Lessons I Learned in the Dark
Sometimes it’s only in the adversity we dread that we begin to discover the kind of life we’ve only dreamed of. This was the lesson God began to teach me in 1979—when I was 15 years old.
After several days of testing, the doctors at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute met my parents and me in the conference room. They told us that I had retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that slowly eats away the retina of the eye. There was no cure, and no way to correct damage already done. At 15, I was legally blind, and was told that my retinas would continue to deteriorate until I was totally blind.
Silence fell upon that conference room and shrouded us as we left the hospital, got into our car, and journeyed home. My dad gripped the steering wheel tightly and prayed. Though he had been a pastor for more than twenty years, he was not prepared for this. How could he fix this? My mom, sitting beside my dad on the front seat, wondered, Will she be safe? I sat in silence on the back seat, feeling my parents’ broken hearts.
My mind was racing with questions and thoughts of my own: How will I finish high school? Will I ever go away to college? How will I know what I look like? Will I ever get a date or boyfriend? Will I ever get married? Then it hit me. I will never be able to drive a car!
Once home, I went immediately to the living room and sat down at the piano—for me, a place of refuge. This time I wasn’t seeking refuge from chores or playing songs I had memorized. Instead, I began to play by ear, a melody that belonged to a song I had never played before. God guided my heart and hands to play the hymn "It is Well with My Soul.” Some people say it was a miracle that for the first time I could play by ear. But to me, there was a bigger miracle that dark day of shock, loss, and quiet sorrow. The real miracle was that it actually was well with my soul.
When I was eight years old, with my heart, I had run to Jesus—and He saw me and loved me. He saw my greatest need and saved me. And through the years, my path to Jesus had become familiar and was wellworn. So, on this day of urgent need, I ran to Jesus, and He ran to meet me.
Off to College
My dreams of becoming a commercial artist and cartoonist faded…but I was going to college! During the three months after graduating from high school, I was preparing. I spent several weeks in “mobility training”—learning to walk with a cane. The Lighthouse for the Blind assigned me an instructor named Mike who taught me all the techniques I’d need to know as I learned to walk in the dark. He stressed the importance of remaining centered, holding my cane in the center of my body, and with a steady arm moving my wrist from left to right. This allowed me to tap the sidewalk with the tip of my cane just before my next step, helping me anticipate any changes in my path. Mike told me to think through my path before I took the first step and to always have a map locked in my mind.
As I learned to use my cane, my senses awakened to a whole new dimension. I became aware of the smell of diesel fuel from the buses that roared down the main street of my neighborhood; I could hear the difference between the sound of an engine when a car was in full motion and when it was idling at the red light. Learning to recognize what was coming (and how fast) helped me know when it was safe to go—or when I needed to stop and wait.
Leaving behind all that was wellknown and safe—and trading it for a new kind of darkness that was unfamiliar—was scary. I had memorized Psalm 56:3 that said, When I am afraid, I will trust in you [God], and I knew I needed to trust God to guide me, because He could see better than I could! When I felt wobbly, I knew I could hold on to Him. The words in Proverbs 5:21 assured me: A man’s [or woman’s] ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all his paths.
In my sophomore year in college, I walked into the school cafeteria one day and found an unexpected treasure—a guy! Not just any guy, but the handsomest, most charming, most intelligent guy I’d ever stumbled upon. His name was Philip Rothschild, and I was immediately attracted to his charismatic personality. We began to spend time together. Phil was studying business management and was a year ahead of me in school. A few years later, we were married. When Phil chooses to be committed, he is totally committed—and he’s resourceful. I was confident he’d do whatever it took to make our marriage work.
Years later, when my first speaking invitation came, Phil took the call and said, “Sure, she’ll speak!” He has always had more confidence in me than I’ve had in myself. To me, that shows what kind of man he is, and affirms that he’s the one God chose for me.
Here’s the way Phil tells it:
Jennifer had long black hair, and I think she was attracted to my big, bushy afro! I, on the other hand, was impressed by Jennifer’s spirit. I’d see her walking through the cafeteria with a friend, and I knew her eyesight was terrible and getting worse by the day. She was beautiful, but also spunky, witty, and smart. I just knew we’d complement each other, and I wanted to take care of her.
After several years of dating, I proposed. Jennifer’s blindness was never a concern for me. She was smart and talented, and I knew she had so much to offer. Losing her eyesight was something we’d make the most of. In our marriage, we’ve faced difficulties created by Jennifer’s blindness, but by God’s grace, we’ve risen above them. Today, I’m Jennifer’s business manager, and my role is to believe in Jennifer and her message and to find opportunities, not just to share that message, but to grow and develop it.
