Saturday, July 23, 2011
Joni Eareckson Tada and her husband Ken talk about Popular Culture -- and their life together battling Cancer and Disability
By Michael Ireland
Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
NASHVILLE, TN (ANS) -- Last summer, Joni Eareckson Tada was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent successful surgery in order to treat it.
I asked her how she was doing?
Joni told me: “Yes, I’m doing remarkably well -- and I’m sure that’s to the credit of God’s people for praying.
“I went through surgery for stage three breast cancer last summer and went through a rigorous time of chemo therapy, but that’s several months behind me now and the pet scans are all clear -- no evidence of any metastasized cancer in my body. So the doctors’ reports are extremely optimistic for the future, so I’m looking forward to getting back to a normal schedule -- a travel schedule, a work schedule -- and trusting that God’s hand of healing will continue to rest upon me,” she said.
Joni smiled when I suggested that one of the things those who know Joni can say is that she really does depend on the Lord, “and that shines through so wonderfully,” and that she is “the prime example of somebody who really trusts and depends on the Lord.”
When I commented to her: “I remember doing a Bible study on ‘casting all your care on Him for He cares for you,’ where the word ‘casting’ is the same word we use for throwing a blanket over a donkey to ride on the back of the donkey,” Joni responded: “Oh my, I love that. I certainly do. "
She added: “There were many times during the chemo therapy when whenever I would become discouraged I would remember that wonderful psalm ‘why art thou downcast oh my soul? why are you so disquieted within me? Put your hope in God, your savior.’ And I did that time and again, so God’s word was a constant encouragement, a help and a ministry to my heart.”
I then asked Joni about her book “Life In the Balance.” In one chapter, Joni talks about violence in our society, and about anger. I was curious where Joni thinks that comes from? Would she speak to that as somebody who had an accident you really struggled with, and was able to overcome it?
“I think anger erupts within us whenever we feel as though our personal rights have been violated -- our right to be understood, or our right to have things done our way; when our expectations are not met, then anger will erupt,” said Joni.
“My friend Vicky, who is a wonderful spinal cord injury quadriplegic friend of mine, took the brunt of someone else’s anger in an attempted rape and was shot during that rape and now is living a life of quadriplegia in a wheelchair -- while her assailant got only three years in prison. And if anyone does, she has a perfect right to be angry… but she is not angry at all. In fact she prays for her assailant constantly that he might come to know Jesus Christ. Only Jesus is the one who can dissipate the anger that seems so prevalent in Western societies these days. It’s no wonder that he’s called the Prince of Peace, and when we take our anxieties and our anger to Him, He gives a peace that passes all understanding.”
In that book, Joni mentions that people can have some faulty expectations. Where does she think faulty expectations come from: is it that most people feel that we have some rights to some things -- it’s our due, we’ve earned it, whatever that may be?
Joni said: “Yeah, I remember when I was first injured, I felt that I’d gone through so much pain and adjustment just living and accepting life in a wheelchair. I felt as though God owed me some time off from obeying him, that I was owed at least five good hours of bitterness this week God, because I had it rough and I deserve some time off from obeying you. I deserve to be angry, I deserve to be bitter. We just put ourselves up on the throne of our hearts and want our wants and wishes to be honored and obeyed and, whereas God’s saying ‘no, it’s not your wants and wishes -- you are not to sit on the throne of your heart: I am to sit on the throne of your heart. And in so doing again that peace that passes all understanding is what will pervade our hearts.”
We talked about another chapter in her book “Life In The Balance,” in which Joni writes about celebrity culture, and how this ties in with levels of expectation. Could she speak to celebrity culture and how young girls particularly want to be good looking, and they want to have the latest clothes, they want to have iPods?
Joni responded: “Gee, you said it so well Michael I don’t know if I can do a better…”
I replied: “But when you say it, people will listen!”
“Well we’re bombarded by so many media images that you need to look a certain way, dress a certain way, be a certain weight, a certain height ,wear a certain style of clothes or shoes -- and these become the norm,” said Joni.
“These become the yardstick, the standard of measurement, by which we not only measure ourselves and how successful and meaningful our lives are, but how successful anybody else is. “And young people living under this kind of pressure -- little wonder they have so many emotional problems and struggle so with anger. But again, Jesus Christ is the one who shatters those yardsticks and those standards of measurement by our culture, and His standard is to love others as God has loved us.”
I also asked Joni about her understanding of the biblical definition of real beauty that would speak to young teen-agers?
“Well, I love that the Bible says that man looks on the outward appearance and God looks on the heart. I think real beauty effuses and flows from the heart. To be kind, considerate, compassionate, caring, loving, gentle. To be a peacemaker in the midst of conflict, to be the kind of individual that always is looking out for the interests of another, that’s real beauty. That’s real attractiveness. And I’m just grateful that when my husband saw me, that he didn’t see a girl in a wheelchair -- he saw someone who reflected those attributes and those qualities, and he tells me even still, that that’s what’s beautiful about me. And that’s the same kind of advice I want to pass onto any young person who is looking to find out where the beauty is.”
Ken added: “Well, I have to say I go along with what was just voiced by Joni, first Samuel sixteen talks about how man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. So what I saw in Joni -- a beautiful person, not overlooking the wheelchair -- but I realized that there was more beauty in her than many of the people I’ve met in my lifetime.”
Many young people are looking for acceptance and they try to say and try to do the cosmetic things to find acceptance and love. I asked Ken: “As someone who found in Joni somebody very special, that exudes that inner beauty we’ve been talking about, what can you say to young people ?”
“This is a very difficult time in our culture and society today,” said Ken.
