Joni Eareckson Tada on Our Disconnected World

Part two of an interview with the noted author, radio host and advocate for the disabled.

By Josh Shepherd Published on June 21, 2018

Through Joni and Friends, founded in 1979, the radio host, artist and popular public speaker has tirelessly advocated for the vulnerable and infirm often forgotten by modern society … including by the Church.

“Sometimes I feel so different and that creates a kind of loneliness,” says Joni Eareckson Tada, who has lived with quadriplegia for decades. “But I do not dwell on that, because I’ve been down that dark, grim road. Most of my years in the hospital, and the first year after I got out of the hospital, were such a dark time.”

Reached via phone at her headquarters near Los Angeles, Tada spoke about grappling honestly with deep pain. She also told us about an innovative wheelchair ministry changing lives and her latest book When Is It Right to Die? A Comforting and Surprising Look at Death and Dying.

The first part of this interview, covering her insights into disability and the pro-death euthanasia movement, can be found here.

Pain, Disability and ‘Facebook Syndrome’

The Stream: Could you share about the difficulty of your own journey?

Joni Eareckson Tada: Sometimes when I’m in great pain, there’s like a glass wall between myself and everybody around me. It’s really thick. As much as I try to break through, sometimes I just can’t.

I don’t expect people to resonate or empathize with my journey of more than 50 years of quadriplegia. That is so unusual, most people don’t relate. It’s a strange feeling of loneliness, I don’t know how to describe it.

Rather than laboring in those moments of pain and loneliness, I try and broach them and cross over to the other side as best as I can.

It may happen when I am in a crowd of people at a party. I’m looking up conscionably at people, and my neck is starting to hurt. My quadriplegic lungs are very weak. I can’t talk very loud. But in a loud room with lots of people and dishes clattering, I am screaming at the top of my lungs trying to be heard.

Those feelings can lead to discouragement and depression. When those things happen, I take them as God’s signals for a solitary quiet time with him. Or I take it as an opportunity to reach out, as best as I can, to people closest to me whom I can hear and who can hear me.

Rather than laboring in those moments of pain and loneliness, I try and broach them and cross over to the other side as best as I can. I don’t want to entertain or coddle or encourage anything that might lead me back to that kind of darkness. I’m a move forward kind of person.

The Churches and Our Disconnection

The Stream: You speak eloquently of our culture of disconnection. Do you feel churches can play into this, with the practice of “putting on a happy face”?

Tada: I call it the Facebook Syndrome. When posting on Facebook, we can project an image of ourselves that we want people to believe. We want them to accept it. It’s human nature to want to be perceived as capable, strong, resilient, self-sufficient.

But God sees us differently. He knows that we’re helpless and needy. My quadriplegia underscores that every single day for me. Even Jesus said, “In this world, you’re going to have trouble.” The Bible constantly insists that we look at reality and deal with it, which the church has a hard time doing.

The Psalms are filled with all kinds of expressions of sorrow, regret, fear and worry. Why don’t we confess these things to each other? Psalm 88:3 says, “I am overwhelmed with troubles.” When’s the last time we told a Christian brother or sister that? Psalm 70 says, “I am poor and needy — come quickly to me, oh God.”

If Christians were as transparent and vulnerable as we see in the Psalms, it would not only defeat pride in our hearts. It would bind us closer together as a people, as the Body of Christ.

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At times during the day I might be in such pain, I have to lay down on this little bed in my office. I’ll sometimes ask one of the girls who lay me down: “Oh please, put your hand on my forehead and pray for me. Because I am waning and I need help. And my attitude’s not the best.” How good it is to talk like that to each other!

Rather than putting on a happy face, tell each other: “I need help. Would you pray for me right now?” We need to do that more often. It would really lob a hand grenade into that culture of disconnection that we so often see, even in our own churches.

Connecting With People — Next Door and a World Away

The Stream: Issues of disability and depression can be difficult to navigate. How can churches do better?

Tada: The answer is relationships, which so many of us aren’t skilled in developing. Let me give an example in disability ministry. For too long, special needs departments and churches were just that: They were departments — separate, segregated from the rest of the congregation.

Then the language began to change. Churches spoke of inclusion, including persons with disability as part of church life. Here’s the thing: people with special needs don’t want to be just included. We want to belong.

We want to know we will be missed. We want to be thought of at church. We want to be remembered and embraced. When it comes to making space for those feeling depressed or hopeless, it really means making time for relationships — embracing, saying, “I miss you.”

People don’t respond to programs. They respond to people who truly care and show it. If we did that more often with each other, there’d be less need for professional counseling in our churches. Our Bibles just might be sufficient, who knows?

A New Message About Disability

The Stream: How does your team’s Wheels for the World program seek to advance a different message about disability?

Tada: Wheels for the World is not just about fitting someone to a wheelchair. It is, in that we deliver thousands of pediatric, junior size, child size, recliner wheelchairs, adult sized wheelchairs — all kinds of wheelchairs. But the wheelchair is only an entrée into that country.

In many of these nations, especially in Africa, a person with cerebral palsy is viewed as cursed. In Southeast Asia, a person born with Down Syndrome is considered to bring great shame to his family. In shame-based cultures, they are relegated to back bedrooms and never brought out into mainstream village life.

With Wheels for the World, we come in behind those wheelchairs and provide disability ministry training in churches and seminaries. We work with disability advocacy groups. It changes people’s thinking. It helps them see that we have an inherent value that must be respected.

The whole point behind Wheels for the World is to eventually create a biblical worldview on disability in that culture. Down the line, that could impact health care policy. It could equip and educate families to advocate on behalf of their children when it comes to a public school system.

Wheels for the World is helping people see that every individual has a high life value because we are created in the image of God. It’s changing the landscape of the global church — and national institutions.

 

If you are thinking of hurting yourself, or if you are concerned that someone else may be suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Learn more about how to be involved with Joni and Friends by visiting their website and by watching the short video below. Read part one of the interview here.

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