This story appears in FCA Magazine’s November/December 2015 issue. Subscribe today!
In a spiritual burn, flames either lack oxygen, peter out and extinguish, or quickly lick up the surrounding logs and spread across the forest of the soul. It’s up to the ranger inside to decide how to respond.
For Jolee Paden, let the fires rage.
The senior runner at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., has grappled with unanswered medical mysteries while learning to let go of the life she planned. Yet wherever and whatever God brings her bursts bright in unquenchable faith.
“She has an ability to motivate and fire people up,” said Britten Olinger, EMU cross country and track coach. “Her joy and ability to light up the room, her ability to come in and set you on fire—she brings so much energy.”
Last October, on the back turn of the pre-nationals race, Paden came across a fellow runner who had collapsed on the ground. In a sport where seconds are precious, Paden stopped her race for about 30 seconds to bend down and encourage the runner and call for help. When race officials took over, she jumped back on the course and continued to finish with a personal best in the 6k.
Smoke plumes, brushwood crackles. Light flares from Paden’s eyes and sweeps through her heart, as she sets her sights on course and coaxes flames unquenched from the hold, ready to run wild.
Paden’s running career began in seventh grade when her dad took her on a seven-mile trail race, and her cross country journey officially kicked in her freshman year of high school.
The St. Joseph, Ill., native took an FCA Huddle leader position at a local Power Camp, where her faith jumpstarted in various ways as she stepped up as a leader.
Paden (second from right) and her cross country team at EMU
“She is probably the most passionate person in terms of sharing the love of Christ and demonstrating it in her own life,” said Sara Hurst, Illini Land Area Representative. “When you meet Jolee, you have no choice but to notice that she’s different, and the difference is Christ living in her.”
During her junior year, Paden and a fellow classmate started an FCA Huddle. A coach from their school was killed during that year, and the Huddle put on a prayer vigil. Paden hoped for 10 people to show up, but the attendance was close to 1,200. Paden realized God’s power to ignite in her heart and the hearts of others.
“I was set on fire and have not been put out since,” she said.
Toward the end of her senior year in high school, racing became a grueling physical challenge for Paden. She’d collapse 15 feet before the finish line or pull out of the race.
This continued at EMU. She could complete practice runs and warm ups, but in races she’d hit an invisible barrier about a mile-and-a-half in. Her body didn’t behave the way it should, puttering out and paling her face, legs anchored. She saw up to eight doctors through the course of this confusion, and not one could give a definitive answer to the riddle of her spiked blood sugar.
“My freshman year, I really struggled with the thought I had just lost my athletic ability, that I wasn’t competing hard enough and it was a mental problem,” she said. “It rocked my identity and began a process of trying to see who I was outside of a runner.”
She found the fight with her body was a breaking point in strongholds.
“I was set on fire and have not been put out since.” -Jolee Paden
“I’m very much a type-A personality,” she said. “I like to plan things out and have control and know what’s going on, and for the first time I had absolutely no control of what I was doing.”
Last track season came the release point, letting loose her own running hopes and casting them into bigger hands. Before the conference meet, where she was scheduled to run the distance medley, her trainer advised her that if her symptoms flared one more time, she could no longer compete.
“I went up in the bleachers like, ‘Oh my gosh, this could be my last race,’” she said. “But I had a peace about it. I wasn’t putting all my hope in the healing anymore, but the Healer.”
One of Paden’s coaches suggested she try drinking coffee before races. It worked. The caffeine acted as a natural stimulant that gave her body the boost she needed. Between prayer and coffee, Paden staged a comeback. She even finished second in the 5k and earned All-ODAC honors.
Over the past year-and-a-half, Paden has traveled to the Holy Land and launched her own devotional book, Spiritual Runner, which weaves parallels between the discipline of running and spiritual endurance.
Inspired by running community camaraderie, she began writing devotionals her junior year in high school—coincidentally, around the same time she became a leader at FCA Camp.
