As Friday night’s Epicureans crowd the roadways, a fifteen-passenger van squeaks to a halt beneath a hotel portico. Four silhouettes stir inside the van. A side door creaks open. Two sandal-heavy feet leap to the pavement and hurry inside.
I watch a nearby vehicle eject a passenger, someone who does not enjoy the privilege of standing on two normal feet. Years earlier, she lost control of a moped, colliding with a truck. Doctors chose to take Noelle’s leg to save her life.
But I don’t yet know her name or her story. I don’t know she’s the fastest American woman missing a leg above the knee. All I can see from the outside is a young woman with a prosthetic leg.
I stare at the SUV a little longer than would be polite. A middle-aged man with a baseball cap and Texas-sized biceps emerges, like a lion waking from a nap. He strides toward our van and motions to us. Our driver’s side window rolls down dutifully.
This man could out-grin all the politicians and dentists in a Mr. Smile contest. His voice thunders with energy and incredulity. “There’s no way you all are from Bob Jones!”
The words on the van door, “Bob Jones University,” beam back at him in a large serif font.
Our new friend pulls out a wallet and rummages through it impatiently. He wonders aloud if “it” is tucked away in his other wallet. Moments later, his fingers grasp the treasure he’s after.
Triumphantly, he holds the object up to the dim light so we can all see it.
Two days earlier, an eavesdropping fly or mosquito would have seen me indulging in one of my favorite hobbies—worrying. Will I ever get to visit Maine? I’m so close!
I stood by a comfortable bed in a comfortable New Hampshire hotel room. What’s to stop me from calling it a night right now?
Maine stared coldly in my direction. The Pine Tree State might be 3.6 miles away, but I could feel its x-ray vision scanning me, searching for a backbone. “What kind of person is this fellow?” Maine seemed to ask. “Would he ever volunteer for a painful challenge? Does he fight for his goals or just wish they would actualize?”
What do you expect of me, O Most Northeastern of Contiguous States?
I’m already doing—
Maine interrupted. “Yes, some of your time is well spent. But not nearly as much as you think. You’re recklessly carrying the water of your time cupped in your hands. Very little water is making it to the seeds you’re supposed to be cultivating.”
This coming from a barren wilderness!
“Rude. I’m not a barren wilderness. I lead the nation in wild blueberry production, and I grow more potatoes than you ever will, suburban kid.”
I smiled awkwardly. Point taken.
“Look, your body has an expiration date. Your usable-once-only time is priceless. Are you treating it that way?”
Well, at least I’m not wasting much time on exercise.
“Appropriate exercise is not time wasted! You are caring for the Lord’s temple! You’ll live longer and have fewer health hurdles.”
Okay, okay, I get it. I’ve heard this before, all right? So, what’s the Maine thing you want me to do right now? See what I did there?
“Aha, very clever. Tonight, you’re going for a walk.”
Sure. How long?
For a ’90s BJU student identification card, it looks pretty good. It’s a bit worn, but it’s holding together. “Dixon, James.”
James speaks like a rollercoaster. When he approached us, I tasted a little of the jittery anticipation I once experienced waiting two hours to ride Millennium Force. The conversation explodes onto the track with his two-minute sermon: “Be bold in sharing the Gospel. Be faithful to your King.” Things lurch downward when I realize he has a prosthetic leg too. How awful for him!
The train surges back upward as he shares how God has given him an incredible platform in exchange for his leg: thirty-three thousand follow his content on Instagram, while his YouTube videos have snagged an impressive one hundred million views.
As my imagination speeds by at fifty miles per hour, I hear James say Noelle is a Paralympian and Survivor contestant. Remarkable!
James’s sense of courtesy compels him to keep the conversation brief so we can all head upstairs for the night. When he walks through the sliding automatic doors, the four of us are very intrigued.
A few minutes later, in room 311, I open the refrigerator and ask my pizza box to enter willingly. It declines my offer. Bummer.
My thoughts stray from pizza problems to people's potentials. You know, I’d love to get breakfast with that guy.
Early the next morning, James’s winning smile greets us from his breakfast table. He has already worked out and done his devotions, as has been his consistent daily habit for years. My accomplishment is rolling out of bed before 7 a.m.
I reluctantly slop some self-styled “eggs” onto my plate to keep the sausage patties company. I snag two small yogurts and sit down across from James. I smile and try not to let my nervousness show. This guy could bench press me. “Hi, I’m Zachary.”
When James looks at me, I’m exposed. I see deep into the recesses of myself. I see several bags of trash that need to be taken out. Worse than that, I see a half-finished temple. The builders are sitting in palm tree shade, munching dates. I can see their work tools, rusting quietly. Time’s winds are covering their tools with layers of sand and neglect.
James tells us his life story, from how he ended up at Bob Jones University to how he lost his leg (he wishes it was from a shark attack, but it was from disease). Evidently he carves a legacy of evangelism and discipleship on all the wood the Lord provides him with. He mentions meeting Steph Curry the previous week. He carries such boldness!
He decides to FaceTime his friend Cam. Once he’s awake and dressed, Cam picks up. He’s a contestant from The Bachelorette who has caused at least one girl to faint. With enthusiasm and what looks like freshly showered hair, Cam shares his testimony of recently trusting Christ for salvation.
James says they’ve been meeting regularly for discipleship. How exciting! The Gospel works!
With his own experience, Cam shows us something of the price we may pay for following Christ. He interviewed for a six-figure job that would’ve likely hired him but for his Christian beliefs. In an echo of the Inquisition, the CEO demanded Cam recant. Like Luther, this professing Christ-follower firmly refused.
An exhausting, spontaneous seven-mile trek to Maine and back prepared me to meet a remarkable amputee two days later. How could I have ever planned that? The midnight trek to Maine showed me that tackling difficult challenges can be more rewarding than I realized. When James came along, he reinforced the same message. Be bold. Do hard things. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.
Breakfasting with James changed me. His joy, selflessness, boldness, and faithfulness are sticky. I have no intention of trying to peel off these virtues. I think God sent James my way because I needed to hear his wisdom.
If one leg is enough for James to run and win races, surely I too can run my races—physical and spiritual.