfriends. Too many boyfriends back then. I, if I had a chance to get out my editing pen, I’d probably rip out half those chapters about the third boyfriend. That was just like too much. All right. All right, already. So I wish I could have done that. But I wouldn’t change anything about the insights from the Word of God. If anything, I just would expand on them. Because as you said, Josh, I’ve grown. I’ve learned more about the Word of God. And I’ve needed to, because as I said a moment ago, it’s harder. And so Bible Promises mean even more to me now than they did way back when, and then they meant a lot to me back then. So now, oh my goodness, they are, as Jesus says, and what John chapter six. He said, My, my life is, is you know, flesh and blood you…I can remember how he says that….Look up in your Bible, John, John 6:54 to 56.
Josh Olds 08:02
I know in general what you’re trying to say. But I’m kind of in the same spot.
Joni Eareckson Tada 08:07
My flesh is real food and my blood is real blood. There you go. And Jesus talks about how this means abiding in him. I think that’s in John 6:56. Then he says that this is what it means to abide in me. You need to, you need to need me this desperately, need to wake up in the morning and let me be your food and drink, your life and blood. And that’s the way I live now. Yeah, because I deal with chronic pain. And I didn’t have chronic pain when I was first injured and when I wrote the Joni book. But now I do have it and it it makes my quadriplegia feel like a walk in the park. So now with pain, I’ve got to hold on to those firm biblical anchors all the more desperately. And so the Bible Promises mean, being so much more to me now. Oh my goodness, I they really are my flesh and blood, my drink my meat, Bible promises are what I thrive on when I start to go south emotionally. When I become overly discouraged, I will quickly run to some Bible Promise. Like I don’t know…Second Corinthians chapter four verse eight, “Though we are hard pressed on all sides. We are not crushed.” It’s good to know that this chronic pain will not crush me, God. Although I am hard pressed on all sides, it will not crush me because you are my rock and my fortress. You are my hope and my salvation. So I talk to God when I’m in chronic pain, I quote his own language back to him. And it’s a way of reminding my soul of things that I know to be true. But sometimes when my emotions are dark, I have a hard time seeing through the fog. So Bible Promises mean even more to me now than they did even 45 years ago,
Josh Olds 10:00
I think it’s interesting, you referenced that passage in John 6. And I think that’s the point where after Jesus says this, a lot of the crowds that have been following him leave. So this…for you, when you hear that – that’s the point where you draw closer to God. But for a lot of people, that’s the point where they’re like, that’s, that’s too much> oh, then I’m gonna walk away. Why do you think that your reaction is different from the crowd’s reaction in the days of Jesus?
Joni Eareckson Tada 10:32
I think the crowd feels life should be easy. If you’re a Christian, I think a lot of believers feel that once you’ve come to Christ, I don’t know, shouldn’t he be up there to make my life happy and healthy and free of trouble? But of course, as we know, from the book of Job, our life is full of trouble, full of it. I mean, God has hard wired this world to be extremely difficult. And I think the secret to understanding that is in Second Corinthians chapter one, where the apostle Paul has had a rough time in the province of Asia. And he says to the church of Corinth, he says, “I don’t want you to be uninformed brothers, about what we endured in Asia. We were, we were in over our heads, we were facing hardships far beyond our ability to endure. We even despaired of our own lives.” In other words, I’d rather be dead than go through this. Yeah, that’s how hard life can get sometimes. And then he says in the ninth verse, “But these things happened, that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.” So I think a lot of Christians, a lot of people we feel I don’t want my life to be that hard. I don’t want to be live in pain. I don’t want habits so filled with trouble. But these things happen, that we might not rely on ourselves, God says, but be driven to him by the overwhelming conviction that we just ain’t got nowhere else to go. He’s our hope. He’s our meat. He’s our drink. He’s our life and blood. He’s, he’s everything to us. And I don’t know that we’d have that perspective on him. That sense of intimacy with Him, or not for affliction, that pushes us into the arms of our Savior, or otherwise we might not be inclined to go.
