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|22nd October 2000|
Joni Eareckson is a quadriplegic. As an athletic girl of seventeen she broke her neck in a diving accident in Chesapeake Bay. In her best-selling autobiography, "JONI" she is splendidly honest about her struggles with despair. "Why can't they just let me die?" she asked. When she realised that she would never walk again, or use her arms, or be able to marry her boy friend, she was bewildered and angry. She felt betrayed by God. Her friend Diana said: "The past is dead, Joni, you're alive." "Am I? This isn't living."
But Joni reevaluated the meaning of life. She decided that life was more than mobility. That living was to be fulfilled by other talents and abilities latent within her. She started to develop what has become an extraordinary skill in drawing and painting with her mouth. She gained a spiritual perspective, coming to see her paralysis as only temporary, that one day she will receive a new and glorious body. In the meanwhile, her chair is a "tool" to fashion her like Christ. For by it, as she once told 2,000 young people in Kansas City, "God transformed an immature and headstrong teenager into a self-reliant young woman who is learning to rejoice in suffering." Joni is the founder and president of Joni and Friends, an organization accelerating Christian ministry in the disability community. Her first name is recognized in many countries due to her best-selling books. Her autobiography "Joni" and the full-length feature film "Joni", in which Mrs. Tada recreated her own life, are translated into numerous languages and her film has been shown around the world.
Joni's role as advocate for disabled persons led to a Presidential appointment to the National Council on Disability. During this time the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. She broadcasts a five-minute radio program, "Joni and Friends," daily on over 800 stations. Joni is a conference speaker and columnist for "Moody Monthly". She is on several boards. She was named "Churchwoman of the Year" in 1993. She was the first woman to be honored by the National Association of Evangelicals as their "Layperson of the Year." She has received a dozen awards for achievement and two honorary doctorates from Universities. Joni is the author of 26 books. Her best-selling and award-winning works cover topics ranging from disability outreach to reaching out to God. Mrs. Tada and her husband Ken have been married since 1982. Mr. Tada is a high school teacher and a member of the Board Joni and Friends.
Today, despite all her frustration, Joni Eareckson Tada is more genuinely human now, than before her accident. This is a result of the decision she made to be a fulfilled person. Dr Jim Packer in his book "Rediscovering Holiness" says "Twice it has been my privilege to introduce quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada and each time I have ventured to predict that her message would show her to be the healthiest person in the building a prediction which, so far as I could judge, came true both times." What is the secret of becoming a fulfilled and able person making a contribution to life? How do you become fulfilled when you suffer disabilities and limitations? How can you make the most of what you've got?
1. STOP BLAMING OUTWARD CIRCUMSTANCES.
Many people are overwhelmed by suffering, disabling accidents and limitations by birth or circumstances. But if you are going to live in spite of them and even through them, you have to stop dwelling on the past. Concentrating of lost opportunities or past sins, mean you will never be free. You have to accept them, confess them, and be cleansed of them.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics says about 3.6 million Australians are disabled in some way, mostly with hearing or vision impediments. But the number of people on the Disability Support pension has doubled in the past ten years. There are now more Disability Support Pensioners than unemployed people. It costs us $5.5 billion to support severely disabled people. When I came to Sydney in 1979 one of the first tasks we undertook was to rebuild the toilets in the Lyceum Theatre, to widen doorways in Wesley Centre, to build ramps, and to campaign for access for people with disabilities. The new Lord Mayor of Sydney in those days, Doug Sutherland, responded instantly because he walked with a stick. He had ramps installed at the side of the Town Hall to enable wheelchair access for the first time. I felt proud he should ask me to speak at the opening of the Disabilities Alterations at the Sydney Town Hall.
In the following years at Wesley Mission we brought to Australia, Terry Wyles, that remarkable young English advocate for the disabled who had been born without arms, without legs and without an eye because of Thalidomide.
Terry had been left in an orphanage. He was rescued by Leonard and Hazel Wyles. These remarkable elderly people brought mobility, education and opportunity to young Terry. We premiered the film of his life "On Giants' Shoulders" in the Lyceum. Terry finished his University degree, and went on to become a manager of a disabilities organization.
