About the Guest
The Bible tells us that as we journey through this life, we will have troubles, but do our troubles have to define us? According to Joni Tada, we should be defined by how we respond to troubles. Hear from quadriplegic and cancer survivor Joni and her husband, Ken, as they discuss how life's marathon continues into a new and richer season.
Ken and Joni TadaKen Tada is the Director of Ministry Development of Joni and Friends. Ken began serving fulltime at Joni and Friends after retiring from teaching and coaching football for 32 years. Ken & Joni lead a team of disability ministry workers worldwide, providing practical services and spiritual help to people with disabilities and their families. Ken and Joni’s marriage and faith have only strengthened through tough circumstances including overcoming Joni’s stage-3 breast cancer. Joni Earec...more
According to Joni Tada, we should be defined by how we respond to troubles. Hear from quadriplegic and cancer survivor Joni and her husband, Ken.
Bob: And we can stay delicate right here. [Laughter]
Dennis: We will stay delicate, too; but you’re a quadriplegic, for those who don’t know your story. You had an accident when you were 17 years old. You had a great fear—going into this marriage—that he was going to find out what it meant to care for someone who was so helpless.
Joni: Okay; well, let’s talk about the brass tacks. Ken and I went off on our honeymoon. We took two friends / two girlfriends of mine—who stayed at a different hotel, down the beach—but they would come up during the mornings and evenings and kind of like educate Ken on my routines—
—not to throw everything at him at once—but just to kind of get his feet wet: “This is what it means for Joni to get up in the morning—bed, bath, exercising her legs, and then those toileting routines.”
Well, I had to do a particular toileting routine in the evening. I don’t know how to say this—Ken had to help carry me to the bathroom, and I didn’t make it. When that happened—it’s funny—I choke up, talking about it now, 30 years later. Yet, it’s so long ago and far away, but I was the young girl—I wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted my husband to have great illusions of me and “This is going to be wonderful! Everything is so romantic!”
Yet, I remember that first night, lying in bed after the lights were out and all was quiet. I fought back the tears: “Oh, God! This man—You are going to have to give him grace. You’re just going to have to!
“You have to give him grace because I don’t know that even I have the grace. But help him through this, Lord. You can do this! Help him through this!”
It was a desperate cry of a very young bride, but I’m so glad God answered because things did not get easier in our ensuing life together. There were even greater challenges but, at every turn, I saw God’s grace show up in my husband’s life. That was huge, and that’s growth.
Dennis: There are times in every marriage, after the honeymoon—in fact, there are seasons that occur—where you move into a bit of a valley. Obviously, your marriage started in one and has continued on in one, but you move into something where there is—you describe in your book as “negotiated spaces” and “demilitarized zones” in your relationship. You guys had a plateau / you kind of had the “Cease fire.”
Ken: I think it was those middle years, where Joni was going to the ministry and I was teaching high school. Basically, we were living together but separate lives / parallel lives—not that our marriage was bad—it’s just I was occupied with what I was doing, as a high school teacher, and Joni was occupied in the ministry. We would travel during the summers. So, there were a lot of connections; but during those school days, I mean, I don’t think we spent the kind of time that—
Dennis: You were teaching at the time.
Ken: I was teaching high school; yes.
Joni: And I was fearful that I was making Ken depressed / my disability was depressing my husband.
So I would be very careful to take care of as many routines as I could possibly do before he came home from school so that I would not have to walk on eggshells and ask him to do anything for me that might encroach on his emotions because I knew that asking too much of Ken would plummet him into depression.
For a long time, it was this strange tap dance that we both played, where we had to negotiate these spaces. But through it all / through it all, we both recognized we were doing this; and we didn’t want to live this way. So we prayed—prayed together and prayed separately—that God would help move us beyond this emotional fog that we were in to help us see the possibilities in our marriage, that were ahead on the horizon.
Ken: I think the other thing that happened during that time, Joni, was—especially, this was earlier in our marriage—but because of your notoriety, people would recognize you when we were in public.
One of the things that was really hard—that we look back on it now—was we’d go to church. There’d be a line of people, half an hour long, who would want to speak to you.
I was finding my—if I had a self-image problem, it was healed when I went to school because: “That was my classroom. Those were my students.” When I was in Burbank, those were people who recognized me—not that I needed it—but it was just that self-assurance / that affirmation I was getting through what I was doing—that I think there was a balance there.
Joni: But to help move my husband past that: “Let’s go to a different church. Let’s get out of this big church. Let’s go to some small, little church.” So, we started going to a small, very little church, just a few miles from our house. We stopped going to the big mega-church, where everybody knew me—just trying to find ways, as a wife, to make it easier—
—finding that those negotiated spaces became smaller and smaller, to the point where we both were in it together. We weren’t adversarial / we weren’t on parallel tracks anymore—we were on the same track. It took a while to get there, but we did.
