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A number of years ago, my wife and I had cause to be at an orphanage in Kenya, just outside of Nairobi.  While there, we had become friends with the pastor of the local Anglican church, and, being a Protestant pastor myself at the time, he asked me to deliver the sermon at the upcoming Sunday service.

Oh my.

A number of years ago, my wife and I had cause to be at an orphanage in Kenya, just outside of Nairobi.  While there, we had become friends with the pastor of the local Anglican church, and, being a Protestant pastor myself at the time, he asked me to deliver the sermon at the upcoming Sunday service.

Oh my.

At my home church, I knew the people and their struggles.  I knew the culture of our country and our local community.  Because of that comfort with my “audience,” it seemed easier to believe that the Holy Spirit would speak through me whenever I delivered a sermon.  To deliver a sermon to an unfamiliar church in an unfamiliar culture is daunting.  Sure, fundamentally we are all humans with the same basic problems and hopes.  My greatest worry was to come across as an out of touch or arrogant American.  “What could I say to them?” I wondered.  

The Kenyans I knew believed that America was a Christian country (“It’s on your money!”) and wanted desperately to imitate us.  They watched our TV reruns.  They were a materially poor people and wanted the opportunities available to the average American.  They seemed eager to hear from me.

After a lot of prayer and contemplation, and a few restless nights, that Sunday I did the only thing I knew to do: I asked them to pray for us in America.

Our experience in this small village was of a people that moved more slowly and more in concert with the rhythm of nature.  Few people had cars or even electricity.  When night fell, it was time for bed.  When the sun arose, it was time to get up.  They were far more relational as a village. My pastor friend used to introduce me by saying, “This is my friend; we walk together.”  We walk together…what a remarkable phrase to describe a relationship.

From the locals we heard a few stories of people being raised from the dead in answer to prayer.  There were other stories of remarkable healings.  I watched the repeated “miracle” of Samuel who each day picked a bunch of bananas, walked a few miles to the market, sold them for just enough to buy what he needed for that day.  Not all of our Kenyan friends prayers were answered, but they continued on in life, relying on God for what they needed.  It was like watching the Psalms played out in real life: sometimes joy, sometimes wailing, sometimes pleading…but always in relationship with God.  It seemed like their lives said about God, “This is my God; we walk together.”

So, in my sermon I asked the Kenyans to pray for us.

I remember saying to them that in our American abundance, we have come to believe that we didn’t really need God.  The words, “Give us this day our daily bread,” are often just that, words.  After all, my refrigerator is full and so are the grocery store shelves.  Through my hard work or government programs, I have access to the necessities of food, healthcare, transportation, and housing.  A great many of us Americans spend lavishly, at least by our Kenyan friends’ standards, on travel, entertainment, clothes, hobbies, etc.Rarely do we (me, most of all) in America have to really trust God for our very survival.  I told them we needed their prayers to realize just how much we are reliant on God—for everything, actually.  And pray that once we realize that, we learn to actually trust Him to provide what we need each day (again, me, most of all).  Then we returned to America and over the course of a few months I had returned to my American lifestyle.

Fast forward to last year.  We had a major deep freeze for which the state-wide utility system was woefully unprepared.  Many thousands lost power and water.  Nearly three hundred died from hypothermia.  Afterward, when life was returning to normal, I heard someone comment that they had been blessed by God because they had not lost power during the storm.  We had been similarly “blessed”; however, the word troubled me.  I noticed that I didn’t hear anyone who lost power say they were blessed by God.  I thought of my Kenyan friends and I wondered whether had we lost power and water I would have been able to say, and mean, “We were blessed by God.”

I used to say easily, too easily, that I love and trust God.  I had the fearlessness of youth.  Now that I am older, I have seen and experienced much more of the suffering of life.  Why is it this way?  It is a question that still haunts me.  I remain convinced that I love God, but I have begun to examine whether I really trust Him.

God created humankind to be in relationship with Him, to share in His life.  Jesus tells us that eternal life is to know God (not just know about Him), to have the deepest sort of relationship with God that is possible between two beings. (John 17:3)

It is my sinfulness that separates me from God.  Thankfully, the Church provides me with tools to help me battle the sins that separate me from experiencing a fuller relationship with God.  Prayer, fasting and giving are the classic three methods of ascesis, the self-disciplined “training” to help me control and overcome the broken passions that run amok in my life.  And in my effort, God (the Holy Spirit) is with me helping in each step.  However, as necessary as these are, they are voluntary forms of ascesis.  In other words, I can control them: sometimes I do them and other times not.

Trust in God, real trust, begins when I turn my life over to Him, when I let go of all control.  I is actually nothing but accepting the real reality: that little of my life is under my control.  But it is more: real trust begins when I can believe that everything in my life—especially those things outside of my control like loss of power and water during a dangerous ice storm—offers the opportunity for healing my broken passions and drawing me closer to God.  Can I actually trust God like that?

I came across this quote the other day from a Christian Orthodox monk.  I find it sobering:

Are we patient during…trials and difficulties? Do we consider these things necessary on account of our sins? This is referred to as involuntary ascesis. We can say to God, “My God, I didn’t do any voluntary ascesis; however, I patiently endured the involuntary ascesis that You sent me in Your wisdom. I was ill, I became widowed, I was ridiculed, I was wronged, and I endured everything for Your love.” Then Christ will respond, “Very well. What did I do for you? Look at My hands and feet: they have holes. Look at My side: it is pierced. Look at My head: it is full of blood from the thorns. Look at My forehead: it is covered in sweat. Look at My back: it is full of scourges and lashes. My entire body and soul suffered for you. I also accept what you did for Me.”
—Elder Ephraim. The Art of Salvation. Saint Nektarios Greek Orthodox Monastery. Kindle Edition. Location 2589.

Involuntary ascesis, I had never thought of the “trials and difficulties” of life in quite this way.  Does God really love me so much that everything in my life—everything, both joyful and sorrowful—comes from Him, directly or indirectly, with the sole potential of healing me and drawing me to Him?

And not just for me, but for all of us?  Does God so love the world that everything that happens in the world is a manifestation of His love for us and is an invitation to healing and relationship with God  Death entering the world through Adam and Eve; God kicking them out of the Garden; the plagues upon Egypt; the beauty of a sunset; the wonder of a bird singing; the death of thousands from a tsunami; Jesus’ birth death, and resurrection; the COVID pandemic; the love of another person, the magnificence of music, literature, and art; the death of a beloved neighbor, the smell of a flower, the suffering of a child, the trumpets and bowls of the end times…everything, everything, EVERYTHING!!

Can I trust in Him in His love for me and all of us without knowing why He created this world, this reality, with the beauty and the pain and the suffering as He has?

If I answer, “Yes,” then my joy and suffering has meaning in this world.  It is all redeemed by God as I heal and draw deeper into relationship with Him.  If I answer, “No,” then for me the suffering becomes meaningless and I slowly lose myself in fear, anger, and despair, living a life seeking both control and distraction from reality.

It is our choice, yours and mine, to walk with God in complete trust.  It is a choice to be made every moment of every day of our lives.

It is not easy.

Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength
—Luke 10:27


Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.

—Proverbs 3:5-6