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Captured by the Word


I knew I would be changing this message when just last week twelve jurors in the state of Michigan decided that Jack Kevorkian did not break the law when, with a canister of carbon monoxide, he helped a quadriplegic with Lou Gehrig's disease, Thomas Hyde, die.

Several things saddened me about that decision. We are fast becoming a haphazard collection of individuals elbowing each other's rights, jockeying and jostling for position without caring that, in dressing up our willful determinations with a showy and a dignified label like "rights," we end up infringing on the rights of an awful lot of other folks: quadriplegics, the elderly, the handicapped, newborns, those with disabilities.

But that's not what struck me or saddened me most about that decision. It was something that Kevorkian himself said a couple of days later in one of those Barbara Walters TV specials. I knew she was going to be doing a special on assisted suicide, and that's not the best thing for me to watch at ten o'clock at night before I go to bed. But I just had to listen.

I lay there in my bed drinking my usual liter of water with lemons. My husband Ken had propped me up on my side with pillows and put the night tube down my throat. It's just nighttime routine. I watched Ms. Walters interview various people who were so despairing of their own handicapping conditions that they just had to have that lethal injection. But what saddened me most was what Kevorkian himself said. I was so shocked and stunned that I got Journal Graphics to fax me a copy of his words just to make certain I'd heard it right.

He said, "Let's take the case of the quadriplegic paralyzed from the neck down. A person could live 20, 30, 40 years like that. Now, if you wish to do that, that's fine. But there are some people who do not. It's not a matter of pain. These people must have a recourse to the option I'm offering."

It was about two minutes of eleven. They broke for the nightly news. I'd finished my water. My husband came in, flicked off the TV, turned out the lights, and I hearkened back to 27 years ago: like Thomas Hyde, the quadriplegic, I would have given anything for that canister of carbon monoxide myself at that point. There was no Final Exit[: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying] on my hospital library shelf when I was struggling with my despairing condition. I'm glad I didn't convince any friend of mine to dump a bottle of Seconal pills down my throat.

I lay there thinking, "Yep, I'm going to change my message to those people at EPA." I spent the next few moments praying for wisdom to shift into one more high gear in the battle to wake my friends and to alert the public to the dangers of statements like those made by Kevorkian.

I lay there praying for so many of my friends—quadriplegics like myself—many of them ventilator-dependent. That's what happens when you have advancing medical technology. I prayed for little Thad, whose daddy works at our office at JAF Ministries. Thad's paralysis is much greater than mine. He can only move his neck, but he's incredible. This little kid makes A's in the freshman class at Calabash Senior High School. Do you know how he raises his hand in his classroom? He holds his mouth stick up real high. He's rather irked that his third-period teacher does not recognize his mouth stick beyond everybody else's hands in the class. Talk about moxie.

A statement made in passing by Ms. Walters or Kevorkian bounces off someone like me; it might not bounce off of Thad—a young boy still struggling with the pressure of being a teenager, let alone the pressure of dealing with a life of quadriplegia. I prayed for a whole list of people more paralyzed than me.

Because suicide is so frequently a subconscious plea for help, a decision by society to allow assisted suicide can easily be perceived not as a respect for somebody's autonomy and rights, but as an indication that society could really care less whether someone like Thad lives or dies. It implies that there's really no positive good that can be ascribed to your suffering, and that it's okay for a bunch of people in society to translate their irrational fears into irrational social policy. It implies that a quadriplegic is to be pitied, and that society can even get away with playing this schizophrenic role of passing the Americans with Disabilities Act one year and just a year later making it a lot easier for those same people not just to live but also to die. The same people enjoy all of these equal rights.

I spent years in political advocacy. I was up here talking about how we must be salt and light in our cultures—and we all are to one degree or another. I worked in advocacy for many years presenting hundreds of arguments to combat that growing premise in our society that you're better dead than disabled. I wrote a whole book about it—not a best seller, not with a title like When Is It Right to Die?.

So, it wasn't unusual for me to be doing a whole slew of both secular and Christian media interviews on the subject the day after that Barbara Walters' television interview..

On one talk-radio program from New York City, I spent about half an hour saying that when physicians are allowed the right to kill, it causes upheaval in our social matrix. This erodes the helping character of our society and undermines standard medical care. It jeopardizes the health care rights of the elderly, the handicapped newborn, and others.

After I talked about that, they took some telephone calls. The first caller said, "I think what says it best is what God wrote down in the sixth commandment: 'Thou shalt not murder.'"

Another caller asked, "Has anybody talked about what's going to happen to these folks after they die? They're either going to face the gates of heaven or the pit of hell."

I thought, "Yes! These people are being such glorious fools for Christ."

And these same people, probably more so than me at times in those sorts of opportunities, have the blessing of God. Because we can rationally and logically argue how precious life is, and I can offer good, solid arguments about how compassion is best played out at the person's bedside, but the callers on that talk-radio program convinced me once again that there's nothing like the Word of God if you want to realign this country's moral compass. Prayer and love and support and ascribing positive meaning can bring that individual out of social isolation, prevent anger and alienation as opposed to rewriting the dictionary to redefine compassion as three grams of phenobarbital.

