The Distance of A Smile

I have never enjoyed running distance.

I have always favored sprinting. Quick, sharp, concise movements. Immediate gratification. Immediate results. Fine-tuning my reaction time and response has always been far more appealing to me than building up my endurance and stamina pounding miles away on the pavement.

In addition, my body is built for power. I am woven together with tight, compact muscle fibers that thrive as they coil and release in short bursts of explosive energy. I am dense and I am thick. Goalkeeping, kicking, and explosive weight training have always come easily to me–and I have excelled in maximizing those natural strengths.

However, as my college career drew to a close and my days of competitive soccer, football training, and Olympic power lifting slowly faded past, I found myself at a crossroads.  I wanted to maintain my level of fitness, but I also wanted to lean out, lose some muscle density, and shed some of my explosive bulk.  After all, I wanted to maintain my athletic figure, but my days of maxing out and practically receiving protein shakes through a round-the-clock IV drip were done. I explored a variety of different exercise options, but ultimately was reminded time and time again that the most accessible, most affordable, and most consistent means of achieving and maintaining my ideal body goal was through running distance.

Crap.

There was no way around it. I had to embrace the logic and talk myself into dragging my dense body out onto the street, throwing on a pair of tennis shoes, and taking off. I charted out a jogging course and began forcing myself to run a few days a week. I despised it–every step. My ankles hurt, my knees hurt, my back hurt.  My muscles were tired, my body was out of whack, and every stride was dull and painful. I took off each day with the mentality of “This is awful. I don’t want to do this. I don’t like to do this. I hate that this is the best thing for me, because I’m tired, I’m sore, and I’m bored.” I ran with an exasperated look on my face–my brow furrowed, my jaw tight, my nose scrunched. I was miserable and there wasn’t a car that passed that wasn’t fully aware of how much I despised that time of day.

I finally became so fed-up with just running distance that I decided to start swimming, as well.  I figured that would at least provide some variety to my workouts. And if I had a miserable, annoyed, and painful expression on my face, at least my big head would be hidden under water. I visited the aquatic center a few times and fit in going through the motions and pretending I was Michael Phelps, though I probably looked more like a drunken seal flopping through the lane. But just as I became content in the idea that miserably going through the motions with these runs and these swims was my best bet at staying in shape, God stepped in–as He always seems to do–and put my heart through a humbling workout.

I had just pulled myself out of the pool and was sitting on the edge cleaning out my goggles when I looked up and saw a young man walking to the shallow pool. His face was so handsome. He had soft, defined features and dark eyes.  His smile stretched from ear to ear and his hair was wet and combed.  His face was so attractive that I expected to see a fine, sculpted body with toned muscles and dark features to match. But when I looked down I was shocked to see that his body was very disproportionate. He was a good bit overweight and, in looking at him, you would have assumed his head had been plopped onto a stranger’s body. There was a lack of consistency in his form and I started to notice he was walking with a slight limp. It is hard to describe, but it just did not seem like he was intended to be that heavy. It was not a natural body-type for his build and you could tell by his face that he was likely meant to be a much leaner man. But as confused as I was at the sight, my eyes kept drifting back to his contagious smile. He wore such joy.

Shrugging off my confusion about his appearance, I simply thought, “Handsome guy, but what a shame that he’s let himself go. Well, at least he’s working out…” and went back about my business.  It wasn’t until I looked up again that I found myself in a state of utter shock. As he turned his back to me to climb into the pool, I noticed a thick, dark scar that stretched from the top of the man’s neck, all the way down his spine, and disappeared into the line of his shorts. I was stunned. I watched him slowly step down into the pool, balancing the disproportionate body his searing scar had trapped him in.  But as he waded through the water and stretched his heavy limbs, I could not help but stare–at his beautiful smile.

I watched that man rehabilitate for 45 minutes.  At times he would wince, at times he would struggle, but at no point did his graceful smile ever fade.

