Category Archives: Disability

Does Suffering Provide Intimacy With Jesus

Over the last forty plus years, I’ve had a lot of exposure to Joni Eareckson Tada. I’ve read her books (well, some of them), listened to her radio show and have met her personally four times. In many respects, I admire the woman, and I applaud much of the work that her ministry, Joni and Friends, does to bring the Gospel to people afflicted by disability. To my disappointment, my cassette tapes of her singing wore out, and I can’t find her albums on mp3 format (if any of you know where I could get them, please put a link in the comments section or on The Outspoken TULIP’s Facebook page).

Although I’m still a fan of Joni’s singing, during the past six or seven years little things about her theology have sort of nagged at me. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying Joni’s a false teacher on the level of Beth Moore, Joyce Meyer or Ann Voskamp. The bulk of her teaching lies well within the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. All of us have blind spots, and perhaps my quibbles with Joni reflect blind spots in me. So I beg you not to misinterpret this essay as a denunciation of this woman.

At the same time, a few unrelated things about her have made me more cautious about her ministry than I used to be. I’ve been praying about my concerns for several months, knowing that things simply weren’t right.  The other day, however, I watched a YouTube video that made me think seriously about her teaching and its influence on me. As a result, I believe I need to address an element of her teaching that troubles me.

Here’s the hour-long  video, for those who would like to see it:

Whether you watch it or not, I want to explain why it bothers me.

In her talk, Joni began with a statement that I’d heard her make many times over the last forty years. In essence, she said that she wouldn’t trade her quadriplegia for anything because of the intimacy it has given her with Jesus. From there, she proceeded to describe various instances in which the Lord has comforted her in her suffering, encouraging those in her audience to likewise find His comfort during their times of hardship.

This type of thinking inspires people, most assuredly. I’ve found it inspiring on more than one occasion. But as I mulled it over the other day, it occurred to me that Joni had taken a by-product of suffering and was presenting it as suffering’s main purpose. While she frequently inched close to the truth that God allows and uses suffering with the primary purpose of glorifying Himself, she’d always revert back to the benefits of suffering to her. As a result, she (I believe unintentionally) communicated a self-centered view of Christianity rather than a Christ-centered one.

On one level, I understand how she would put such an emphasis on self. Those of us with severe physical disabilities live in worlds where large networks of people provide various services to us, ranging from intimacies like bathroom routines to impersonal acts like driving paratransit vehicles. In all these situations, our needs necessarily take priority. Understandably, we become accustomed to being the center of attention. Not surprisingly, therefore, we see the Lord as the ultimate Person Who takes care of us.

And the Lord indeed does take care of us. Our disabilities render us wonderfully dependent on Him in ways that most able-bodied Christians don’t get to enjoy.

But.

As much as disability (or any suffering) facilitates intimate dependence on Jesus, and as wonderful as that intimate dependence may be, it’s really not the point. Later in her talk, Joni imagines a conversation she’ll have with Jesus in heaven. As she walks hand-in-hand with Him, He points to her wheelchair and tells her all the ways He’s used her because of it.

That’s not how I picture heaven.  I imagine being before Him, overwhelmed by His glory and greatness. When I see Him face-to-face, I seriously doubt I’ll think about myself at all, unless it’s to grieve over the many ways I will have failed to honor Him. Frankly, I won’t be thinking about my disability in heaven. I’ll be too fascinated with Jesus and His magnificence to think about myself!

Does my disability give me an intimacy with Jesus that I wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise? I have absolutely no idea. Furthermore, if it does, that’s an added benefit. He’s sovereignly blessed me with Cerebral Palsy for purposes that glorify Him, and any intimacy that I have with Him because of it comes a a bonus. I tremble at the thought of teaching young women to regard suffering as something God allows in their lives for their sake.

Joni Eareckson Tada is not a false teacher, but I do believe her emphasis on self could reinforce the narcissism that plagues evangelical communities today. In a time when professing Christians need to turn attention away from self in order to proclaim the excellencies of the Lord Jesus Christ, we don’t need teachings that encourage self-focus…even as a means of coping with suffering.

