Joni Eareckson’s life dramatically changed on July 30, 1967. When she was 17 years old, she misguided her dive into the Chesapeake Bay and became a quadriplegic paralyzed from the shoulders down. Joni’s sister carried her out of the water that day, and Joni knew at that moment her life would be forever changed. Through the last fifty-plus years, Joni has been faithful in her mission to love and show people the impossible things God has done throughout her life. In a sit-down interview with Christian Headlines, Joni was clear that even through her pain and suffering, God has been more than faithful to her.
Joni has written a new book based on the life of Brother Lawrence, who lived through the drudgeries of monastery kitchen duty during the turbulence of France in the 1600s. This unique and deeply encouraging devotional, The Practice of the Presence of Jesus, ushers in wisdom from these two everyday saints, more than 400 years apart, to teach and inspire readers to dwell in the active presence of God moment by moment. Joni believes that although Brother Lawrence lived over 400 years ago, his words still ring true today in her life and hopefully in the lives of others.
CH: How are you doing? I know that you had some health issues a few months ago.
Joni: I’m doing well after two bouts of double pneumonia this year. I’m not joking when I say it’s amazing that I’m alive. All my friends tell me I’m a miracle. So, I’m grateful. I just turned 74 last week. When I was young, I used to think 74 was ancient. And I feel so good.
So, to answer your question, I’ve been doing well for 74, 56 of those years in a wheelchair—double pneumonia, and now a new kind of chronic pain over the last few weeks. So, one more thing to figure out, but we’ll get there. I’m just glad that we’re here together today.
CH: What did you learn from Brother Lawrence?
Joni: In the sixties, when I was in high school, his book, the Practice of the Presence of God, was immensely popular. Everybody was reading it, and so was I. It was written by Brother Lawrence, who was born in the 1600s to a peasant family in France. He had a very difficult childhood, limited learning, and fought in the Thirty Years’ War, which was devastating and destructive. It shook him up. Somehow, he made his way to the Carmelite Monastery in Paris. He opened up his heart to the God of the Bible there. He was put to work right away in the kitchen, scrubbing the floors of the monastery, pots and pans, and scrubbing the toilet. He had menial and ordinary tasks that nobody else in the monastery wanted to do. Still, he did them with a good and humble spirit of humility by inviting God into each task.
He wanted to practice the presence of God in the most ordinary duties of life, those which others would find disgusting, like cleaning out toilets. In this way, he found great joy. I loved the book when I was in high school. I could see why it was so popular, but it sat on my shelf for 50-some-odd years. 2020, the year of COVID-19, when we were all sequestered in our homes, I went through my bookshelf and started picking out books to reread. I noticed the tattered copy of Brother Lawrence’s book. And, when I reread it, I remembered why I had loved it so much in high school.
CH: What did it do for you spiritually?
Joni: It refreshed me once again on the joy of inviting God into our everyday duties, tasks, and jobs. I thought this was such a blessing to me during Covid, and I loved practicing in the presence of Jesus. I decided to write a book in which, on the left page, I detailed Brother Lawrence’s insights on how he practiced God’s presence. On the right side of the page, I decided to detail insights I learned about practicing the presence of Jesus every single day in my life and walking with the Lord.
There are 110 devotionals. Many people, especially young people, don’t know Brother Lawrence. I hope this book not only blesses people with my insights about practicing Christ’s presence but also introduces them to this amazing little monk from centuries ago. I felt connected because of what he experienced and what I experienced. The body of Christ is knit together across the centuries. We are still edifying each other. I hope it’ll bless the reader, introduce them to Brother Lawrence, and give some fresh insights I’ve written about Christ’s presence in my life.
CH: When did you officially know God was calling you to write this book?
Joni: During 2020, I got to work on it in 2021. I’m so excited about this project. It just refreshed my soul.
CH: Where do your creativity and work ethic come from? How do you keep on going through all of your physical and health issues?
Joni: Well, I love to communicate. I love painting, writing, singing, and speaking. My daddy was a great storyteller, and I guess I inherited his DNA. I have suffered, and I know what it is to live with loss, disappointment, chronic pain, hands that don’t work, and feet that don’t walk. I know most of the world can’t stand suffering.
Most want to escape it with drugs or medicate and avoid it, to try to do everything but live with it. I feel compelled to share what I’m learning on paper to help other people find Christ in their afflictions.
My disability and inability to use my hands or to walk force me to find Christ. I have to be disciplined; the alternative is to shrivel up and lay in bed and get depressed, and I can’t go down that path; it’s too dark. It’s too awful. It’s too horrible. My disability requires those spiritual disciplines that I practice and make them a part of my life. These are habits and the rhythm of my days. I’m so grateful for my disability because of that.
CH: Since the 1600s, what does Brother Lawrence have to say to us in modern times?
Joni: Well, one thing I gleaned from him was not to complain.
Philippians 2:14 says, ’ Do everything without complaining.’ In the book of Jude, there is a long list of things that describe the ungodly, but one main description is complaining. That’s how much God despises grumbling and complaining. Father Martin learned not to complain. If people can learn from my life and writing, I hope it is not to complain.
CH: What one thing did you learn about Brother Lawrence that you didn’t already know?
Joni: He fought in the Thirty Years’ War, and during the war, he became severely injured. He became permanently lame. But I didn’t know this about him until I researched more. He experienced a life transformation on the battlefield, which led him to join the monastery in Paris.
I memorized it. And to this day, I’m still living it. My mission statement for my life is to be God’s best audio-visual aid of what it means to see his power show up best in weakness. I think, Lord willing, my legacy will be to help people find God in their suffering, avoid complaining, move forward with grace, and see God in every moment. Of course, our ministry at Johnny and Friends is all about sharing this good news with people with disabilities. They’re the ones who suffer the most. They’re the world’s neediest. They’re the ones who are most often forgotten. Hopefully, that mission statement and legacy I just voiced will impact their lives.
CH: How do you set goals for your life?
Joni: I’m all about squeezing every ounce of effort out of my body to my years left to get ministry done for Him. God’s power can show up best in our weakness through Jesus.
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