You see, that man was bound by a body he did not grow up with.  He was bound by a scar he did not ask for.  He was bound in his mobility, his activity, his life. Yet his graceful smile never left his face.  He was bound by adversity, but he was liberated by joy as he entered that pool.  He was happy to be able to do as much as tread water–no matter how badly it hurt him. He was happy to be able to move, no matter how many people stared. He was grateful and he simply smiled.

I woke up the next morning with a smile of my own slung across my face. I had fallen asleep the night before dizzied in thought about the man at the pool, and my walk as a Christian. And the sunrise meant it was time to run.

I laced up my shoes and set off just as the sun was peeking over the Atlanta skyline.  As I put one foot in front of the other, I focused on relaxing the muscles in my forehead, slowly unclenching my jaw, and allowing the corners of my mouth to curve up in surrender. I was smiling. And I was going to smile the entire run.

Stride. Stride. Stride. Stride.

I replaced the thoughts of, “This is awful.” with “Thank you, Lord, for this day.”

I replaced the thoughts of, “I don’t want to do this.” with “I am so blessed to be able to put one foot in front of the other.”

Stride. Stride. Stride. Stride.

I replaced the thoughts of, “I don’t like to do this.” with “Thank you, God, for a healthy body and the energy to burn.”

I replaced the thoughts of, “I hate that this is the best thing for me, because I’m tired, I’m sore, and I’m bored.” with “Look at the beautiful sights of this city. Listen to the sound of passing traffic. Breath in the scent of the autumn air. What a blessing that I can run.”

Stride. Stride. Stride. Stride.

I smiled. As my ankles hurt, my knees hurt, my back hurt…I smiled. Though my muscles were tired, my body was out of whack, and every stride was dull and painful…I smiled. And soon I found that I felt those angst no more.

Stride. Stride. Stride. Stride.

I smiled.

I finished my run that day having run my farthest distance, my fastest pace, and my longest time.  My body was fatigued, but my heart was energized. My soul was overwhelmed. All because I never let a smile leave my face or gratitude leave my heart.

Every day that I run now, I smile. As I jogged to the end of my run today, I looked down at my monitor and continued to smile. 68 miles run since the day I started smiling, and I have energy and endurance to burn.

I do not simply want to be a Christian that is comfortable sprinting.  What comes easily for us may be powerful, and it may provide quick results, but I do not want to become complacent in my natural talents. I want to run distance in my faith.

You see, I am wired to function one way. Many of us are. It is easy to lean on the foundations and the teachings we grew up under and feel like once we have those fundamentals mastered, we are in great shape.  Once we’re familiar with the Word, once we’re familiar with what it means to love and serve, once we’re familiar with what it “looks like” to live as a Christian, then we are fit and prepared and can react quickly in life’s circumstances.

But a well-rounded and enduring faith requires pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones and expanding ourselves to persevere for the long-haul. We must be distance runners in our faith.  We must be willing to push ourselves, strain ourselves, and grow fatigued for the Gospel.  That cannot be done by resting on the sprinted fundamentals of Christianity.  It must be acquired through the constant and grueling process of building and maintaining endurance through hope. One day at a time. One foot in front of the other. Choice by choice by choice. Stride by stride by stride.

And while that is not easy work, while it will hurt and ache and wear you down, it CAN be done with joy and willingness. Smile. Find joy in the beauty of what’s around you.  Find appreciation in the fact that you are rising each new day. Find happiness in the simplest of wonders. Find beauty in everything small.  When you are headed up hill and your mind says to stop…smile. When you feel like you can’t face another obstacle or adversity…smile.  When you lose patience and grow weary…smile. Rewire your thoughts to find joy in your days. Choose happiness. Consciously choose to smile. You will be amazed at the difference it makes, and you will be amazed as you come to the end of the road after a long journey of life’s hardships and you find that your emotions are fatigued, but your heart is overjoyed. You’ll be energized and encouraged and alive–all because you chose to smile.