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The Beauty Of Christ’s Blood

As Mom unpacked my suitcase, I told her stories about Easter Seal Camp Harmon, sorry that I’d never go back. At age 18, I’d found that all the adult campers had intellectual disabilities, and as a result the counselors gave me more attention (I could converse on their level). Reluctantly, Mom agreed that it would be unfair to the other campers for me to continue going. We kept talking, both enjoying our time of bonding.

Finally she unpacked a large red cross attached to a cord so that I could wear it as a necklace. I explained that the counselors had helped me make it in Ceramics class, and that I’d painted it red to remind me of the blood Jesus shed for my sin. Looking a little disgusted, Mom blurted out, “Well, that’s rather ghoulish!”

Perhaps the world, like Mom, has difficulty understanding why Christians regard Christ’s blood-stained  cross as a thing of beauty. Perhaps, if  I didn’t know what it symbolizes, I might also find it a bit ghoulish. But a year and a half before I applied red glaze to that cross with  my mouthstick, the Lord used a high school friend to show me that He had shed His blood on the cross in payment for my sin.

In the law given through Moses, God required that the blood of innocent animals be shed to atone for sin. Leviticus describes those  bloody sacrifices in such detail that most Christians can’t make it through the book. The writer of Hebrews, thankfully, helps to explain why the Jews offered such horrible sacrifices:

18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. ~~Hebrews 9:18-22 (ESV)

God takes sin so seriously that only blood provides full atonement. We, on the other hand, sin so naturally and with such ease that we think a simple (and not necessarily heartfelt) apology should do the trick. We forget that God is so absolutely holy that He cannot tolerate the  least amount of impurity. Even the smallest, most socially acceptable sin offends Him so deeply that it requires the death of something.

Or Someone.

And in His inexplicable mercy, God the Son willingly shed His precious blood, knowing that it provided a much more lasting atonement than the blood of sacrificial animals. Again, the writer of Hebrews explains:

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
    but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
    you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
    as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”
When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. ~~Hebrews 10:1-14 (ESV)

Jesus shed His innocent blood in atonement for the sin that you and I commit simply because we’re born sinners. In so doing, He simultaneously satisfied justice and showed mercy to all who believe on Him. Oh, I know it boggles our limited human minds, and I also know I can’t explain it as thoroughly as I’d like. Nevertheless, I pray you’ll see that, far from being ghoulish, the blood stained cross of Christ radiates the powerful beauty of Christ’s love for us.

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I’m Not Joni

joniMy mother always looked at Joni Eareckson Tada (the famed Christian writer/speaker/artist who became a quadriplegic due to a diving accident at age 17) with a little jealously. Joni had financial advantages that I didn’t (plus an able-bodied husband) to give her steady personal care. I, on the other hand, require government assistance and constantly struggle to keep Personal Care Attendants. Joni could earn money without jeopardizing any benefits; I can’t.

But my mom, because she wasn’t a Christian, couldn’t make an accurate comparison between me and Joni. I believe the years have helped me see differences between Joni’s life and my own that matter far more than financial stability. To my surprise, these differences make me wonder if perhaps Joni should be the jealous one.

Joni Eareckson Tada has effectively used her disability, as well as her chronic pain and her battle against breast cancer, to minister to hurting people. The Lord has used her books, speaking engagements, artwork and singing to bring hope to many people. For years, I eagerly followed her ministry. I’ve met her on four occasions, and felt a bit star-struck the first three times. Joni indeed exemplifies how a Christian woman can use her disability to honor the Lord.

But I’ve never really appreciated it when admiring friends, well-meaning though they are, compare me to Joni. I’ve often threatened to write a  book titled I’m Not Joni.

Instead, I write an obscure little blog called The Outspoken TULIP  that focuses on the importance of sound doctrine, problems in the evangelical church, the Protestant Reformation and concerns over false teaching. Once in a while, I mention my disability, but only as a peripheral fact of life that I can’t exactly hide. But my blog reflects my passion for God’s Word and for leading women to contend for the faith.