Josh Olds 12:35
That’s a really good answer. Obviously, you you’ve lived with this for decades. What…have you ever imagined or thought about how your life would be different if your injury had not happened?
Joni Eareckson Tada 12:50
I might be on my second divorce. I don’t know what I’d be doing. I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here, Josh, talking to you about biblical anchors and the promises of God and the hope in His Word. I really don’t think I would be. I mean, I broke my neck in 1967. That was the year, it was the summer I was heading off to college. I am shamed to admit this, but I was sleeping with my boyfriend in high school. I was living a life of sexual impurity and immorality, and I knew it was going to get worse, and in college wasn’t going to get better. And I remember praying a prayer and I think it was like April or May of 1967, I’d come home from a sordid date with my boyfriend, and I felt so guilty. And I remember throwing myself on my bed and crying into my pillow saying, “Oh, God, I can’t break free. I have made myself a slave to sin. And I don’t know how to get free of it. So do something in my life to get right side up because I’m, I’m going to really mess up big time. In college, I might even recant faith, because I don’t want to be a hypocrite and I don’t want to shame you any further. And I just don’t want to live like this. So do something Jesus.” And then I broke my neck. And I look back on that. And what a strange answer to prayer. But it really was an answer to prayer.
Honestly, Josh, there are nights I lie in bed even now, what 55 years it’s been since my diving accident and I I can say “Oh, God, thank you. You were so wise. You were so good at allowing me to break my neck. Because I don’t know where I’d be. Had you not rescued me. I am. I was my own worst enemy. And you rescued me from myself. Thank you. Keep doing it, Jesus.” So, you know, that’s kind of how that’s kind of why I feel almost Christians struggle with hardship. They just don’t see how God could possibly use it for good. Yet the promises right there in Romans 8:28, isn’t it?
Yeah, yeah, we have all this imagery of you know, it’s the refiners fire, the fire burns, but it brings all that, it takes all the impurities out and leaves us pure. As you healed, one of the things that really became a cathartic experience for you was art. And that’s something that’s remained a part of your life to this day. Talk to me a little bit about how painting makes you feel.
Joni Eareckson Tada
Oh, I wish I could put something up in front of the camera to show your viewers what I draw. Do I have anything around here? I don’t know what I’ve got around here that I could show people. Well, I don’t think I have anything and is that okay, there’s something over on the wall there, but it’s way too big. Yeah, it’s way way too big. I don’t think I can put that in front of the camera. [Joni speaks to someone off-camera] That’s not mine. Unfortunately, that’s a watercolor a friend did…I’m telling my girlfriend to go hunt around the house to find something to show your viewers. What can I say? Art, for me has always been a wonderful release, you got to understand that my hands don’t work. You know, they don’t work. So I can’t hold brushes and pencils and charcoal pieces. I can’t do that. But I I can paint with my mouth. And although mouths were never intended to hold brushes, and I’ll never be able to execute with a brush as I would with my hand…oh it’s so wonderful, Josh, to be able to sit in front of an easel.
Okay, you know what [speaking off-camera]…get on my iPhone…let’s show Josh and his viewers, that thing I just did. Okay, here’s something cool. This is something you just did. Something I just did. You got to understand that I haven’t picked up a brush in a long, long time because I deal with chronic pain. But I was up at one of our retreats we hold retreats for special needs families, and they had a painting class for all the special needs moms. And I was just gonna wheel around and cheer on everybody else and encourage them and “Oh, you’re doing a good job.” But I thought I’m gonna give it a try. And so I did this in about 30 minutes this up here. [speaking off-camera] Tilt it or you can’t quite see it. Hopefully, that…sideways toward the window…towards…the other way there you get well…can you see it? That’s pretty good. There you go. You see the clouds and the landscape. And? Well, it’s there was about an 8×10 canvas, you can’t quite see it. I had such fun. Okay, all you podcast listeners are gonna have to go check out Josh’s video to see that. Go to look at the video in order to see the painting. Josh, I had such fun. Then, what I did, I came home. And I went on Amazon.com and I just purchased myself a whole new set of acrylic paints, and gesso paint and canvases. And I don’t know when I’m gonna ever find time to do it. But I just …I want to get back at my easel because I just had way too much fun with my painting.
