by Noel Vanderbilt, grade 10
“In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus told His disciples (New International Version, John 16:33). Tragedy, suffering, and challenges: This world is certainly full of pain and trouble. Jesus, recognizing this, warned his followers, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me,” (New International Version, Luke 9:23).
Oftentimes, people choose not to embrace certain situations in life because of the suffering involved. When we follow Jesus’ command to take up our cross, we embrace life in all seasons, showing that every life has value. The lives of Joni, Joseph, and Joshua have inspired others to overcome adversity and choose life.
It was a bright, steamy Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1967. Joni, Kathy, and Kathy’s boyfriend piled into the car and drove the short distance to the beach on the Chesapeake Bay. Laughing, Joni and her companions climbed out of the car and raced across the hot sand, splashing into the cool, refreshing waves. The water glistened like a thousand diamonds in the golden sunlight while gulls screeched overhead and children built sandcastles along the beach. It was a perfect day for a swim. After frolicking in the shallows, Joni swam a little further out and clambered atop a raft. She shook the salty water from her hair and stood for a moment, surveying her surroundings. The sun beat down, hot and merciless. The water rippled, cool and inviting.
Joni dove, and her life was never the same. After misjudging the depth and diving into too shallow water, Joni Eareckson Tada suffered a fracture between her fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae and was paralyzed from the shoulders down. At the time of the accident, Joni was 17 years old. She loved being active and particularly enjoyed hiking, swimming, playing tennis, and horseback riding. Following the accident, Joni underwent two years of painful rehabilitation.
Once an active, athletic high school senior, now a quadriplegic, Joni needed to learn what it meant to live again. She struggled with depression, doubt, anger, and suicidal thoughts. She hated her paralysis so much that there were times she drove her power wheelchair into the walls, bashing them repeatedly until they cracked. She tried to numb the pain. Most days, she just wanted to disappear. Eventually, through the prayer of faithful friends and the power of the Holy Spirit, Joni started to embrace her life again. She discovered unquenchable joy in her relationship with Jesus. Although she could no longer do many of the things she once loved, she always enjoyed drawing and painting and decided to pursue becoming an artist. Painstakingly, she practiced learning how to paint, draw, and sketch with a brush between her teeth. It took years to learn, but she never gave up. In 1979, Joni founded Joni and Friends, a nonprofit disability ministry. Joni persevered through tragedy, coming from a point of wanting to take her own life to being able to embrace suffering, taking up her cross, and finding joy and purpose in her life.
[We can imagine the following scenario about Joseph.] Angrily, Joseph kicked at the dust along the road. Why this Lord? Why this? Confusion, frustration, and hurt swirled through his mind. Ducking into his carpenter shop, he pounded, cut, and sanded as if he could smooth away his troubles like a block of wood. Lord, what am I to do? If I marry the woman, I will be an outcast, a stranger among my friends. She deserves death for her sin.Hours later, exhausted and brokenhearted, he sank into a deep sleep. While he slept, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, saying, “Joseph do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins,” (New International Version, Matthew 1:20-21). Joseph awoke, panting, his decision made. He risked his character and his reputation, his friends and his family to be obedient to the word of the Lord. He chose a life of disgrace for the survival of a young woman and her preborn child. The law gave him the legal grounds to stone Mary and her preborn child, yet he chose a road of suffering in favor of life.
Most things take Joshua longer. He did not walk until he was three, and, at 13, he is still learning to speak, read, and write. Every morning my mom reminds him to make his bed, brush his teeth, and do his chores, but still, he gets distracted. He often snitches cookies from the cupboard, ice cream from the freezer, and protein bars from the pantry. He tries to help; he wants to help. He weed-whacks in the front yard and trims the hiking trails. He helps to feed the animals, vacuum the hallways, and put away the dishes. But more important than his earnest desire to help is his giant-sized heart. Joshua lights up any room, brings a smile to any face, and brings joy to many hearts. With his crooked grin, his mischievous blue eyes, and his sandy blonde hair, he appreciates being the center of attention. He loves to be outside, playing sports with his brothers, biking up and down the gravel drive, digging in the sandbox, or building forts in the woods. His life is full. Yet according to the world’s standards, Joshua’s life is a burden. Joshua has Down syndrome—a condition where a child is born with a partial or extra copy of chromosome 21. Sadly, many in today’s world would say that children like Joshua are an unwanted challenge. They do not want to deal with medical complications, developmental delays, or learning disabilities. It’s true: There are added difficulties of having a sibling with special needs, but as a family, we learned to embrace the challenges that Joshua brings. In turn, he’s blessed us with his love, his laughter, and his precious life.
Joni experienced tragedy, Joseph chose a road of suffering, and my family embraces the challenges Joshua brings, but that is not the end of the story. God can use faith to redeem suffering. Joni became a talented artist and founded an organization that ministers to many. The Lord blessed Joseph’s obedience and he had the privilege of being the adoptive father to Jesus, the Son of God. Joshua brings laughter and light to his family and friends.
When we take up our cross as Jesus commanded, we show that even though life is difficult, every life has dignity and value. When we embrace suffering, we embrace life. We cannot separate the two. Jesus acknowledges that there will be suffering in life: “In this world you will have trouble,” but He concludes by encouraging His disciples to “take heart! I have overcome the world!” (New International Version, John 16:33). Christ gives His people the strength to find joy in challenging circumstances, but even more inspiring is His promise that one day all will be restored and every tear will be wiped away.
© 2018 Noel Vanderbilt. Published with permission.