Even though blindness has been a difficult gift to receive, I have learned to accept it with thanks. I have the choice to accept it as a gift from God and become a better person, or despise it and become a bitter one. Blindness is one among many difficult gifts people receive. Illness, broken relationships, wayward children, financial set-backs—all are situations hard to receive, much less be thankful for. But God expects us to be thankful anyway. Give thanks in all circumstances, the apostle Paul reminds us, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
When my son Clayton was three, he learned that in order for his mommy to see, he needed to use words. So he began to describe the picture of his beautiful flower. “Mommy,” he said, “the flower is pink. And the leaves are not just green, they are a yellowish green.” In that moment, holding the picture in my hand, I could have felt it stab me as a painful reminder that I would never draw again and never have the opportunity to enjoy art with my son. Instead, I felt amazed that Clayton’s little eyes could perceive the difference between a bluish and a yellowish green. It was as if God illustrated for me a beautiful picture of His goodness. And I think I wouldn’t have seen the beauty in that picture if God had not already taught me to have grateful eyes.
One question people sometimes ask is if I ever question God and ask “Why me?” I have never had the “why-me” question, but I have had the “why” question. I don’t believe that my faith in God should somehow protect me from the difficulties of life. God hasn’t delivered me from blindness, but he has used blindness to deliver me into something deeper. I ask “Why?” because I want to find out the deeper purpose for my blindness.
That doesn’t mean that I haven’t dealt with frustration or sadness. I’m a mother to two sons. I’ve never seen their faces. When they graduate from college, I won’t see them receive their diplomas. Of course, there’s a sadness there and a loss that I don’t dismiss. But there is something deeper to be found within the loss, and I’m determined not to let blindness get the best of me by just sitting down and being bitter and sad about it. I’m going to find something better and deeper—not in spite of my blindness, but because of it.
Blindness, on the surface of life, has stripped away my independence—I can’t drive a car, I have to hold on to someone’s arm, someone has to read me things, I can’t see what I look like, and the list goes on. But this has become a metaphor of what faith is like. That’s part of the reason blindness is my friend. It has introduced me to a deeper dependence on God that is so liberating!
Another question I’m sometimes asked is if my blindness has made me ashamed. I definitely went through a time when I thought using a cane made a statement to the world, like…“Please don’t relate to me. I’m not normal!” But here, Jesus is an awesome example. When He approached the most important event in His life, He “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus did not regard the shame; He held it in low esteem! Blindness is very much a visible handicap, causing some people to feel awkward in relating to blind people. But we all are handicapped in some way, and recognizing that helps us meet on mutual ground. I tell my blind friends that we need to take responsibility for helping the walls come down. When I meet someone, I don’t just stand there and wait for them to figure out how to shake my hand. I immediately put my hand out. I think that’s just part of being responsible in relating to another person.
If I had to make a choice, would I choose soul-wellness over physical sight? I’ve wrestled with that question in the deepest part of my longing, and I can honestly say that I would. I’ve learned that I can function, even thrive, without sight. Blindness is the illuminating force in my life that has revealed the depth of wellness I can possess. To find such a life doesn’t demand my suffering as an exchange for this blessing. Oh, no. God is kind and merciful, and giving myself to Him in faith has allowed me to receive life—a life that cannot be shrouded by the darkness of blindness.
Shortly after I played “It is Well with My Soul” by ear, I wrote a song and sang it for my high school choral director. To my surprise, I was asked to sing it as a solo for the school’s spring concert. From there, word of my musical talent spread. After Phil and I married in 1986, he encouraged me to make a professional recording. That first cassette tape created opportunities to sing in new venues, which opened doors for me to share my story, and I began to be asked to speak at women’s events.
For the last 30 years, words and music have replaced the canvas and palette for me. I have taken my message of encouragement across the country, speaking at gatherings of busy professionals and overwhelmed moms and dads, prompting audiences to look beyond their circumstances and to experience God’s grace in the midst of adversity. I have written 14 books and Bible studies and recorded several CD’s. I’ve had the privilege of appearing on the Today Show, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, and the Billy Graham Television Special. And in 1998, my Dr. Phil (he has his PhD!) and I founded womensministry. net, a website where we equip women in ministry to lead well. This ministry was a gift from God, and it is where God has placed me. What I apparently have accomplished is just what God has provided and brought to fruition. So, my bio is just a few chapters of His story. And I hope He’ll keep writing it for years to come!
When Faith Becomes Sight
When Mike, my mobility instructor, wrapped up my first lesson of learning to walk in the dark, he walked me all around my neighborhood. He called my attention to a blooming plant on the corner near my home. “When you smell the flowers,” he said, “you know you’re almost home.”
This has always reminded me that there will come a day when the difficulties present in this life will pale in comparison to the sweet aroma that will usher us into the presence of the One whose face we will clearly see. And when our eyes look into His face, we will realize that, compared to the surpassing excellence of seeing Him, nothing else really mattered. That’s when our faith will become sight!