"Good" arguments don't offer God's perspective. Our arguments are always going to fall short. We're supposed to be fools for Christ. Yet, when in Rome, we're supposed to talk as Romans to get across our point. We're supposed to season our words with salt to make them flavorful and acceptable. Yet the message we often give is an offense even though it's well flavored, a fragrance of death to many.

After all, why shouldn't Thomas Hyde die? From the world's perspective, why shouldn't a man with Lou Gehrig's disease kill himself? If somebody sets himself up as the center of his own moral universe, then it's logical to escape suffering.

The world along with all its Kevorkians will say that suffering has no purpose, no meaning. Yet, we are the ones who are supposed to stand up and be fools for Christ and give the Word of God, which will bolster our arguments and our reasoning. What a difference the Word of God makes. Nothing convicts or convinces more powerfully than the Word of God.

Every day is full of opportunity, even for the suffering

I learned this in a powerful way. As a result of my work in advocacy, I was getting a lot of phone calls from people with disabilities, asking some pretty pointed questions about life-and-death decisions. One church elder from Pennsylvania called my office and asked if I would please speak to a 26-year-old woman in his congregation. Her name was Kim. She was a young, vibrant believer in the Lord Jesus who had Lou Gehrig's disease. Like Thomas Hyde, she had come to the point where she was pretty depressed.

Her paralysis, much like Thad or perhaps more so, encroached so far that this 26-year-old woman was in bed, paralyzed completely, unable to swallow, only occasionally able to blink her eyes, and had to be fed by a feeding tube. When I got her on the telephone, her mother having propped the receiver up against her head with the pillow, she whispered a question in labored breaths.

"Joni, they're telling me I have to go on a ventilator. I don't know what to do. What do you think I should do?"

I wasn't writing a manuscript for Zondervan about a book called When Is It Right to Die? This wasn't challenging the guy on the left on CNN's Crossfire. This was a real, live, warm woman asking a pretty pointed question. I was tempted to give her a lot of arguments, a lot of logic, a lot of good reasons. But I decided to stick to the Word of God—convicting, comforting, convincing.

I shared with Kim a couple of important principles that she would have to remember as an individual with a disability:

"Kim, try and find that clear distinction between sustaining all the life to which you are entitled as opposed to doing nothing more than prolonging the process of your dying. Remember that poem by John Donne, 'No Man Is an Island.' We are all connected. No one dies unto himself. A decision like you are about to make, either yes or no to the respirator, is going to impact your mom, your dad, your relatives, your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, your former classmates. We're connected, Kim, and even on our deathbeds, we're called to think of others. But I want you to listen to God's Word because my reasons my logic, my arguments will convince you only so far. I want to tell you what God has to say."

I read to her 2 Peter 3:8. "Do not forget this one thing, dear friends—" I paused to laugh and said, "Kim, you have to remember that one from Sunday school: 'Do not forget this one thing.' It's the same as Jesus telling us to listen up. Time out. Back off. This is really important, guys." Then I read, "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day."

I could tell she was a bit stymied as to why I might choose that verse to be so convicting, so comforting, so convincing. I repeated it slowly again because I didn't even want my paraphrase to persuade her.

"With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day."

Why is that verse so key? An old adage says that God looks at the last two thousand years as only—what does Jack Hayford say—only a couple of days gone by. But did you ever think about the flip side of that verse, the part about seeing each day as a thousand years? Never hear much about that part of the verse, do you? It's a little like divine geometry. I never did very well in math but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the equation here, the mathematical formula: each day is chock-full of opportunities to invest in a thousand years worth of eternity.

Sheila Walsh reminded us of this in her song: "O Lord, you've given me this day. Don't let me waste a moment of your precious time." Each day God gives Kim (and all of you) a 24-hour slice of time in which her investments (and your investments) have eternal repercussions. Each day is full of hours. Each day is full of moments for us to invest in. These precious gifts of God are gifts that we are to account for, to invest.

Just to make certain we have something in which to invest, he puts people around us. Sheila's song spoke of relationships. It's that simple. The way we spend our hours and our moments with these people counts for eternity—especially in the life of people like Thomas Hyde or Kim with their Lou Gehrig's disease.

The suffering can invest their lives in prayer

Back to Kim on the phone. We got close real fast. You do that when you know you have only days, months, weeks left. I said to Kim, "There are all kinds of investments you can grab hold of. Prayer for one. Prayer is cultivating a relationship with the Lord of the universe from your bed of affliction."

That's quite an investment. I don't know if I can prove this from Scripture or not, but I am convinced that God listens with a capital "L" to the prayers of either children or those who suffer. "From your bed of affliction," I told Kim, "your prayers, no matter how feeble, no matter how faint-hearted, multiply out a hundred to a thousand fold. Your prayers, offered from a life of suffering, touch God in a special place. God can use those intercessions of yours from that bed hooked up to your ventilator if you should so choose, or even now, hooked up to your feeding tube, to shape the destinies of people around you as well as nations far beyond the four walls of your bedroom."

