Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Meeting Joni

2013 Joni Camp Volunteers

When I was 12 I pulled a copy of Joni off my parent’s bookshelf.  Joni (pronounced Johnny, her dad was hoping for a boy) Eareckson Tada was in a diving accident as a teenager, resulting in quadriplegia.  Her story is vividly told in her book, and as I flipped its pages, I felt as if I was living her accident right alongside her.  Screws were drilled into her head stabilizing her neck in a halo as she lay still on a Stryker frame, being flipped back and forth every few hours to prevent bedsores.  I read the whole thing in a little over a weekend.  I could not put it


At the end of the book, Joni makes a brave statement about God, “I’d rather be in this wheelchair knowing Him, than on my feet without Him.”

I couldn’t handle it.

I threw her book under my bed in a rage of emotion.  As a 7th grader, more than anything in my heart, I just wanted God to heal me of cerebral palsy.  I wanted to go skiing and wear high heels.  I wanted gym class to be less awkward.  There was no way I even wanted to imagine being an adult still living with a disability, much less have peace about it.

Eventually, I threw the book in the trash, and for the next decade I lived in fear of Joni Eareckson Tada.  I had reoccurring nightmares about her and was freaked out that she was going to show up at my house in her wheel chair.  Traumatic scenes from her movie played over and over in my head.  I couldn’t look at a picture of Joni without growing tense and frightened, a fearful shiver running through my body.

Looking back, I wonder if her story evoked something in my subconscious, my body reliving its own trauma of the operation I underwent at 4 years old to improve my gait.  Both of my femurs were broken.  My tendons were severed. I lay in a body cast of six weeks, flipped back and forth.  There were no “child life specialists” in the 1980s; no counselor ever sat me down to help me process my experience. 

The body doesn’t forget even though time marches on.

Two years ago, a childhood friend invited me to join her at a Joni & Friends retreat, helping families vacation who have a member with a disability.  I initially declined, but after much consideration (including some relief that Joni wasn’t going to be there), soul searching, and tears, I decided to go. 

That decision impacted my life in ways I didn’t expect.

I met a whole community of people, many of them impacted by disability, which loved me and saw me as a whole person.  People whose lives are very different than mine, but in many ways are very much the same.  People who both intimately knew the pain of living with permanent disability and the quiet of joy of knowing a Savior who is with them and will sustain them every step of the way.  People who knew how to rejoice in the hope of heaven: where wheelchairs, autism, and cerebral palsy don’t exist.

This community of people gathers each summer because of the work of one woman: Joni Eareckson Tada.  This summer, she will join us in Minnesota for family retreat.

I had the opportunity to meet Joni late last month at an event in the Twin Cities.  Trembling, I handed her a copy of Walking withTension, and said, “I wrote a book: You’re in it.”  I told her my backstory, trying to contain my nerves, and with gentle kindness and beauty, she graciously accepted my gift.
A few days later, I received this note in the mail:

I just wanted to write a note of heartfelt thanks for giving me a personally autographed copy of your precious book Walking with Tension--it's not easy living with any disability, but in your book, you seem to guide the reader past the 'physical' and into a deeper understanding of who God is in the midst of pain. May all those who read Walking with Tension be blessed and inspired to look past their limitations, as well. God's grace and favor be yours!


How gracious of God to pay attention to every detail of our lives, bringing healing and redemption even to the darkest and oldest parts of our fears.
Want to learn more?

You can purchase Walking with Tension in paperback and e-book.  I tell about Joni in chapter 3.

Joni & Friends is the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada.  They are still looking for volunteers to attend family retreat this summer.  Check it out!

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  1. I remember reading Joni while walking the beach of Lake Michigan near Sleeping Bear Dunes. I was a senoir in high school and that book helped me understand God better.How cool to meet her!

    1. I'm glad you found her book helpful Jerry. Meeting Joni, especially the weekend after launching my book was a good moment!

  2. Amazing Love!!! This camp has helped me see the bigger picture of living with a disability! I relate to her husband, Ken! He reminds me of you, in the way you risk the honesty of your journey , to help others find their help in the Lord! The title of my book would be titled " The Puzzle Pieces of Living the Perfect Designed Life Given " Each chapter would be taken from those living out II Cor. 1 3-7. (parents, siblings, doctors, primary nurses, family, church family, friends .... It would be on going and published on my last day by the Perfect Designer! Thanks for being a II Cor. 2 3-7 person in my life!@

  3. Sounds like quite a book Rhonda! I'm glad this journey has brought us closer together!