Biographies of Faith: Joni

A sermon in my series on ‘biographies of faith’.

A couple of weeks ago we began a short series on biographies of faith. Over these few weeks I am doing something just a little different in my sermons as we consider the lives of women and men who are for us examples of the Christian life. As we sketch out these portraits of lives lived, we are answering this question:

What does it look like when someone is following Jesus?

And we are answering that most important question for ourselves:

How do we learn to really follow Jesus, to live a genuinely Christian life?

Two weeks ago we considered the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died as a martyr at the hands of the Nazis in 1945. This morning we turn to another biography of faith – to the story of a woman who is our contemporary.

As I was growing up there was a book on my parent’s book shelf that I always found compelling. The title of that book was just one word: Joni. It’s a book that has been found on the bookshelves of many a home and church since it was first published in 1976. And the name that graces its cover – Joni – has become synonymous with the challenges of human life; it is also a name that has become synonymous with discipleship.

The life of Joni Eareckson changed forever on a hot summer day in 1967. She was 17 years old. She had just graduated from High School. She was getting ready to go to Western Maryland College. Her life lay open before her.

On that summer day in 1967, she went with her sister down to the Chesapeake Bay to go swimming. And after a time at the beach, she made her way out to a raft that was anchored in the water. In her book she describes as she dives off the raft into the waters of the Bay:

The hot July sun was setting low in the west and gave the waters of Chesapeake Bay a warm red glow. The water was murky, and as my body broke the surface in a dive, its cold cleanness doused my skin.

In a jumble of actions and feelings, many things happened simultaneously. I felt my head strike something hard and unyielding. At the same time, clumsily and crazily, my body sprawled out of control. I heard or felt a loud electric buzzing, an unexplainable inner sensation. It was something like an electrical shock, combined with vibration – like a heavy metal spring being suddenly and sharply uncoiled, its ‘sprong’ perhaps muffled by the water. Yet it wasn’t even a sound or even a feeling – just a sensation. I felt no pain.

I heard the underwater sound of crunching, grinding sand. I was lying face down on the bottom. Where? How did I get here? Why are my arms tied to my chest? My thoughts screamed. Hey, I’m caught.

Joni had dived into shallow water, had struck bottom – and though she didn’t realize it in that moment, she had broken her neck. Her sister saw her floating in the water, pulled her to shore and Joni was rushed to a local hospital where she spent days, weeks, and then months in recovery and therapy. Joni Eareckson was left a quadriplegic by the accident. She was left with a little bit of strength in her biceps and shoulders – but other than that she has no strength or feeling from her neck down.

In the aftermath of that accident there were many dark days – and truth be told, there have been difficult days up to the present for Joni Eareckson. She describes how she lay for weeks in a special bed in which she had to face downward, staring at the floor. She speaks about the times when, after everyone had left for the day, she would wrench her head back and forth, trying to break her neck higher up, so that she might end her life. In her pain and despair, with the prospect of a life as a quadriplegic, she begged friends to assist her in suicide. She writes: “The source of my depression is understandable. I could not face the prospect of sitting down for the rest of my life, without the use of my hands, without use of my legs. All my hopes seemed dashed. My faith was shipwrecked.”

As she reflects on her life in later years, Joni Eareckson points to Psalm 88, in which the Psalmist cries out to God: “Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death…the darkness is my closest friend.” This was the prayer through which she gave voice to her grief.

A few weeks ago Andrew preached from the book of Job, and doing so reminded us that a fundamental aspect of Christian life is the freedom to be honest with God. Rather than hiding our anger away – rather than ignoring our very real anger with God – we can become open and honest with God in our pain and grief. When we express our deep frustration with God, the key is that we remain engaged with God. Joni Eareckson puts it this way: “Gut-wrenching questions honour God. Despair directed at God is a way of encountering him, opening ourselves up to the one and only Someone who can actually do something about our plight.”

Too often in our tradition we have thought that God doesn’t want to hear our anger or frustration – or that it is impious to do so. But if we fail to give honest voice to our resentment or anger before God, it will mean that we are distancing a key part of our heart and life from God.

Jesus declares from the cross: “My god, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He speaks of his godforsakeness, yet irony of ironies, even in his godforsakenness he still addresses God as My God. As we continue to engage with God from within faith, there is the possibility that our anger with God might lead us deeper into faith, further along the path into fellowship with the only Someone who can actually do something about our plight.

Joni Eareckson lay in her bed, frustrated, hurting and angry. And she spoke to God in profound honesty: “O God, I don’t have the strength to face this. I would rather die. Help me.”

The week that she spoke those words openly and honestly and gut-wrenchingly toward God, a friend came to see her in the hospital while she was still facedown counting floor tiles. That friend put a Bible on a little stool in front of Joni and put Joni’s mouth-stick in her mouth so that Joni could turn the pages herself. And her friend asked her to turn to Psalm 18. There she read:

In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked… Smoke went up from his nostrils…He bowed the heavens and came down…He sent from on high, he took me…he rescued me because he delighted in me.

