The Pain of Obedience

“Sometimes it just hurts to be obedient.”

Earlier that morning, myself and almost 200 of my fellow male age groupers had rushed into the turbulent waters of Lake Erie at the Age Group National Championships in Cleveland.  After emerging from a rough, wavy swim, we headed onto a deceptively hilly 40 kilometer bike ride through downtown before heading out on a 10K run to finish the triathlon. 

As I settled into the first couple of miles of a hilly run, I reflected on the past year of the training cycle which had taken me through a 100 degree temperature range, 10-plus hour runs in the woods and hot, nasty bike rides through all sorts of places and undulations.  I knew that once the 10K was over, my training cycle would be complete and for the next 6 months or so I would just return to my standard exercise regime.  I was really looking forward to the break, and yet was so incredibly grateful for what keeping to this covenant had meant to me and my faith in all that God can provide. 

And yet, just miles away from an extended break from the grind of competitive racing, I was ready to be done at that very moment.  It wasn’t that I was suffering from any acute pain or alarming symptoms, but after almost 2 hours of pushing my body hard (and a year of training towards these events), I was feeling it all.  And frankly, anything more leisurely sounded a whole lot better.

Just over 2 weeks prior, my wife, Amy, had delivered our eighth child, Katherine Clare.  Amy, like most people, was shocked to find out our new baby was a girl after the previous five had sported just one X chromosome.  And although I admittedly was concerned at times about how having a large family would work out, and the demands that each new child brought, I admired my wife for her obedience to what she saw as God’s covenant with her to be open to life.  Pregnancy after pregnancy, only to culminate in the intensity of childbirth, she had endured many aches, pains, and nausea as each little child grew so wonderfully within her. 

In the midst of all of us, the realization that obedience is often painful came to me during a conversation after my race with my friend, Sister Madonna Buder, who is known the world over for her ageless feats in triathlons, including being the oldest woman to ever finish an Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and marathon all in 17 hours or less) at the age of 82.  As I caught her on the phone as I prepared to leave Cleveland, she was lamenting about just what would happen the following morning with the National Sprint triathlon she was supposed to race (at the age of 89).  It had been a rough start to the weekend, having lost all her cash and identification, and then trying to deal with cellulitis on her ankle that continued to cause concerns, especially with the planned swim in Lake Erie.  As we were conversing, I found myself reflexively say “Sometimes obedience just hurts.”  She laughed with the understanding that comes with doing endurance events for two and a half decades past most people’s retirement age.  She, above all, knew just what this meant.

Yet the following morning, I would later find out that despite all her reservations and difficulties, she took the plunge into Lake Erie and in a little under three hours later, crossed the finish line.  Later that evening at the awards ceremony, as often happens these days, she stood on top of the podium surrounded by no one; no other female 85 and over had even started the race.  She had openly questioned why God had called her to Cleveland, but like hundreds of her races before, she was left with the understanding that sometimes the answers don’t lie in a clarification, but rather a justification that her effortful obedience, painful and frustrating at times, was the real prize to be bestowed. 

Sometimes we all may wonder why God calls us to do things in our life that result in discomfort of whatever kind.  It may seem rather unfair or even cruel, and I like others can’t help but think that there must be an easier way.  Yet during the drive back home on Saturday evening from Cleveland, I found myself reflecting on the multitude of things that had to have gone right for me to have finished this race, let alone all the others I had done before.  Similarly, I imagined the countless things that had to go right for our new baby girl to be born bright-eyed and healthy. It occurred to me that every single day, I so often filtered out the ease, comforts, and blessings that my life possessed, and instead focused on the ways that life hurt or was just hard.  In doing so, it was easy to convince myself that being obedient was the more difficult route.  And yet, if there was anything that our collective obedience had taught me, it was that the temporal nature of obedient discomfort gives way to a transcendent purpose that simply can’t be stopped.  Hours after my race was (gladly) done, I wondered what small and large acts of obedience God would call me to in the days and months to come.  But with our little girl (and 7 older siblings) at home and a training cycle done, I was thankful for what saying yes had brought.    

Obedience does hurt sometimes.  But the alternative would pain me much, much more. 

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