Joni, I believe, suffers tremendously. She often recounts, in speaking engagements, how she typically wakes up in the morning telling the Lord she just can’t endure another day of quadriplegia and asking Him to let her borrow a smile to greet the ladies who get her up. Sometimes I wake up asking the Lord to let her wake up cheerful and  smiling. It must be terrible to begin so many days consumed with the weight of disability.

In  contrast, I have an awfully hard time (even during debilitating migraines) thinking that I really suffer. I compare myself to  disabled people in Third World countries, many of whom don’t even have manual wheelchairs, much less customized power wheelchairs that zip all over downtown Boston with and without the augmentation of public transportation.

I compare myself to Joni, who can’t even wake up cheerful.

Clearly, I’m nothing like Joni Eareckson Tada, and I don’t think I’d trade my life for hers.I admire her love for Jesus, of course, and praise God for the ways her organization, Joni and Friends, serves people afflicted by disability worldwide (though I’m not necessarily endorsing it at this point). But I am different from her in many respects. Please, join me in praying that she wakes up comfortable tomorrow morning.

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Saturday Sampler: October 30 — November 5

Tulip Sampler 02Get comfortable, because Gary Giley’s Discernment and Revelation on the Southern View Chapel website takes time to read. But if you want to understand why people like me believe that the Holy Spirit speaks exclusively through Scripture, you’ll find comprehensive and compelling evidence for our position in this article. Make time to read it, please.

In honor of Reformation Day, Sharon LaRue of Chapter 3 Ministries invites Protestants and Catholics alike to study Reformation Day and the Doctrine of Justification. Its wonderful that Sharon’s health allowed her to blog for this important occasion.

I don’t know if reading The Woman in the Wheelchair Who Thought She Could Not Be Saved by Jordan Standridge on The Cripplegate makes me sad or angry. Both, I think. But it also  makes me grateful for the Reformation, which restored the Bible’s teaching that Christians are justified by faith, not works on penance. Whatever caused that woman’s disability didn’t cripple her nearly as much as the damnable teachings of the Roman Catholic Church!

Rosaria Butterfield became a Christian in 1999. Her conversion cost her a prestigious  academic position as a professor of English Literature and Women’s Studies, and it also convinced her to renounce her lesbian lifestyle and prominent position as an LBGTQ activist. Her background lends power to her recent piece in The Gospel Coalition Blog, Love Your Neighbor Enough to Speak Truth: A Response to Jen Hatmaker.

Adding to the Jen Hatmaker conversation, Denny Burk writes, Yes, let’s remember who’s watching this conversation. Are we really going to manifest a compromised caricature of “Christianity” for the sake of political correctness?

Writing for She Disciples, Kim Wine offers insight into Why You’re Not Changing Even Though You’re a Christian. I appreciate Kim for basing her practical counsel firmly in the Word of God.

In his article, 10 Reasons Why the Reformation is Not Over, Josh Buice of Delivered by Grace encourages us to persevere in preaching the Gospel. I completely agree! As long as professing Christians distort the Gospel and propagate false teaching, the true Church will need to continually reform herself.

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Inconsequential Disability

img_0501Clearly, Cerebral Palsy affects every area of my life to one degree or another. I don’t really care for that fact, but there you have it. I’ve accepted the reality that my disability shapes and controls how I live in such a variety of ways that I could most likely write an interesting blog exclusively on that topic. If we throw John’s Polio into the mix, maybe we could get a good book deal going.

A lot of Christians with disabilities use their disabilities as platforms for ministry. Joni Eareckson Tada, of course, instantly comes to mind as the most notable example, although I’ve known others that also serve their fellow disabled people. Over the course of my life, I’ve made a few attempts at involvement in disability ministry…primarily because other people thought I should.