From that day forward, slowly and moment by moment, Joni says that she began to accept the words of that Psalm. She began to realize that God was parting heaven and earth, God was striking bolts of lightening, God was shaking the foundations of the planet, in order to reach down and rescue her. Why? Because He took delight in her. She began to trust God with her life, with her distress, in her suffering. She began to see that she must learn to rely not on herself but on God who raises the dead, as we read in 2 Corinthians.

Joni Eareckson has written a number of books about her own experiences with quadriplegia, and speaks and writes about what she has learned about the Christian life, and about God, from the perspective of her struggles in life. We should say, though, that in an important sense Joni is not defined merely by her quadriplegia. She has been married for almost thirty years and she attests to the fact that her husband Ken has been a source of profound blessing and help through her life. A companion, a friend, a helper. A gift of God’s grace.

While she was still in the hospital after her accident, she also began to sketch and draw with a pencil held between her teeth. Over the years Joni has developed this skill so that she is an accomplished artist. Since her accident forty-two years ago, she has produced some 150 sketches or paintings. On the back of your insert you will see a picture of Joni from earlier in her life – she is sketching a picture of two kittens.  Joni Eareckson speaks of her ability and freedom to paint as a gift of God through which she can ease the grief and frustration that she continues to experience. It is an outlet through which she finds freedom from the daily grind of life with quadriplegia – and it is a grind – a painstaking existence in which she is fully reliant on others.

Through the gift of those who care for her, and through the gift of her artistic and literary abilities, God has blessed Joni Eareckson notwithstanding the very real challenges she faces.

But we might also push on to a couple of the lessons that Joni Eareckson has learned about Christian faith through her experiences and her ongoing relationship to God. Let me be honest, there are things that Joni Eareckson writes about that I’m not sure I can agree with – she sometimes articulates a theological point of view, even on suffering, that I find difficult. But I still learn much from her and her life.
Joni Eareckson doesn’t claim to know everything that God might accomplish through her life in a wheelchair. One of the things she suggests, however, is that through her life with quadriplegia God has invited her to experience and share “a buoyant and lively optimistic hope of heavenly glories above.”

Back in the spring, as we made our way through the Apostles’ Creed, we came to that phrase – I believe in the resurrection of the body. It can seem so abstract to speak of the fact that we believe in the resurrection of the body and not merely that our souls will someday float up to heaven. But against the backdrop of our physical suffering, against the backdrop of her quadriplegia, it gains a new significance. Joni writes, in reflecting on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, and here it’s worth quoting her at length:

“I can’t wait for the day when I’m given my brand new glorified body. I’m going to stand up, stretch, dance, kick, do aerobics, comb my own hair, blow my own nose, and what is so poignant is that I’ll finally be able to wipe my own tears, but I won’t need to, because the Bible tells us in the book of Revelation that God will personally wipe away every tear. There will be no more need to cry. How ironic that finally on the day when I have my hands so I can blow my own nose and wipe own tears I won’t have to. I look forward to that day. I never used to when I was on my feet. I thought heaven was pie in the sky by and by. I used to think that it was an escape from reality, a psychological crutch, but no, no, no, heaven is the reality and when you have your heart fixed on heaven it helps you live life better down here on earth.”

Against the backdrop of our very real suffering in the body – against the backdrop of Joni Eareckson’s quadriplegia, heaven is not pie in the sky by and by. It is the promise of God’s redemption of the whole creation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is his final undoing of the fragility and frailty that plagues our physical being. It is the source of our hope and joy. Joni’s experience of the frailty of her body brings with it a vivid reminder of the hope toward which we all reach – the hope of resurrection.

In her book A Step Further, Joni Eareckson speaks of another lesson she has learned concretely. That through our sufferings God can sensitize us to people we would never be able to relate to otherwise. She asks this question: How do we think a man who is terminally ill, watching television from a hospital bed, might respond if a young, attractive woman, someone who seems to have so much going for her, were suddenly to appear on the television screen talking about how God had given her strength in the face of her trials. The man in that bed might well respond: “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. If she was in my shoes that smile would be off her face.”

What is Joni suggesting? She is suggesting that “in order to reach and comfort someone who is in distress, it often takes a person who has experienced similar distress.” She puts it this way: “I can empathize with quadriplegics. You perhaps cannot.”

In our reading today from 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” In general we are able to extend to others the mercy and comfort that God has extended to us in his Son. But Joni Eareckson is no doubt right to remind us that we are best able to empathize with those who suffer in a way that we have suffered. Even more, she says, we may be able to a word of grace and understanding and hope to someone who is now walking through a similar experience of grief. So that we may console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled. As she might put it: Our suffering becomes an occasion to reach out to others who are suffering.

There is no simple way to conclude this message – Joni Eareckson’s day to day struggle with quadriplegia continues even this morning. She continues to experience God’s favour, to speak honestly with him about her grief, and to learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. She continues also to giver herself in service to Christ through an organization called Joni and Friends – an international organization that ministers to individuals with disabilities, and equips churches that would support them. This morning Joni continues on her way, and we continue on ours, in company with Christ, who comforts us, consoles us, listens to us, and invites us to serve him. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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