I want to be a Christian who smiles.  As I fight battles and face hardship and grieve and mourn and struggle, I want to smile.  I want to wade into the waters of life knowing, though the hardships of my life leave a scar from the top of my neck to the base of my spine, I can smile.  And though I find myself trapped in circumstances and situations that are disproportionate to what I feel I “deserve” or what I feel is “fair” in life, I can smile. Because I am the child of a King who boasts scars, as well.  I am the child of a King who endured scars for me as He took the cross so that I could live freely and smile. I am the child of a King who assures us that, though the journey will be long, He has great plans for us. He gives us hope and He gives us a future. How grateful we should be to smile.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.” –Hebrews 12:1

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My Story (part 13)

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28

Inspired by a new strength, I sat up in a bewildered state.  My head was burning and my body was throbbing, but I felt nothing other than the will to move. To get out. To tell anyone with ears of the grace I had felt.

The next thing I remember, I heard a hesitant voice stab the silence. My ears seemed to perk up like a curious dog’s and I dragged my body towards the edge of my car.  I saw a light bouncing off of the shattered glass beneath me and heard the voice coming closer. I then saw a man’s gentle face pressed towards the ground, peering into my car.  He had a look of such worry, a look of such concern. A look that I can only describe as the look of a man preparing to see death.

My memory from then comes only in flashes–like photo frames reeling through my mind. The sight of his face. The sound of my voice straining to whisper words to him. The sight and feel of my hand reaching through the shattered window and touching the cold, wet grass. The sound of his voice. And then numbing darkness…

My mom spoke to that man on the phone, a few days after the crash.  Apparently, he had been driving with his wife and seen my lights in the distance. Out of curiosity, he stopped to check out the scene. That is when he discovered my vehicle and found me. Of all the people who could have possibly come across me on that night, this man was a retired paramedic and a member of the Navy (if that is not God showing off His grace, I don’t know what is!) In fear, the man had approached the vehicle with a flashlight, looked inside, and found me looking back towards him.  He told my mom that he expected to find a dead, mangled body. He told her that he tried asking me questions, tried directing me on how to escape, and tried checking to see if I was coherent. Then he told her that all I kept repeating were 3 simple words–God is beautiful. God is beautiful. God is beautiful. He said that I was smiling, proclaiming the beauty that I’d seen.

When I awoke, I was strapped in a bed. I remember looking over and seeing a paramedic..a very cute paramedic. In true Mo Isom fashion, I milked the situation and stretched out my arm, beckoning for him to hold my hand. He squeezed my hand and told me that he was just waiting to see me wake up.  Determined to make the most of the soap-opera moment, I believe I said something along the lines of, “I’ll never let go, Jack.” Realizing I was fine (and also a smartass), he dropped my hand, smiled, and left the room. That portion of the story is completely irrelevant, but I had to throw it in there for a good laugh. 🙂

My stay in the hospital was a blur. Ominous machines, tedious scans, countless x-rays. Needles, blood, IVs. Pain, fatigue, restlessness. My mom and sister’s arrival. My mom and sister revealing that they had snuck my dogs in inside of their jackets to brighten my spirits. My dogs peeing on things and barking. My dogs jumping on my fractured ribs and unhooking my IV. My mom and sister being asked to leave the hospital and remove the dogs. My mom and sister sneaking back in. It was a time of physical pain, but a time of overwhelming joy. Emotional joy and spiritual joy. Though my body was mangled and broken, my heart had been made anew.

In the wreck, I had broken my neck–fractured a vertebrae at the top of my spine. I had fractured the ribs down the left side of my body and sustained severe contusions to my lungs and liver.  I had damaged my face, my eye and my jaw. Most severely, I had contusions to my brain.  I was severely concussed and had bruising on my brain, but I was alive. And I was Saved. I was renewed in the Holy Spirit and I was unshakably, unmistakably a servant to my King!…

(to be continued)

<left: recovering in the hospital and, naturally, giving the vulcan salute 🙂 >

<below: my Jeep Liberty in the salvage lot after being turned right-side-up and towed from the crash site >

My Story (part 9)

“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the Truth with your neighbor, for we are all members of one another” Ephesians 4:25

In my attempt to balance the two powers fighting within my heart, I became something so dangerous, so counterproductive, so misguided, that I left imprints of impurity and confusion along my course.  In my attempt to balance the two powers overwhelming me, I became a false witness.

