One of the highlights of the Desiring God National Conference this past weekend was the appearance of Joni Eareckson Tada on Saturday night. As most of you know, Joni, a quadriplegic, was paralyzed 38 years ago in a diving accident. She is going to turn 56 years of age next week.
Joni, together with her husband Ken, and a team from Joni and Friends Ministries, were on their way to England and then to Africa, but arranged to stop over in Minneapolis at John Piper’s request and address the conference on the theme of Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. Needless to say, it is doubtful that anyone present, whether those of us in the audience or any of the speakers, has suffered the way Joni has. And few understand its relation to the sovereignty of God with the biblical clarity and wisdom that she does.
She delivered a stunningly great message. That in itself isn’t news, for Joni has been speaking on this theme for many years and the clarity of her convictions remains strong and articulate. I first met Joni in 1991 when we were speakers at a Ligonier Conference hosted by R. C. Sproul in Orlando, Florida. I felt so honored to meet her and even more so when she agreed to write the Foreword to my book, “To Love Mercy: Becoming a Person of Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness” (NavPress; now out of print).
But this past Saturday night I saw something that was as impressive, if not more so, than anything I heard. The worship that night began with the rousing song, “We are Marching in the Light of God” (at least, I think that’s the title). It was great to hear so many Reformed folk singing and, yes, actually moving (ever so slightly!) while they sang! But nothing could compare with what was happening on the right hand side of the stage.
Joni handles her wheelchair as deftly as any Nascar driver on a racetrack. No sooner had the music begun than Joni began to “dance”. As much as a quadriplegic can dance, she danced. Joni has just enough movement and strength in her hands and shoulders to grip the controls on her chair and maneuver herself without the aid of others. Suddenly the chair began to move with the music. She thrust forward, then backwards, then forwards again, then backwards. Smoothly, and yet with obvious passion, she turned to the right, then the left, then the right again.
I can’t prove it, but my guess is that 2,500 pairs of eyes in that auditorium were fixed on the dancing quadriplegic! Suddenly, the forward and backward and side to side movements gave way to spinning. Well, as much as a paralyzed person can spin. Joni began to turn her chair in circles, first clockwise, then back again. If she ceased her movements, it was only so that she could lift her contorted hands as high as her paralysis would allow. It wasn’t very high, but who’s measuring!
How Joni moved and “danced” is secondary. What’s amazing is THAT she did. What struck me, as I trust it struck others, was that a woman who has suffered so horribly and painfully and persistently for 38 years so loves her God and finds him so utterly worthy of her trust and hope that she WANTED to dance.
Joni shared in her message how she struggled spiritually in the early days and months after her accident. She wrestled with bitterness and self-pity and anger at God and longed to die rather than live in that condition. But here she was, 38 years later, celebrating God, enjoying God, honoring and glorifying God. Not simply in her mind or her spirit but with her body as best that body could worship.
I was standing, as were most of the others. All of us could choose when to sit down, were we to tire of being on our feet. We could easily clap or shove our hands into our pockets. Throughout the conference, up till that night, I had taken for granted that I could walk out of the auditorium under my own power and feed myself and tie my shoes and bathe and run and go to the bathroom without anyone’s help. Joni, and others like her, don’t take that for granted, because they can’t do any of those things. Yet, there she was, “dancing” in joy and delight and singing, “We are Marching in the Light of God”! Marching indeed.
I thought to myself, “What she wouldn’t give to do what you and I can but won’t.” I’m talking about worshiping God with her body. She longs to praise and celebrate her God, not simply in spirit and mind and soul, but with her arms and legs and hands as well. That comes easily for the rest of us, at least it does in the physical sense. Yet, many Christians are terrified of raising their hands or kneeling or clapping or, dare I say it, dancing?
I’m not saying that everyone has to worship in the same way. I’m not saying that you and I are obligated to any particular physical expression when we praise our glorious God. But perhaps we need to think a bit more than we do about how to worship as holistic beings, men and women whose bodies have been bought with a price and are now the temple of the Holy Spirit.
I don’t want to put thoughts in Joni’s mind or words in her mouth. But I can’t help but wonder if every once in a while she looks out on an audience, and says: “Do they have any idea what a glorious gift and privilege it is to be able to celebrate and thank God and honor him with their bodies? I don’t understand why they stand there like vertical cadavers.” Actually, I don’t think Joni would ever say anything like that. I think she’s far too humble, too mature and obsessed with her God than to use precious energy to criticize the rest of us for how we do or don’t worship the Lord.
So, let me put those words in my mouth and speak them to myself (and to you, if you think they apply). Sam, do you have any idea what a glorious gift and privilege it is to be able to celebrate and thank God and honor him with your body? There are many others who would give almost anything to be able to do what you can, but often won’t. Yes, of course, worship is first and fundamentally an issue of the heart. It is the attitude of our minds and the passion of our souls and the commitment of our wills that we bring to God as we declare his majesty and proclaim his mighty works. But as I said, we are more than minds. We are bodies. We will always be bodies. So let us honor God with them, however that may seem fitting to you as you consider the magnitude of divine grace and mercy and love and beauty.
I know how self-conscious people can be in a crowd, especially a Christian crowd. What will others think? What will they say? Will I look like a fool? A weakling? An overly emotional, theological lightweight? I don’t think Joni cared what any of us thought. Perhaps if the time comes when she is supposed to worship us, she’ll give it some consideration. Until then (which is never, of course), she’s only concerned with what God thinks.
Finally, the greatest thing in all this is what it tells us, not about Joni, but about her God. What kind of God is this who can inspire such freedom and joy in one who, from a human point of view, would appear to have every reason to hate him? What kind of God is this who can evoke such confidence and trust in a person who is so horribly disabled? What kind of God is this who has the qualities and characteristics and attributes and beauty and glory that he can be found worthy of the praise and gratitude and “dancing” of a woman who’s spent the last 38 years in a wheelchair? Wow! Now that’s some God!