- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

Stairway to Heaven Column

Fifteen thousand days. That’s how long Joni Eareckson Tada has spent in a wheelchair.

She was 17 when she dived into the Chesapeake Bay and came out paralyzed for life.

When I first heard of her in the early 1970s, she was already famous as an artist who created lovely paintings via a paintbrush in her mouth. She founded Joni and Friends, a Christian outreach to disabled people worldwide. A film, “Joni,” was made in 1979 about her life, and in 1982 she married Ken Tada, a teacher.

The news of that wedding was bittersweet to one of my roommates, a quadriplegic living with me in Portland. I helped care for her on weekends and so I got to learn of the thousand indignities such people suffer every day. This roommate - also the victim of a diving accident - struggled every day with the question of why God had allowed this to happen.

She lived on a government pittance and relied on friends to get her out of bed every day. Joni, to her, was the star of the disability community and very blessed to get a shot at marriage and a family.

Over the years, I have followed Joni’s career, seeing her appear as a disability advocate and inspirational speaker. She turns 60 this year as her newest book, “A Lifetime of Wisdom: Embracing the Way God Heals You” about 40-plus years in a wheelchair, describes.

In it, she plays the part of an imaginary mentor to her 17-year-old self, now equipped with years of advice on how to deal with disappointment, fear and heartbreak. God, she said, is more interested in healing people spiritually.

“Not that He doesn’t care about physical disabilities and limitations,” she told me, “but He’s teaching us patience, how to lean on Him, how to care about others who are hurting, how to get your focus on heavenly glories above.”

Wasn’t that spiritualizing things a bit, I asked her. Jesus likewise was concerned about the inner person, but He healed people by the thousands.

“Those grand-scale miracles were for that age,” she said. “We don’t see the parting of the Red Sea any more. We don’t see people raised from the dead. Jesus began to deal with sin and reverse its effects, but He didn’t finish the job. Miracles on that scale set up the kingdom of heaven but didn’t complete it.”

She conceded, “I think He occasionally heals to whet our appetite for heaven, but until then we must lean on His grace, trusting He has a bigger plan for us.”

Which in her case turned out to be writing a pile of books, visiting 47 countries and shipping thousands of wheelchairs to the developing world.

What if she had been healed, I asked.

“It would have been great, but it would have been small, local and personal,” she said. “This is big and global and visionary. God said ‘no’ to physical healing, but ‘yes’ to a larger vision to extend his kingdom to countries around the earth.”

But that’s about adapting, not how God “heals you.” And what, I asked, about people who don’t have a global ministry?

“Everyone has a sphere of influence,” she said. “You can change the meaning of disability into something huge or impactful. When I embraced the pain, God translated it and exchanged the meaning for something more grand. This wheelchair - it is the prison that set me free.”

• Julia Duin’s “Stairway to Heaven” runs Thursdays and Sundays. E-mail Julia Duin.

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