For those unfamiliar, a false witness is a person who deliberately gives false testimony, or lies.  In a Christian sense, a person who proclaims to know God and speaks of His Truth, but their actions reflect the complete opposite.  Essentially, someone who “talks the talk”, but does not “walk the walk”. The 10 Commandments, in the simplest of terms, are a list of moral standards that Christians strive to live by–a list of the most important, most essential rules.  The Ninth Commandment in the series is simple, direct, and powerful…”Thou shalt not bear false witness…”

In my attempt to control my own life, I was breaking one of the 10 most important rules. On a topic of the utmost importance, I was saying one thing and doing another, likely leaving the individuals I crossed paths with confused and bewildered. Likely leaving individuals, who had the opportunity to see the light of Christ through me, exposed to the twisted maze of Satan’s games.

It’s important for me to share something at this moment. Important for me to break from my story for a minute and humble myself to you. So please read these words with care and with sincerity. Please know that what I say, I truly mean from the deepest caverns of my heart…

To those I affected along my dark journey, I am deeply and truly sorry.  For those I confused, for those I mistreated, for those I neglected…I am so sorry.  I offer up my self, offer up my pride. Whether you felt the repercussions then or have felt them in any way since, I can’t apologize deeply enough.  For the boys I gave pieces of myself to along the way, I’m sorry you weren’t able to see Truth through me. I’m sorry if I confused you, and sorry if I took anything from your heart, as well. I’m sorry I was a false witness and I can only pray, that from this day on, you see what God is doing through me. And you know that what you saw then was not real and was not pure.  What you saw then was not God.

I digress again, back to the fall of 2009.  My sophomore soccer season was not easy without my dad.  Still hosting a battle of epic proportions in my heart, stepping onto the soccer field without my biggest fan in the stands was emotional. Exhausting. Trying.  But the sport that had welded my father and I so tightly together for so many years proved to be a cathartic release. It was an escape that my heart needed. An escape that came at just the right time.

I was on a crash-course for destruction prior to stepping back onto that field.  And though it was an extremely slow and gradual process, as the season progressed and each game slid by, I could feel a layer of the numbness slowly peeling back.  I could feel hints of joy again. The competitive drive that existed so deep in my being sent sparks of hope that gradually accumulated, gradually reignited a fire in my soul. A fire that soon gave me the strength to take a stand. Take a stand against the waging forces that were tearing me apart. Take a stand against the dark feelings that were pulling at my strings like a puppet-master. Take a stand against Satan…

My mom once told me that, in life, the ways in which God reveals himself to us are often subtle and sometimes overseen.  In order for Christ to pour strength into us, we do not  have to witness a production of grandeur or divine splendor. No parting of the clouds or blinding light shining down. No resonating voice booming from the air above us. In fact, those types of experiences are few and far between, often sensationalized by a culture so entranced by only that which they can see, hear, and touch. But rather, God sometimes chooses to show His grace in the simplest of earthly things. It’s simply a matter of us taking to time to see them…

It took time, a great amount of time, but eventually I began to feel Him again. I could smell Him in the freshly cut grass on gameday. I could hear Him in the echoes of cheers that filled the Friday night sky. I could taste Him in the bitter flavor of a cold Gatorade at halftime. I could feel Him in the ticking seconds of the final minutes of every game. I could see Him in the moments that every athlete lives for–the moments of adrenaline and pressure and leadership. God was there. He had always been there. Patiently waiting for me to see Him in the stands…

(to be continued)