“Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story” is a fast, challenging and worthwhile read. It is the latest book from the pen of Joni Eareckson-Tada, co-authored by her husband Ken Tada – with Larry Libby. Unlike her previous works – written somewhat unevenly in the 3rd person.
In reflecting upon the book, I came away with three distinct responses – what I LIKED, what I LEARNED, and what I was LEERY of. I’ll address my thoughts in that order. But before I do, let me bring some up to speed who may not know the basics of the Joni Eareckson (now Eareckson-Tada) story.
Joni is somewhat of a living legend among us Evangelicals. Most, who like me are Baby Boomers, grew up with Joni being a part of the larger evangelical scene as a result of her first book – the internationally best selling autobiography – Joni (pronounced like Johnny – not Joanie). In 1967, at the age of 17, Joni dove into the Chesapeake Bay misjudging the shallowness. She broke her neck in that dive and has lived as a quadriplegic – paralyzed from the shoulders down ever since. The story of her struggle through the disability itself, the resulting depression, anger and even suicidal thoughts – not to mention severe doubts about God and His love make up the substance of the book. With the triumphant reality of a deep settledness in Christ’s redemptive work in her soul, His sovereignty over her life as well as launching her into one of the most impactful and God honoring global ministries of our generation.
This newest book (she has authored more than 40) focuses mainly on her marriage and relationship to Ken Tada (they married in 1982) and the impact on their relationship from her disability, subsequent battle with chronic debilitating pain and then breast cancer and chemo therapy in 2010. To be honest, in parts it is truly harrowing. Had I been faced with 1/100th of what she has faced, I would have been reduced to a quivering, weeping lump of mush. She is a truly remarkable example of how Christ sustains His own in the deepest depths of human suffering. I have never failed to be moved, encouraged and challenged by anything of hers I have read, or anytime I have heard her speak.
Three things I LIKED about this book.
As with virtually everything Joni has her hand in, there is this wonderful, Christ exalting focus on the presence of Jesus with His loved ones, and His sustaining power in the worst of circumstances. Every Christian needs to see that portrayed in the reality of lives that have suffered as God’s children. I need it to keep my own sufferings in perspective, and to be reminded that God’s grace is sufficient at all times and in all places.
I think this book is a must read for all care-givers. It deals openly and honestly with Ken’s feelings of being “trapped” once the full weight of Joni’s disability came home to him. In many ways, he didn’t know what he was signing up for. And its hard. The care-giver to one who is disabled – be it a child, a spouse, a parent or a dear friend wrestles with many untold complexities and weights which do not get discussed often. Especially in the context of one’s relationship to and dependence upon Christ in it. If this is you – you will find honesty here as well as solace – and a constant re-direction to look to Christ in the practical realities of it all.
I liked the honesty with which Ken & Joni were willing to communicate their own failings both in their relationship and in the face of their trials. Neither one is depicted as an aloof, haloed saint. They are real, fallen folk. Real fallen folk who serve a very great Redeemer. Any marriage could benefit from seeing how God dealt with the Tada’s in their relationship – regardless of the particular trials they might be facing.
Three things I LEARNED in this book.
The first I learned by way of a needed rebuke. If you have read any of my reviews before you know I am no fan of the writing of John Eldredge, and especially his celebrated “Wild at Heart.” I find that book of his in particular so filled with Biblical wrongheadedness that I will not recommend it to a soul. BUT! It was this book and the impact of some of its statements that was truly life-changing to Ken Tada. I cannot ignore that. I am reminded that even something I might find reprehensible, and in many places Scripturally indefensible, when read by someone with a solid background of expository teaching (or even not) can still be used to minister greatly. God is so good. Maybe He can even use my impoverished offerings at times as well. I need to let God be God and to use whatever He desires to minister to whomever He desires. And sometimes He uses what I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. He is so good.
I learned that I have been tried ever so lightly – and to expect more than ever the presence and power of Christ when and where I need it, not in advance so that I can save it up for the rainy day. He meets us with His supply when and where – not before. But how small my faith is. How I crave pre-assurances beyond the promises of His Word. And how wrong that is.
I leaned or gleaned a much better understanding of “abiding in the Vine” through a simple but profound illustration shared. At one point, it is noted that abiding in Christ is NOT, like plugging in an appliance to get it charged up. Yet that is precisely how so many of us view Church, or prayer, or Bible study – etc. We want to get charged up, and then launch out. Then come back to get re-charged when we run low. But that is not how our life in Christ is to be lived. It is to be lived in being always looking to Him – morning, noon and night. In good times as much as in bad. To be connected to Him always – for His life to flow through us and supply all we need at all times. We do not have a spiritual battery. We can only be a branch of the Vine. No other relationship with Him is adequate.
Two things I am a little LEERY of.
I always squirm a little when emphasis is placed upon subjective experiences where we say “God spoke to me.” This is noted several times in Ken’s experience. And I want to be very careful here, for there is no question that the Holy Spirit at times makes “direct impressions upon the soul” (as the staid Puritan John Owen puts it). This is true. And a reality of the Christian life. Where I am uncomfortable is when these instances are related without qualification, so that some come away with the impression that God ought to be “speaking” to them all the time, extra-Biblically, for all sorts of ethereal guidance. If one reads Ken’s experiences carefully, they will see that the Spirit’s impressions on him (and I think there is room to maybe explain that somewhat differently – but I’ll go with it here and not split hairs) were little more than emphasizing what OUGHT to have been. In other words, he wasn’t being directed to quit a job, or take off on a new adventure, etc. He wasn’t getting extra-Biblical revelation to add to the body of Biblical truth. It had more to do with him stepping up to the plate in ministering to his wife – and taking God at His word so as to not walk in fear but in faith.
We DO live in a real and active relationship with the Lord – but I would hate to have anyone feel they need to get a series of subjective messages from God to live their lives in intimacy and authenticity with Him. Those do come to some at some times. But not to all, and not at all times. So I would just ask readers not to take those things beyond what is proper.
Secondly, I was a tad taken aback by the description of the guest speaker at Grace Community Church on a specific date. If that speaker is still alive, he will no doubt have that date in his records somewhere. And while I appreciated the honesty of Joni in relating her own distraction that morning when she first spied Ken – I do not know that the reference to the “less than rousing sermon” added anything positive to the narrative. I fear even in saying it I may be a bit too nit-picky myself. But that followed with the family who so rudely (and it WAS rude) interacted with Ken & Joni on their honeymoon, left me feeling like we didn’t really need that. Now this is NOT big. It just left me a little flat in those two places. So be it. It might be just me.
All that said – this is a very profitable book – and I heartily recommend it you on several levels. In terms of marriage, enduring trials, and being a care giver. The spiritual realities in those 3 contexts receive a much needed treatment in this fascinating and edifying volume.