Bob: Did you feel invisible for a long period of time?
Ken: Boy, that’s a great description of exactly what I was feeling. You know, I mean, people would—we would stand in a crowd. I would stand next to Joni, and nobody would want to talk to me.
Ken: But Joni has been so good about bringing me into the conversation. She would stop them and say: “You know, I want to introduce you to my husband. He’s standing right here.” She realized that, from that standpoint, that I needed that—at least, in those early years that we were a couple.
I think, over the years, it’s gotten to the point where there are more people that recognize us as a couple. It hasn’t been an issue. It actually has been kind of a benefit—that I think, for the both us—that we are recognized in a ministry for couples.
Joni: In those early years, when you were struggling with your self-image, those were the same times I was struggling with my self-image. I would hear him on the phone with all his buddies, talking about all kinds of things that he wouldn’t talk about with me. I’d hear him hang up the phone, saying, “Love ya, Buddy.” It was like: “Ahh! Gee, I don’t hear that tone of voice with me.” I remember being so—
Dennis: Now, wait a second—[Laughter]
Joni: No! I felt—
Dennis: —the Joni Eareckson Tada could have a pity party; really?
Joni: Oh, my goodness! In the early years of my marriage, when I would hear him on the phone with Jan or Pete, I’d be so jealous of his tone of voice with his guy friends.
But okay; later on in the marriage, as we’re praying / as I’m seeking God, “How can I get my husband out of depression?” Boing! This light bulb went off in my head, and I realized: “He needs his guy friends. Don’t be jealous of them, Joni—
Joni: —“put him in their camp.”
Joni: So, I began encouraging Ken: “You know, your buddy Jan has been asking you to go fly fishing. Please, really, why don’t you go fly fishing? Get away from the tuna boats—you gaff tuna, blood on the decks, guys with big bellies and cans of beer, cursing and profanity—get away from that. Go fly fishing—it’s more refined. You’re going to enjoy it!”
I mean, I was the one who kind of pushed him—not so much because I wanted to get him away from the tuna boats—but I knew, that if he was with his Christian guy friends, that it would be invigorating / that he would get a validation, as a man, from other men that would help him and help our marriage.
Joni: I think that was one of the best moves I made to help you up and out of your depression.
Ken: Joni was the instrumental tool for getting me into fly fishing. I mean, I really didn’t, at the time, want to go fly fishing. I didn’t want another sport; but she said, “No, you ought to go.” More than the fly fishing, I have a friend and we have a ministry to men. We use fly fishing as kind of like—
Bob: —the bait. [Laughter]
Ken: —the bait; exactly. [Laughter] You know, it gives guys a chance to get their hearts back.
Ken: We talk about all kinds of things. We use John Eldredge’s book, Wild at Heart, but—
Joni: —but you got your heart back.
Ken: —but I got my heart back. Joni is a big supporter of what I do there. But one of the things that happened was—you know, a little exercise that we had was to go out and try to hear what God had to say to us. The first time I did this, I didn’t hear a thing. Two years later, I can tell you exactly where I was on a fly fishing trip. A gentleman said, “Take this afternoon and go out and try to hear God’s voice.”
That afternoon, I heard God say to me—not in an audible voice—but I heard Him say: “Joni is the most important gift I’ve given you. You take care of her.”
Dennis: And, in your book, you talk about when he came back from that trip—you saw it in his eyes.
Joni: Oh, my goodness! He stood in the bedroom and said, “Joni, you’re never going to believe what God said to me.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, rocked back and forth on his heels, and said, “God said that you’re the most precious gift, and I’m to take care of you, and I’m going to do it.”
It was like a breath of fresh air had just blown through our bedroom. It was like the fog of depression is lifting—I can see the sun / the clouds. There’s hope! My husband likes me! He wants to take care of me, for the sake of Christ. I began to see all my prayers answered or, at least, beginning to get answers.
And now—even back then—when his buddies call the house, and I get them on the phone, before I hand it over to Ken—
[I say:] “Jan, God bless you. Sir, I don’t know what you’re doing in my husband’s life. Keep it up. I know you’re memorizing Scripture. I know you’re doing some new Jerry Bridges Bible study together on the phone. Keep it up! I love it. You’re going in the right direction.” I’m thanking Pete, I’m thanking Chris, and I’m thanking Jan—all these guys, that I used to be jealous of—they’re the best because they help my husband be the man that he can be.
Dennis: And that story occurred—what I want our listeners to hear—21 years into your marriage.
Bob: And the next time you go out with Pete, and Jan, and Chris, we’ve got a resource for you to take with you—a Bible study for guys called Stepping Up™, based on Dennis’s book by that title. It’s a video resource, and it’ll spark some great discussion with you and the guys; okay?
Ken: Great. Thank you, Bob.
Dennis: One last story, Joni—and this one’s for you. You battled cancer / you went through chemotherapy.
