For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death…
(2 Corinthians 1:8-9)
I do not know exactly what Paul experienced in Asia. I can guess it might have been something comparable to (or worse than) the imprisonments, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks, rivers, robbers, wilderness, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, cold, exposure and the myriad of afflictions he had experienced in the past (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
Whatever it was, it was bad—unspeakably bad. It left him entirely troubled, took him beyond his strength, and made him despair of life itself. Paul actually thought he would die, and perhaps even hoped for that end.
I recently came from a Luke 14 banquet hosted by Joni and Friends in Jackson, Mississippi. The ministry is founded by Joni Earekson Tada, an amazing woman of God who publicly lives out the gospel in the midst great suffering and contagious hope. If you have never heard of a Luke 14 banquet, I invite you to meditate on the referring passage (Luke 14:12-14).
The event was led and organized by John and Martie Kwasny, their eight children, and an army of servant-hearted volunteers. I stayed with the Kwasny family for two days while I was visiting Jackson, and I got to see their tribe up close in action, both in their personal life and their ministry mission. I have never been around a family (not personally touched by disability) that was so passionate about loving God’s people and ministering to the disabled.
But the entire time I was at the banquet, instead of thinking about Luke 14, all I could focus on was the sea of struggling families, adults and children with severe mental and physical disabilities. All I could think of was Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 1:8-9:
For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death…
I listened to a powerful testimony by Scott Coleman, a quadriplegic as a result of a waterskiing accident in the summer of 1980, when he was just 17 years old. Before the accident, Scott was a stellar athlete and football player who could bench press almost twice his body weight. Now he is paralyzed from the shoulders down and confined to a wheelchair. Actually, I wouldn’t use the word “confined” to describe Scott at all. He is an amazing man of faith and ability.
Scott tells his amazing story in a wonderful book titled, Best When Broken. I read this book on my flight back home from Jackson. I laughed, sighed, grimaced, and cried in the back of the airplane. I was thankful to be in the back of the plane and for the empty seat beside me.
I also got to meet a beautiful lady named Tracy Traylor. In 1988, Tracy was 19 years old and studying interior design as a freshman at Baylor University. Her future was bright and clear until one night, while driving home in a rainstorm, her car hydroplaned and hit a tree. Tracy was rushed to the hospital, and then transferred to ICU where she stayed in a coma for five months. After a year of rehabilitation, she was sent home in a wheelchair, not able to talk or walk normally.
Tracy and her mother make beautiful jewelry together. She gave me a stunning cross necklace for my daughter and another one (for myself) made from a clay medallion with a picture of a leaping deer. On the medallion was inscribed Isaiah 35:6: “Then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” I saw the joy of anticipation in her eyes as she pointed to the verse on the necklace. I thought of my son, Jake, and my own anticipation for that day.
After the banquet, a long, steady line of mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and children touched by disability took time to share their stories with me–stories of great suffering, unspeakable pain, and heart wrenching loss.
Once again my mind returned to the Apostle Paul, “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death…”
“Disability is hard!” Scott said in his testimony. “Most people don’t have a clue!” Tracy signed to me, with her mother translating. “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength…” seemed to be the one powerful lesson I was getting from the banquet in Jackson, Mississippi. But that was just one lesson, not the entire message.
The message from the five hundred or so attendees of the Luke 14 Banquet was not only “Disability is hard!” it was also, “God is faithful! God is good! God is sovereign! He will deliver! He has a plan! Disability is not a curse; it’s a blessing in disguise! All things, even disability, work together for good for those who love Him!”
Over and over again I heard shattered people praise God in their brokenness. “Yes, we are utterly burdened! Yes, this is beyond our strength! Yes, we have despaired even of life! Yes, we have often felt the sentence of death!”
…But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. (verse 9-10)
Disability sometimes seems like despair. The life of suffering is often pitch black with pain. But that darkness is not the absence of God’s love. It is never the deficiency of God’s hand. The darkness of disability is often the shade of God’s closest presence—His overshadowing nearness in the midst of our hardest days.
Those who dwell in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty (Psalm 91:1).
The Luke 14 banquet in Jackson, Mississippi seemed dark with suffering, burdens and despair. Little did I know I was sitting in the very shadow of the Almighty! We were resting in His presence! And like so many times before, He was delivering us yet again.