Josh Olds 18:19
That’s wonderful. That’s great. In 1979, this is after, after the book, you founded Joni and Friends with the idea that you would serve individuals and families affected by disability and we’ve already we just talked about some of the things that you have been doing. So it’s been 40 years in that ministry. How? How have we come as a society from 1979 Until now, where are we improved working? We do better in inclusion, education, advocacy, and making sure that the people with disabilities feel not just feel but are a part of society?
Joni Eareckson Tada 19:05
Well, I think – and if a lot of your listeners are living in the United Kingdom, your nation has done a lot there have been great strides forward in creating access for people with disabilities in programs and facilities and, and kudos on the UK and your parliament for you know, pushing those initiatives through. But I don’t know if we’ve made much improvement, either in America or the UK or elsewhere in heart attitudes. I remember when I served on the National Council on Disability. Real quickly, it was our council back in the late 80s that drafted the first Americans with Disabilities Act. And I will never forget our council sitting on the South Lawn of the White House when President Bush signed the ADA into law. And we went back to the hotel to have a reception and the executive director had a glass of champagne and he started to make a toast. He said, “This law is great in that it has removed discriminatory policies so that now more qualified people with disabilities can find jobs. And this law is great. And that more restaurants have ramps, this law was great. And that one day, buses all across America will have mechanical lifts.” And then he stopped and said, “But this law will not change the heart of the employer, or the heart of the maitre d at the restaurant, this law will not change the heart of the bus driver.” And then he raised his glass and said, “Here’s to changed hearts.” And that’s what the Gospel does. We have the message that can change people’s hearts, because laws and initiatives, inclusion and mainstreaming will go far. But it will not change people’s attitudes, heart attitudes, toward those with disabilities. That’s why Jesus says in Luke 14, go out and find the disabled, just don’t wait for them to come to you. You go out and find them, be proactive. Find the poor, the disabled, the lame, the blind, bring them in. And then he says this, do it and you will be blessed. And you’re blessed because it’s always more blessed to give than to receive. And so God knows that if we hang out with people with handicapping conditions, it’s going to be a blessing to us. You know, we’re going to be blessed in a big way. So that’s what we do with our ministry at Joni and Friends. We create a context, a framework in which the church can be blessed in embracing people with disabilities.
Josh Olds 21:47
I feel like in churches, in particular, because you mentioned the ADA. Notably, religious establishments are excluded from legally needing to comply with the ADA. I recently read a study where a majority of pastors said they didn’t think they had anyone who was disabled in their congregation, which is either a problem because disabled people are not being seen, or because they are being excluded. And so either direction is a problem. Disabled people have encountered these various significant barriers in the church. I know a lot of pastors that want to do better, they do not know where to start. What can we do to begin?
Joni Eareckson Tada 22:37
Well, that’s a good question. And I think first, just look around in your own parish neighborhood, your own church neighborhood, Surely there is someone on your cul de sac, a special needs mother who has a child with a disability, just do a survey of your own congregation, no matter how small it is. Surely you’ve got a niece or nephew or grandchild with Down Syndrome, or a little boy with autism, a niece or nephew. I mean, people with disabilities are there. They’re often…their families are often so overwhelmed and tired, weary and burdened, that they don’t have the energy, the emotional wherewithal to get up on a Sunday morning and go to church. That’s why Jesus says go out and find them. They’re not going to come to you, you got to go out and find them. That we’re being proactive is so key as it concerns people with disabilities. Because Luke 14, Jesus is pretty much saying of all the folks you might overlook in inviting to your church,. don’t overlook the disabled. Pull up the tent pegs in your thinking, move away from your rich friends, relatives and neighbors, Jesus says, because they’re the ones that’s easy to connect with. It’s easy to invite your rich friends, relatives and neighbors. But he says no, go beyond that. Pull up the tent pegs in your sphere of influence and go out, find the people and bring them in. So we’re without excuse, aren’t we? Jesus doesn’t leave us with much of an excuse. And Luke 14, we got to go out and find these people because they’re there. As you just said, Josh, those families are there.