“The running community looks more like the early church than some of our churches do now,” she said. “These people spend all this time together, eat together, share life together.”
She added that runners’ determination sets a standard in her own spiritual life.
“Why is it so easy for me to get up at 5 a.m. twice a week and run eight miles, but I can’t peel myself out of bed five minutes early to read the Word?” she said. “If that’s not convicting, I don’t know what is.”
So she began jotting down thoughts and lessons.
Paden's devotional book for runners, Spiritual Runner. Visit spiritual-runner.com to sign the commitment or buy the book.
While in the Middle East in spring 2014 for a cross-cultural study abroad, Paden took four months off of running—an unseen gift, as it was the first time she’d taken off more than two weeks in eight years.
As she walked the steps of Jesus and allowed for extended time of thought, digging into the Word, she let the words flow. She traveled with a few professors who encouraged her to continue, and by May had all her pieces collected and organized. The book came out in August and can be found on Amazon as well as her website, spiritual-runner.com, where runners can sign the Spiritual Runner commitment to be a runner in the name of the Lord, running for His glory.
“It’s more than a book,” she said. “I pray it’s a movement.”
The girl knows growth.
Ever the planner, the senior captain has relinquished her desire to tie up the many loose ends God’s brought her. Whether her medical mystery or adapting to her environment—foreign soil, marketing a book, evolving her spiritual leader position on campus—she’s the first to see opportunity to transform.
“I was praying for my one word for the year and had receive. But before the first of the year all I could think was release: the plans I thought I was making, anxiety, even energy and competition,” she said. “I thought I was going to receive all these things, but I first need to release before I can receive. That’s been so rich for me.”
Olinger admires her ability to walk in mercy and grace, emboldening her faith not by an in-your-face attitude, but willingness to share in the journey.
“As a coach you always hope there’s an athlete out there who can step up, because at the end of the day our voice gets pretty old pretty fast,” she said. “A lot of times that athlete will hold more weight with their peers than we ever can. She’s been a huge part of the team spiritually, being able to be open with what she’s been struggling with.”
Paden likes to go places. In addition to her study abroad, last summer she interned with Illini Land FCA and Valley FCA in Harrisonburg, when she returned to school in the fall. She’s attended numerous camps and conferences and spent the summer on Capitol Hill at an internship with Back on My Feet, an organization that uses running as a tool of empowerment for homeless individuals.
“It’s been so rich to be able to connect with people from all walks of life,” she said. “I’m so interested in hearing people’s stories and where they come from and how they got to where they were, good or bad.”
Paden’s latest reach is campus, where she leads the Huddle at EMU.
“It’s been a process that has evolved through prayer and exploration,” Paden said.
Once a month they have “Athletes Speak,” where athletes and coaches from different sports share their story, allowing the listeners to see them for more than their role as an athlete or coach.
The Middle East. D.C. Illinois. Virginia. Where to next? If it were Paden’s choice, she’d somehow work each into the mix and make time for all the passions and places and people crowded in her heart. A tour with a few friends to share the importance of true identity with young female athletes? Back to D.C. for another round of relationships with runners? Seminary? Establish more running camps that weave sport with the spiritual? Wherever her direction, Jolee wants to set the world afire for Christ.
“Jolee loves challenges,” Hurst said. “She does not want any part of being lazy or things that are easy or don’t need the help of God, so she likes to take on big things because she knows God will definitely be a part of it. The blessings come as a result of her dependence on Him.”
Paden lives her life expecting big, glamorous things from God because He can provide them and matches her actions accordingly. She’s seen firsthand how He lives up to expectation, not in the way He gives what she asks for, but in appearing through the unexpected.
“He knows the desires of my heart better than I do,” she said. “I think I want one thing, but He provides something different and so much better.”
This provision fuels Jolee into the world, running aflame.
–This article appears in the November/December 2015 issue of FCA Magazine. To view the issue digitally, click here: November/December 2015 FCA Mag Digital
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Photos courtesy of Scott Eyre Sports Imaging and Bethany Hench