Joni Eareckson Tada has had a long and faithful ministry. I expect you are familiar with the basic outline of her story—how in 1967, when she was just 17 years old, she was involved in a diving accident that left her paralyzed. In the initial stages of her recovery she stewed in sorrow and self-pity and for a time sank into depths of darkness, despair, and depression. But over time she became convicted that her condition was God’s will. God did not mean for her to resent it, but to accept it, to embrace it, and to use it.
Though at first tempted to believe her great sorrow marked the end of her service to God, it actually proved to be the opening chapter of it. It spurred her to found Joni and Friends, a ministry that, for 45 years, has been serving people with disabilities. She has written a number of books, spoken before millions, and led many to Christ. She has been a blessing and inspiration to so many people for so many years.
But for all she has done publicly, I suspect her greatest impact may be through personal interactions. I have encountered many people who can tell stories of her words of kindness and acts of love—how she ministered to them when they were in times of distress. I am thankful that on a few occasions she has reached out to be a blessing and encouragement to me and that she was willing to write some kind words about Seasons of Sorrow. But let me tell you what means even more than her direct involvement in my own life.
In 1965 my aunt Nancy committed suicide after a long battle with mental illness. My grandfather was a Supreme Court judge who was prominent in Montreal, so her death became quite public. The musician Leonard Cohen, who had been part of Nancy’s circle of friends, wrote a popular song about her, and he and others blamed my grandfather for her death. There was shame heaped upon him and upon the family. Eventually, my grandfather also took his own life. This one little family had now suffered two huge tragedies.
Yet in all that pain God reached out and saved the unlikeliest of converts—my dad. And through my dad he saved my mom and several of my aunts and uncles. He also saved my grandmother. But those severe losses had, of course, left her scarred and devastated. And though her faith was genuine, she was involved in churches that offered few compelling answers to life’s big sorrows.
She was still quite a new and unseasoned Christian when she heard of a young lady named Joni who had written a bestselling book and whose story was now being told in a film. My grandmother decided to write Joni a letter to describe her circumstances and to express her distress and confusion. Maybe this young lady would understand. Maybe she would even return her letter and offer some sympathy and guidance.
And, sure enough, Joni did reply to her. In a lengthy and heartfelt letter, she encouraged my grandmother. She helped her. She blessed her. She drew her attention to the Lord. In the few years that remained to my grandmother, she often told what a blessing Joni had been to her.
I thought of this recently when focusing on Paul’s words in Philippians 3 where he instructs Christians to press on with a single-minded devotion. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” he uses the metaphor of a race to tell believers to press on toward the goal—the goal that is the presence of Jesus Christ. And in that light, consider this: All the way back in the early 1980s, Joni ministered to my grandmother after the loss of her daughter. Forty years later, she ministered to me after the loss of my son. (And, of course, until I wrote these words, she would have had no idea of the connection…)
And this is what I so love and respect about Joni. For all these years she has been single-mindedly pressing on toward the goal and it’s clear that she does not intend to stop until she reaches it. There’s a stirring beauty in the fact that she is pressing on in a wheelchair, pressing on with a broken and weakening body, but a strong and growing faith. And she loves to tell people that when she reaches the goal and sees Jesus, she will finally leap to her feet, only to immediately fall on her knees to worship him—to worship the one she has been pressing toward all these years. What a day and what a moment that will be!