Josh Olds 24:15
One of the problems that I have seen all too often in the church is the experience of well meaning Christians, they really do mean well, but they want to pray over disabled people for healing. I actually I just recently finished a book by Amy Kenny, who is a disability scholar here in the UK. Her book is called My Body is Not a Prayer Request.
Joni Eareckson Tada 24:41
I love that title.
Josh Olds 24:42
It’s a beautiful book – sorry to promote another book on on your podcast episode – but it’s a wonderful book, she she actually writes that, in her experience, some of the most harmful ableism that she’s experienced has come from within the church. Is that something that you’ve experienced? And what has been your response to it?
Joni Eareckson Tada 25:03
Yep, yep. And for your, for your listeners and viewers. Ableism is a kind of discrimination against people with disabilities. I don’t know if all your subscribers would understand that term. You know, what Amy was experiencing. And what I have often experienced, is the same theology that made the three friends of Job say what they said. That something must be wrong with you. Let’s fix it. You need to be fixed, and you need to confess your sins, and you don’t have enough faith. I mean, Job’s friends were telling him that thousands of years ago, and not much has changed in that theology. There are still people today, in the health wealth and prosperity gospel that say you shouldn’t be in a wheelchair. You shouldn’t have cerebral palsy. God can open the eyes of your…open your blind eyes. And I think it’s because we don’t have a context for suffering. The church today thinks that suffering is not part of God’s plan. This should not be! By his stripes were supposed to be healed. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. And if he healed back then, he should heal now. I mean, they take the scriptures and they twist them to mean something that fits that health, wealth way of looking at life.
And so I’m with Amy, there’s a reason that God permits suffering. And excuse me, I will go so far as to say ordains, purposes, plans, our suffering. I mean, my own suffering wasn’t an accident. It was indeed part of God’s foreordained plan. And there are rich, wonderful, good things that have come out of it. You know, when, when Jesus talked about this, he said, If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. In other words, there were people who came to him to get their withered hands healed. But Jesus says, look, I’ve got a bigger priority besides healing your withered hand, if that hand causes you to sin, I wouldn’t even heal it. I’d cut it off. You know, I mean, sure he opened the eyes of the blind but he also said, if that eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. I mean, obviously, that shows Christ’s priority. He has spiritual priorities. He’s less concerned about our physical comforts and abilities, and more concerned about the state of our souls.
Josh Olds 27:49
Yeah. Well, I know our time is wrapping up. I want to end with just one question. This book has been 45 years out there. What do you hope above all that people take away from your story?
Joni Eareckson Tada 28:04
Well, I wrote a mission statement for my life shortly after that book was published. Or maybe I wrote it when it was published and I wrote about it in the Joni book, I don’t know. But it’s been more than 45 years, and I would never change a single word in this mission statement. I wrote a mission statement for my life. And it says: I want to be God’s best audio-visual aid of how his power shows up best in weakness. That’s what I hope readers take away from the 45th anniversary edition of the Joni book. That, that they will see a story of a girl, young girl back then, who became God’s audio-visual aid of how his power can show up best in weakness. And I want readers to look at their own weaknesses, and not be ashamed of them. Not try to pray them away. Not to despise them, or become bitter about them. Oh, my God, for readers to take them…take those weaknesses to the Lord and let him display his power and grace and mercy and beauty, courage and perseverance in those weaknesses, because that will showcase his glory like nothing else.
Josh Olds 29:17
Well, Joni, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to be on the podcast. It’s a lovely conversation and your life, your ministry, everything that your ministry has done is doing is such a blessing to so many people. So thank you for everything that you do.
Joni Eareckson Tada 29:32
Josh, you’re the best. And I’m so grateful for our listeners over in the UK. I’m grateful for our time together.