“I taught high school for thirty-two years. I retired about seven years ago, but as I watched young people, there are so many more pressures on them today, (than there were) years ago when I first started teaching. And I think that one of the things is peer pressure. There’s a tremendous amount of peer pressure now -- not that it wasn’t there before -- but more so now than in the past. And I sense that until a young person, and this is a very difficult thing because it means for them to sometimes stand up independent of those around them, but when they ‘come to terms’ in terms in the sense of knowing Christ in their lives and realizing that there’s more to life than what others think of them, then they can get freedom from the ties that they have with wanting to compete with the other kids. So I and you know that’s a hard thing that means their salvation. So as soon as they can get to that particular point, then they can go onto the next level. But until then, I’m afraid it’s going to be difficult.”
Joni added: “There’s so much competing and comparing in our society, so much of a competitive nature so much ‘one-upmanship,’ keeping up with the upper classmen, trying to emulate what you see someone ahead of you doing and saying, how they dress, how they speak the kinds of friends they choose. Competition and a competing nature is so antagonistic to a godly spirit which doesn’t look to compete, but always looks to show compassion and to look out for the interest of others, to care about the interests of others. Sometimes I think that when kids dress a certain way, act in a certain manner, or speak a certain language, it’s a facade to cover up their insecurities. We’re all looking for two things mainly: security and significance. We want to be secure in who we are, and we want to know that what we do is significant, and that can’t be found in clothes, make-up, or a style of car that you drive, the kind of school that you attend. Those things can only be found in Christ. When we know who we are in Christ, then our significance is anchored in Him and everything we do can have meaning. So I think Ken is right -- it’s all getting properly-oriented on who God is in our lives.”
Ken said that young people want to be accepted by their peers, and he agreed they’ll do anything for acceptance.
“Exactly, exactly; and I think that’s very pervasive -- why Facebook and Twitter and all these electronic means to be able to reach out are so successful: because young people want to be accepted, and they’ll seek it in different ways. So until they can come to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ they’re going to be looking and they’re going to be searching. So this is not an easy solution, but it is certainly the solution.
At this point in our conversation, Joni asked Ken to talk about how he was able to support her during her entire bout with cancer. “You were awesome! In my battle against cancer, I could not have done it, I could not have survived if not for the way you stood by me,” Joni said.
“It’s one of Joni’s best books that she’s ever written, and I’ve read all her books,” Ken told me.
“Not that the other books weren’t, but this one for the past year and a half Joni’s struggled with pain issues, terrible pain issues. I mean people don’t realize this, that Joni lives with pain, it just depends on how much pain,” he said.
“For at least a year and a half she was living with some very major pain. So the book really talks about that and also uses a lot of scripture to talk about some of what Joni has found through this journey of pain. And then it’s interesting, because on page 142 in this book, Joni talks about how she ‘does not have cancer, but a friend of mine does’ -- Dave Paulson, and that’s an example she uses in the book as an example of a cancer patient. And when the book was supposed to be released it was right before the summer and it was then we discovered that Joni had cancer.
“So the publishers decided it was important enough to add an epilogue to this book. You’ll notice at the end of this book it has an epilogue that says ‘and by the way, I just found out that I have breast cancer, and I’m going in for an operation next week.’ From that time to today. Of course she’s now gone through chemo therapy and all of the other treatments -- we’re just doing a maintenance program and being diligent in terms of the checks. But I think for anyone who has a question about why does God, why would God allow these things to happen ‘A Place Of Healing’ really will reach out and perhaps maybe answer some of those questions -- including the one that you shared with me as far as your own personal situation. I mean I teared up many times reading that book, and you know of course I knew Joni, and I read it knowing that now she does have cancer and how much that spoke to that particular issue for us as a couple. So it really is a book about her personal (life).”
I then raised the question of when a loved one has either a critical or a chronic illness, how can you remain focused and still trusting God that He has the best in view -- the best in mind -- because loving someone means loving them like God loves us, seeking the highest good of the one being loved? What could he say to people who love someone who has a chronic or a critical illness?
“That’s a good question, because as we deal in disability ministries we realize that there are many men, more men probably than women, who walk away when there’s a disability involved. In fact we know that eighty percent of marriages where disability occurs after the marriage, end in divorce. The reverse of that is true: if you marry someone who is disabled when you know that before the marriage,” Ken said.
He added: “One thing that’s key in your question, is that we believe in a sovereign God, and if we believe in a sovereign God, you know He’s sovereign in adversities as well as the blessings. And if we believe that, then none of this is by chance. The cancer’s not by chance, the spinal cord injury is not by chance, any of this is not by chance.”
Ken agreed that we choose to love someone -- love is a choice, love is a decision, love is a commitment.
“Yes it is. I think that in my case, I chose to love Joni -- there’s a lot more to the story -- I heard God say to me, not in an audible voice, but a few years ago he said that ‘Joni is the most precious gift that I’ve given you. You take care of her.’ And from that moment on, I didn’t understand exactly what He meant by that. I’ve always loved Joni but that was one of those epiphanies at a time where I stepped back, and I thought what are you telling me God? And I think it was preparation, and was three or four years ago in preparation for this moment now. You’re right, I mean we choose this, this is something that I’ve chosen, but it’s something that I also realize that I can’t do by myself -- God is certainly a huge part of my ability to be able to reach out, and there are times where it’s difficult too. It’s difficult because, as you and I have discussed, there are times when you wonder if you can do it anymore, but then you reach down and realize that ‘hey I don’t have to do it, because God’s there helping me,’ and that’s been big.”
**ANS would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.
** You may republish this story with proper attribution.
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