But, to be brutally honest, I’m simply not interested in disability. Not even my own disability, despite its pervasive nature. If I write about it now and then, I generally do so out of necessity, aware that I can’t totally avoid the subject. Even as a blogger, I need to help my readers understand why my posts are so short; typing with a headstick (especially in conjunction with the  involuntary movements of Cerebral Palsy) means that I can’t produce 1,000 word essays every day. Yet, I only mention this fact because I need to.

Some people have suggested that I’ve always avoided disability ministry out of denial. I’ll admit that I want, in some  ways, to distance myself from disability,  but  charging me with denial seems a bit ridiculous. C’mon folks, I married a man who also uses a wheelchair! I can hardly be accused of running away from disability when I deal with both his and mine. I married John, accepting his disability (just as he married me accepting mine), fully aware of the many implications involved.

Occasionally, yes, the Lord uses my disability (or John’s) to give me insight into a Scriptural principle, and I have no problem writing about those instances. If I can exploit my disability to bring glory and honor to the Lord Jesus Christ, I won’t hesitate to take full advantage of the opportunity. But, for the most part, my blog rarely mentions wheelchairs, headsticks, Personal Care Attendants or any of the oddities that come with having a severe physical disability.

My true passion is teaching women the importance of good doctrine. Writing a blog about disability issues might get me a bigger audience (particularly if I hinted here and there about my sex life, I suppose). But I see a much greater need in the Body of Christ than telling people how to handle temporal suffering. Actually, I seldom consider myself as afflicted anyway, especially when I remember Christians in other countries who are being tortured, imprisoned and killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. Those people suffer infinitely more than I ever have.

The disability I really want to blog about has nothing to do with Cerebral Palsy, and everything to do with  spiritual health. With evangelicals increasingly minimizing the importance of the Bible in favor of emotional experiences and distorted ideas of Jesus, I desire to challenge the fads and false teaching that cripple God’s people. Believe me, ladies, these handicaps have far more eternal consequences than whether or not I can walk. Therefore, I reserve the right to focus on the clear teachings of Scripture, not on disability, praying that Christ will receive the glory.

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What’s Wrong With The Box?

walker_8th-gradeEveryone wants to “think outside the box” these days. And I do agree with the idea of innovation, creativity and exploration. My husband, for instance, ardently objected to wearing blue jeans until he was in his mid-50’s. His box told him that jeans were for farmers. But one day, our neighbor gave him three pairs of jeans. After I coaxed him to try on a pair, he decided jeans were comfortable! For a few years afterwards he only wore his Dockers to church!

So, I’m not opposed to broadening one’s horizons or trying new things. Having said that, however, I believe the box can be too quickly discarded. I believe, very firmly, that the box, more often than not, provides the framework for innovation, creativity and exploration.

Let me explain my position by taking you back to my verse writing class in college. My professor insisted that, before we could successfully write free verse, we needed to learn to write sonnets. Sonnets are very restrictive in their form. They must be exactly 14 lines of iambic pentameter, following one of two specific rhyme schemes. The first quatrain presents the main idea, generally in terms of a metaphor. The next quatrain adds to the metaphor, giving it a bit more complexity and texture. And then, the all-important third quatrain adds a twist (or, as my professor put it, “creates a problem”). The final couplet (not a quatrain this time) both resolves the conflict and gives the reader a new image.

To defend sonnet-writing to that 1977 class of  young adults still enamored with the free-spirited ideals of Woodstock, Betty Freidan’s bra-burning and the questioning of authority , my professor kept reminding us that “Freedom is in the form.” To my surprise, he was right!  As I practiced taming my thoughts into iambic pentameter, using the strict rhyme scheme to select vibrant words, and using the quadrants to unfold my metaphors, I enjoyed watching my sonnets come alive. The form, rather than oppressing my creativity, generated it. I saw my writing soar with a freshness that I’d never seen in the trendy  free verse I’d been producing since high school.

I often carry my professor’s dictum, “Freedom is in the form,” into my relationship with Christ. In contrast to people who live life as “free spirits” who have no concrete direction, I find solid guidance through the teachings of Scripture. Admittedly I do so very imperfectly (just as I still write sonnets very imperfectly) but I’m so thankful that God gives me a framework for my decisions, my relationships and my morals. The Lord, through His written Word, provides the structure that enables me to soar into worship.