In the process of going through that, fell prey to pneumonia. You had a moment, in the midst of that, that was pretty grim. You had your own encounter when God spoke to you. Would you share with our listeners that story? I think that is incredibly powerful.
Joni: Well, as a quadriplegic, I’m susceptible to things like pneumonia. I have extremely limited lung capacity. I had to be in the hospital for nine or ten days. My husband, bless his heart, made a little cot, out of a couple of plastic chairs. He slept by my bedside. Instead of me having to be intubated, Ken got up every night—would cough me—pound on my chest.
One night, I was so exhausted—I had so flattened out, emotionally—I was crying out to God. I had no physical ability. My lungs were gurgling / I could hardly breathe—I felt like I was drowning. I just didn’t want to have to get my husband up another time.
I remember saying: “Lord Jesus, I need You. I need to see You tonight. I just need to feel Your touch. I need to feel Your hand on my head. I need You!” I fell into a sleep.
Then, when I woke up with the gurgling, and needed to be coughed again, Ken came over to my hospital bedside. As he began to lift me up, I looked at him, wide-eyed. I said: “You’re Him! Oh, my goodness, you’re Him!” Jesus visited me, that night, through my husband. I felt his hand on my forehead, and it was the touch of Jesus. I felt him push on my abdomen, and it was the strength of Jesus. I felt him pound on my back to give me air; and it was Jesus, the Breath of Life. Everything about my husband was Jesus. I said to Ken, “You’re Him! Jesus showed up and you’re Him!” It was such a beautiful revelation of how God can answer prayer—the prayers that are desperate, and show up best through them. That was a beautiful moment.
You know, we’ve talked a lot about cancer / we’ve talked a lot about quadriplegia. I’m going to confess to you those things are a cinch compared to the daily grind of pain that I deal with. You know, through my PET scans—a couple more years, and maybe I’ll be declared cancer-free. Things are looking hopeful. My quadriplegia—I kind of know that route. But, boy, the daily grind of pain is so hard.
My husband, a couple of weeks ago, did a beautiful thing. Before he saw me head out the door, he could see the look in my eyes that I was going to have a very painful day. He said: “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” He quick ran and got a stick-em, and etched on it a big “C,” and put it over my heart—slapped it right over my heart. He said: “There you go, Joni. You’ve got courage, and you’re going to rise to that challenge.”
I think what I love best about my husband is that he can find the infinitesimally small Christ-like characteristics in my life—he can find them, pick them out, and affirm them. He can water them and nurture them with actions such as he did with that stick-em on my chest. He believes that I can be courageous. I don’t want to disappoint my wonderful husband. I want to be courageous, in Christ, for his sake and for the sake of the gospel. That is, honestly, how I get through the toughest days of my pain.
Dennis: You both are courageous. Recently, I did a little Bible study in Joshua 1. There are three places where courage comes from: God’s mission, being obedient to God’s Word, and, third, practicing His presence. As I’m watching your lives, as a couple, you’re on mission—you’re on task, as a couple. You’re about the glory of God and running the race to finish it well.
Secondly, you’ve both been obedient. You’ve kept your covenant. You’re not only still married—you’re lovin’ each other. And, third, you’re practicing the presence of God, whether it be fly fishing or whether it be flat on your back in a hospital room, battling pneumonia. You’re experiencing the presence of God, and you’re bringing a lot of hope to a lot of people.
Dennis: May God’s favor be upon this book and you guys, as you go forward.
Joni: Thank you, Dennis.
Ken: Thank you, Dennis and Bob.
Bob: We hope a lot of our listeners will get a copy of the book you’ve written. It’s called Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story—30 years of marriage, where you guys peel back the veneer and show us what real marriage is all about. I appreciate your candor here / the transparency and authenticity in what you’ve written here. Again, the title of the book is Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story. You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to order a copy.
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While we’re talking about love stories, we want to say, “Congratulations!” today to William and Doretha Jenkins, who live in Honolulu. Today is their 27th wedding anniversary. They listen to FamilyLife Today on KGU. They help support the ministry / they’ve attended a Weekend to Remember®. “Congratulations!” to the Jenkins and to any of our other listeners who are celebrating anniversaries today: “Happy anniversary to you!”
We think anniversaries are a big deal. We think couples staying together, and keeping their vows, and loving and honoring and cherishing—we think that is all great stuff. That’s what we’re all about, here at FamilyLife.
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And with that, we’re done for this week. Thanks for being with us. I hope you have a great weekend and hope you and your family can worship together in your local church this weekend. Then, join us back on Monday when we are going to talk about what life was like 40 years ago. We’re going to look back to the very beginning of the ministry of FamilyLife. Dennis and Barbara Rainey will be here to share thoughts from the first year of ministry—1976. We’ll hear about what God has done over the last four decades. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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