We premiered the film "Joni" to inspired crowds including scores of people in wheelchairs. Then Joni Eareckson visited us in 1984 with her husband Ken Tada. I interviewed her then and many times since in different parts of the world for our radio and television programs. Since that time Wesley Mission has developed a whole range of programs for the disabled, caring for paraplegics, quadriplegics, mentally disabled, physically and intellectually delayed people, employing social educators, providing more than thirty houses in the community to enable people with various forms of disability to become independent, and establishing Wesley Home Maintenance and Modification Service to carry out the changes in houses disabled people need. Wesley Mission Sydney is now the major provider of services to the disabled. Our aim is to ensure people with disabilities are valued, accepted and enabled to grow. Last year we spent $10 million supporting the disabled. We support dozens of centres for disabled people.
Many of us are disabled. We will never be fulfilled until we stop blaming the circumstances that caused our disability. Instead we must make the most of whatever we've got!
2. TURN YOUR OBSTACLES INTO OPPORTUNITIES.
Fulfilled people, do not try to escape their limitations. Instead, they turn their obstacles into opportunities. The Apostle Paul did his greatest work when he was prison: cold, forsaken, chained down and locked up! A traveling evangelist and church planter turned his obstacles into opportunities.
Some plan that some day, somewhere, when the sun is shining, they will write a poem or compose a song. The best of poetry and music is not made that way. They come out of suffering. John Milton was blind. Beethoven was deaf. Walter Scott was lame. Robert Louis Stevenson had tuberculosis. Joni Eareckson Tada is a quadriplegic. David Helfgott was certified as insane. But they all used their circumstances to achieve their goals. Don't let your handicap or limitation or circumstance stop you from achieving what God wants you to accomplish.
Paul was a traveling preacher moving from country to country planting churches. Now he was in prison in Rome. Some said: "That is the end of his work!" Wrong! He would do his greatest work. Notice what happened! He was under house arrest with a soldier guarding him attached by a chain. The guard was on duty for eight hours. Then another guard changed duty with him. After eight hours, another change of guard. Paul could not go to a congregation to preach, but he had a congregation come to him! A congregation of one that couldn't get away! If Paul was confined, so was the guard with the possibility of an eight-hour sermon!
Others who had found new life in those days spent time with Paul. Paul wrote to the Philippian Church from that cell, Phil 1:1214 "Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly."
Some guards became Christians. Before long there was a church meeting in the Emperor's palace! The last verse of his letter to Philippi reads, 4:22 "All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar's household." Paul's goal was to take the gospel to Rome. God allowed him to come in chains, so one guard after another became Christian. These were the guards who protected Caesar himself. Within two years there was enough of them to become a church close to the Emperor! Paul was successful and triumphed over everything because he used his circumstances to achieve. What are your circumstances? Some of you have been battling for years against some disability, maybe an addiction, or some physical disability, some scarring by war. Some here are unemployed. Some lonely. Some in advanced age. Others listening are in hospital. Others listening right now are in prison. But there is nowhere that God cannot see you, hear you and use you, if you use your circumstances. God can use you and you can triumph over anything!
3. LIVE FOR CHRIST ANYHOW!
What is life? It is Christ! The great secret is learning to live within your disability in such a way that you make the most of life. Jesus Christ gives purpose and meaning to all that you are and have, as Joni Eareckson Tada testifies. She loves to sing hymns because they help her develop a triumphant spirit. Paul constantly praises God and has a rejoicing spirit, which enables him to overcome his circumstances.
In one of our Olympic services we had a Deaf mute Choir from Tasmania. Some of the choir members, signing the words of the hymns were both unable to speak and unable to hear. We were singing "All hail the power of Jesus name." They were signing the words. I suddenly realised the words they were signing were: "We'll join the everlasting song and crown Him Lord of all" And one day on heaven they will! Triumphant over disability, mute tongues will sing!
Paul had discovered a great secret. Your limitations do not matter. Nor your handicap. Nor disability. You can do all things through Christ. Paul said Phil 4:12-13 "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength." Do not blame your circumstances! Turn your obstacles into opportunities. Live for Christ anyhow! No matter what life has dealt to you, you can still win by making the most of what you've got through Christ!
.Joni, Joni Eareckson Tada; Zondervan, 1976,
Rev Dr Gordon Moyes