King David, in Psalm 119, demonstrated that God’s Law provides wonderful liberty for those who abide in its principles.

25 My soul clings to the dust;
    give me life according to your word!
26 When I told of my ways, you answered me;
    teach me your statutes!
27 Make me understand the way of your precepts,
    and I will meditate on your wondrous works.
28 My soul melts away for sorrow;
    strengthen me according to your word!
29 Put false ways far from me
    and graciously teach me your law!
30 I have chosen the way of faithfulness;
    I set your rules before me.
31 I cling to your testimonies, O Lord;
    let me not be put to shame!
32 I will run in the way of your commandments
    when you enlarge my heart! ~~Psalm 119:25-32 (ESV)

That image of running in the way of His commandments reminds me of the walker I had in childhood that allowed me to run! I needed to be in leg braces, and to be strapped into the structure (pictured above), but once in it, I enjoyed running all over the playground. To this day, I remember the exhilarating feeling of freedom that running gave me. When I ran, I appreciated the walker. Rather than regarding it as an encumbrance, I took tremendous joy in my emancipation.

Obedience to God’s Word emancipates Christians from sin, setting us free to serve the Lord with abandon! The structure, which the world so often characterizes as restrictive, actually allows us to run like children. When I reject the supposed freedom to rebel against God’s commands, I enjoy the same exhilaration that so thrilled me when I ran in that walker.

It sounds so cool to “think outside the box,” but perhaps we can’t really think clearly  outside the box of Scripture. As I see life, the proverbial box gives me the framework so essential to innovation, creativity and exploration. Whether I’m writing, remembering my walker or working out my Christian faith, I’m grateful for the structure. Sometimes, I’ll “think outside the box,” but I’m so delighted to actually have that beautiful box!

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Missing The Reason I Long For Heaven

templeMany evangelicals assume that my eagerness for heaven stems from a desire to escape my disability. I understand their assumption. After all, Cerebral Palsy (especially such a severe case) imposes multiple restrictions on me, and those restrictions often carry a variety of subtexts. So of course one would conclude that the promise of a new body, free of the limitations currently thrust on me, holds a significant appeal for me.

In one sense, it does. But only when I view heaven in terms of how it will benefit me. And as I grow in understanding doctrine, I become increasingly convinced that most professing Christians hold an inverted view of heaven and its purposes.

Somewhere in my past, a friend posited the idea that heaven would be different for each of us, according to our interests, tastes and desires. Using her paradigm, heaven for me would be a giant art  museum filled with works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Monet, Sargent and Rockwell. With cheesecake for meals. Her heaven would be stables of magnificent horses for her to ride and sturdy oak trees for her to climb.

Such self-indulgent imaginings of heaven, however, bear more resemblance to the Muslim concept of endless pleasure as a reward for faithfulness than it does to the apostle John’s description in Revelation. Although I can’t go through all the verses in this one blog post, consider this one passage as representative of the essential Christian view:

22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
 
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. ~~Revelation 21:22-22:5 (ESV)

Clearly the apostle John depicts heaven as an emanation of the Lord’s glories. Earlier in chapter 21, he does describe some of heaven’s beauties, but the pinnacle of his description is the Lord Himself. He emphasizes the Lord’s preeminence rather than enumerating the various pleasures that most of us so eagerly anticipate.

Instead of making heaven about us, then, shouldn’t we anticipate the glories of  being in the presence of the risen Christ? Or at least the joy of complete liberation from our sin nature so we can finally serve Him in holiness? Can we rejoice that He created us for heaven rather than selfishly assuming that He created heaven for us?

The apostle John knew that heaven abolishes sickness, pain and sorrow, but that it does so for the Lord’s glory and not to benefit us. Our liberation from those maladies will allow us to serve Him with greater freedom and to worship Him without pollution. I would be content to remain disabled in heaven, gazing on the wonder of His glory, but He will  give me a body through which I can best serve Him. What an honor!

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