I confessed to Kim on the phone that there are times when I'm forced to bed for extended periods of time. That happens after you've been in a wheelchair for 27 years. That's a long time to be paralyzed. I go through the usual bouts of infections and problems. Gravity is my enemy when I'm sitting up in a wheelchair, but I tell you, it's really my enemy when I'm lying down because I'm really paralyzed lying down. And sometimes at those points, I told Kim, I feel as if my life doesn't go beyond the four walls of my bedroom or the fence in my backyard.

But the perfect remedy for such shortsightedness is to pray, I told her. Expand your prayers to the remotest corners of the universe. It's a wonderful way to enlarge your vision and to see your Lou Gehrig's disease or your limitations from the perspective of God's Word, which is so convicting, so convincing.

I think that probably makes Kim's Lou Gehrig's diseasethe most powerful platform from which she can pray. We agreed on the phone that her suffering would aid her in her praise and intercession.

The suffering can impact those around them

Another way I told Kim to invest her days is the impact she can have on the lives of those around her. I should read it for you from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. I read it for Kim.

"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."

I told Kim, "When your mother comes into your bedroom this afternoon, takes the syringe for your feeding tube, and pours the cc's of Ensure, that gooey stuff with the consistency of Slim Fast, into it, and when she plunges it into your feeding tube, into your stomach so that you've gotten your afternoon nutrition, why don't you smack your lips and say, 'Thanks, Mom, that tastes great!'" Not too many people can get away with saying something like that to someone like Kim.

"Kim, when your friends come this evening to sit at your bedside and read some Robert Frost poetry to you, as you told me they do, then why don't you just take 15, 20, 30 seconds, and even if it's difficult with labored breathing, pray a blessing on them?

"Just five minutes of this kind of drastic obedience is going to have repercussions that are going to shake out for at least 500 years—five minutes, Kim, for 500 years. Remember the divine geometry? A smile for your mother has got to pan out to at least 759 years worth of eternal benefit to her, bliss for yourself, and glory for the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what God says. He considers your day an opportunity to invest in 1,000 years.

"That means when you pray a blessing on your friends, Kim, that one has really got to pan out maybe to 959 years worth of eternal benefit to them, bliss for yourself, glory for God."

This is the way we all should live

What a way for Kim to live. What a way for any of us to live. This is the way we should live. This is how precious life is.

We hear the phrase "sanctity of life." But when you see it in this perspective, you understand when James says your life is but a mist that appears for a while and then vanishes. "All men are like grass," Isaiah says. "The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows upon them. Surely the people are grass." Praise God we have divine borrowed time for 30, 40, 50, 60, 75, or 80 years, if we're blessed.

If Kim were to live only two more weeks with a perspective like that, it figures out to be 14 days. That's 14,000 years worth of potential opportunity to see her afflictions as light and momentary and gain a reward that will far outweigh it all. If she were to live only a month, that figures out to be 30,000 years of eternal investment opportunity.

I'm so glad that I didn't present Kim a litany of good reasons and good logic and good arguments as to why Kim would want to opt for a ventilator. It's going to be her choice anyway, and it was her choice. And to protect her privacy, I won't even tell you what she chose.

But I can tell you that she lived another two months and then died. But what a wonderful two months those were.

The Bible tells us to number our days that we might apply our hearts to wisdom—Psalm 90:12. This is the kind of wisdom God wants us to apply to our 24-hour slices of time.

Doesn't a perspective like this make your days, make this night seem so much more valuable? What is your life? What is my life? A breath, a wisp, a vapor, smoke, here today, gone tomorrow. And it's a reminder.


But it's God's Word that is the most powerful, most persuasive argument—even for a girl who could have easily written a letter to someone like Kevorkian.

True, there are still going to be people who will place themselves at the center of their own moral universe. They may think of the luxury of escaping suffering, of choosing death, as some kind of perfect, final exit. And this society would love to tell you that there's nothing to fear beyond the grave. Suffering is something to be avoided at all costs, even if it does cost your life at the hands of some pathologist in Michigan.

As a Christian, you have something to say. It's the Word of God. Logic, yes. Reason, to be sure. But first, you and I are called to be fools—praise God—fools for Christ.

Ungainly as it may seem, perhaps we can learn a thing or two from those callers to that talk-radio program in New York City. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from someone like Kim. The Word of God must always give shape to our views, our thoughts, our convictions, our opinions, our arguments, our logic, our lives.

Couch it in the language of Romans when you're in Rome, when you are able. Season it with salt. Flavor it, if you will. But don't forget to present it: the Word of God, Jesus, God's Word himself. Jesus is the Lord of life and the resurrection of life. He has come to give us life more abundantly. The most favored apostle said, "Where shall we go? You are the one, Lord, who has the words of life."

Go forth and proclaim his Word.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

Joni Eareckson Tada is a best-selling author of more than 50 books, an internationally-known speaker, and the Founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center. You can learn more about Joni at JoniAndFriends.org.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Every day is full of opportunity, even for the suffering

II. The suffering can invest their lives in prayer

III. The suffering can impact those around them

IV. This is the way we all should live