by Connie Vandeman Jeffery—
How does one “rejoice in the Lord always” and then rejoice some more? This directive in Philippians 4:4 is hard for me. I sing along with everyone, “I have the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart, down in my heart,” but maybe my joy is buried so deep in my heart that it doesn’t reach my brain. Because I sometimes feel joyless.
And that is how I felt on a cold December day in 2000 when Ken Wade, the producer at Voice of Prophecy, and I went to the Joni and Friends ministry in Agoura, California, to do a radio interview with Joni Eareckson Tada about an article on joy that she had recently written for Decision magazine.
I am in awe of Joni, who is one of the world’s leading international advocates for people affected by disability. A diving accident in 1967 left her a quadriplegic in a wheelchair at the age of 17. After two years of rehabilitation, she emerged with new skills and a determination to help others in similar situations. She founded Joni and Friends in 1979, and the organization quickly grew to provide Christ-centered programs to special needs families, churches, and communities.
I had laid my dear father to rest just a few weeks earlier, and I couldn’t shake the exhaustion, sadness, and joylessness I felt. I missed him so very much. What I didn’t count on was that Joni’s joy was positively contagious. As she propelled herself in her high-tech wheelchair into the conference room where we’d already set up the digital recorder and mic, she looked stunning with every hair in place and her makeup perfectly applied. What struck me immediately was her gorgeous smile and her kind, penetrating eyes. They were filled with joy!
Joni was the first to suggest that we ask God to bless our efforts. Ken had already turned on the recorder, and by the end of her simple but powerful prayer, I was beginning to “catch” some of her joy. She prayed:
Days like this are always wonderful, Lord Jesus, when the clouds hang heavy on the coastal mountains and it’s a gray day and it reminds us that change is helpful and variety is always a gift from you. And these clouds remind us that there are showers of blessing that come from your heaven. We thank you for these dear friends who are going to be sharing some incredible insights about your joy! And, Lord Jesus, it occurs to us that we’re a bunch of sour-faced people and we get grumpy and irritated, and yet your joy is so powerful. You are the high Hoover Dam of Joy! It’s spilling and splashing over heaven’s walls, and we just seem so satisfied to drink from a mud puddle. So please help us to appreciate your joy by the insights shared today. And now give us your words. We ask in your name. Amen.
Joni’s prayer calmed my nerves. I asked her how she was able to have such joy, and the answer that followed filled the rest of our five-minute interview. She said, “I don’t do it.” Then she went on to describe her daily routine. “After my husband Ken leaves for work at 6:00 a.m., I’m alone until I hear the front door open at 7:00 a.m. That’s when a friend arrives to get me up. While I listen to her run water for coffee, I begin to pray, ‘Lord Jesus, my friend will soon give me a bath, get me dressed, sit me in my chair, brush my hair and teeth, and send me out the door. I don’t have the strength to face this routine one more time. I have no resources. I don’t have a smile to take into the day. But you do. May I have yours? God, I need you desperately.”’
“And does He give you that smile?” I asked, already knowing her answer.
“I turn my head toward my friend and give her a smile sent straight from heaven. It’s not mine. It’s God’s,” Joni explained. “Whatever joy you see today was hard won this morning.”
Joni went on to describe how the weaker we are, the more we need to learn to lean on God—and the more we lean on God, the stronger we will discover Him to be.
I totally forgot about myself and my loss during that hour with Joni. I learned in a fresh new way that I needed to keep my eyes focused on Jesus. She showed me that the “harder won” the joy, the more it is appreciated.
At the end of our interview, we gave Joni some Voice of Prophecy materials and a copy of my dad’s autobiography, My Dream. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of my father,” I said, “but he was a television evangelist for many years and he just passed away. I’d like you to have this.”
“George Vandeman!” she exclaimed. “I used to watch It Is Written when I was lying in a hospital bed in Baltimore, Maryland. I would flip through the channels looking for religious programs and I found him.”
I left Joni’s office feeling incredibly blessed and not even a little bit sorry for myself. We all experience sadness and the loss of precious loved ones. But Joni reminded me that God, the Source of all Joy, would always be there to put His joy—however hard it is won—down deep in my heart, and His smile back on my face.
Connie Vandeman Jeffery is the host of All God’s People, a weekly short video series highlighting the people and ministries of the Pacific Union Conference, and has had a long career in media.