Where Did I Go Wrong?

When projects fail and goals go unmet, I’m quick to second-guess myself: Did God really lead me to this? Where did I go wrong? What did I miss along the way?

I wonder if that’s how the Israelites felt when they were wandering around in the desert, thirsty and lost. You know the story. When life seemed uncertain, their automatic response was to grumble and complain.

They demanded to know why Moses brought them out of Egypt to make their children and livestock die of thirst. They jumped straight from a dry mouth to a dead family. Fear made them believe that catastrophes lay ahead of them. They swallowed that lie and imagined it was true.

I’ve read these passages before and judged those silly Israelites. The Lord parted the waters for them just a few chapters before. How could they forget so easily? But when I read the story again today, I heard myself in their grumbling and complaining. Their question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7), spoke to a deep uncertainty within me.

I’m in a wandering, wondering place right now. When I was sent home from Tanzania at the start of Covid, I left a trunk of my belongings with a dear friend. I assured her that I’d be back for them soon.

Somehow two years have passed. My friend has given away or used all of my carefully packed away things. I told her to because I don’t know when or if I’ll be back for them.

When the Israelites were wandering in the desert desperate for water, the Lord heard their cries. He provided water from a rock for the people to drink. I wonder if there’s a message in this miracle. Could God be telling the Israelites that He brings unexpected blessings from the hardest places? Could He be encouraging them to look for His life-giving presence in places that seem dead? Could He be teaching me the same thing?

Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. This means that we naturally pay more attention to negative experiences and tend to dwell on them more than positive experiences. So it’s pretty easy for me to look back over the last two years and tally up all my disappointments and frustrations.

But I know that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And if He was a God who brought water from a rock thousands of years ago, then He can do the same thing today. Rather than grumbling and complaining about my rocky path, I could start looking for the ways that He’s provided for me in the dry places.

This isn’t natural. I don’t want to do it. I feel like I’ve earned the right to complain. I’m sure the Israelites did, too.

With the Holy Spirit’s prompting, I opened my journal and I started writing. Ten minutes later I had a list of 14 ways that God had provided for me over the last two years. I saw water rushing out of rocky places and was amazed that I’d missed it before.

Then I started to wonder if the Israelites looked at rocks differently after this miracle. Did they wait expectantly to see if God might show up and transform the rocks into something else? Did they get excited about the possibilities? Did they see a rock and remember God’s provision?

Maybe this is another part of the lesson. God provided water not only out of a hard place but also out of something that He knew the Israelites would be walking around for the next 40 years. God could have made water appear out of nowhere. Instead, He used a rock. Water from the rock would not only fend off their thirst that day, but perhaps it could also provide the Israelites with an object lesson to remind them of God’s presence every day of their lives.

I started to think about what I see on a daily basis that could serve as a reminder of God’s loving presence with me. I chose pens. Over the last two years, God has provided me with a writing ministry. He’s given me the words to write and opened doors to connect with amazing opportunities (writing for A Life Overseas being one of the first and best of those open doors!).

I asked the Holy Spirit to remind me each time I pick up a pen that God is able to do unexpected and glorious things in the hardest and most trying circumstances. And just because I know my own stubborn, forgetful heart, I wrapped tape around some of the pens in my house and wrote “The Lord is among us” on them. 

Is the Lord among us or not? He is. He is most certainly among His people. He’s been with me for the last two years and all the years before that. He’s been with me through the failed projects and the unmet goals. He’s been with me through the disappointments and the victories.

And He’s been with you the whole time too. He’s been there through all the ups and downs of following Him across borders and into foreign cultures. He’s been there through all the ministry roadblocks that these last two years of covid have thrown your way. And He is with you right now.

God’s loving presence takes the sting out of dashed dreams and unmet goals. In His hands, rocks become water, wandering builds character, and failures get reformed. He is at work among us, now and always.

What Do You Share in Your Newsletters?

by Alyson Rockhold

When I first started sending newsletters to my supporters, I envisioned sharing messages of happiness and hope – the kinds of topics that would let me present a polished, pretty version of my life.

Like a social media star tilting the camera to capture the perfect pose while blocking out the heap of dirty clothes in the background, I had hoped to gloss over the messy parts of my life. Part of it was a heightened concern that I present my neighbors and host country in a positive light, but most of it was just my stubborn pride.

But God had other plans. He didn’t want me to be fake with my supporters any more than He wanted me to be fake with Him. Every time I sat down to write, words like “lonely,” “sad,” and “uncertain” kept coming out. I would start writing about teaching English and end up sharing how stupid I felt when I mixed up one letter of a Swahili word and told an old man that I was returning his underwear instead of his bottle (chupi vs. chupa).

Then I read Exodus 20:25 where God tells the Israelites, “If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.” What a revelation: God wants His altar built with jagged edges and uneven surfaces. He doesn’t want imperfections glazed over: He wants them on display!

Before I could show my imperfections to my supporters, I needed to lay them before the Lord. So I brought God my sorrow and anger, without sanding off my raw edges or covering over my rough emotions. I stopped trying to pretend that I had all the answers or that my faith negated my fury. I leaned into the belief that God accepts and loves us just as we are.

Knowing that God loved and accepted me helped me feel more comfortable being real with my supporters. Of course, people are not as loving and accepting as God, but I realized that’s no reason to hide my true self from them. When I was real with other people, it gave them the courage to be real right back to me. I learned that it takes courage to be vulnerable. And it also gives others courage when we’re vulnerable with them.

I had people tell me that they felt stupid sharing their “first world problems” with me. It broke my heart that they were scared that I would judge them. But somehow sharing my weaknesses and imperfections gave them permission to share theirs with me.

When we bring our messy, imperfect lives before the Lord, He declares, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9a). What amazing news: in Christ, our weaknesses are celebrated and embraced as conduits of God’s power!

And the benefits of being real about the messy parts of our lives don’t end there. As Jacqui Jackson writes, “When we give up the facade and the filters, and the perfectly scripted posts, we welcome back intimacy with our mate, with our family, with ourselves, and with our Maker.”

So I will join with Paul in declaring that “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9b). And I’ll include the hard, messy parts of missions in my newsletters while also being careful that the stories I do share are mine to tell.

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Alyson Rockhold has served as a medical missionary in Haiti, Tanzania, and Zambia. She recently published a 7-day devotional about learning to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10). You can access it for free by clicking here. 

Learning to be Still

by Alyson Rockhold

I have lived in four countries in the last seven years. I used to think that I was made to be a missionary because I loved the challenges of going, moving, and exploring new places.

My calling is based on God’s command in Matthew 28:19 to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” so it makes sense that I’ve gotten really good at going. The only problem is, “Go” isn’t the only command in the Bible. 

Sometimes God says, “Stay.” He instructs us to “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Unfortunately, I am not very good at staying.

This spiritual deficiency became very obvious last year. In March 2020, my husband and I were transferred from Zambia to Kenya. We decided to stop over in Tanzania for a 2-week vacation to visit old friends. Within a few days, Covid hit, the borders closed, and we were trapped. 

While my family worried about my safety, I was more concerned for my sanity! With no work, no social events, no electricity, and minimal entertainment, I quickly became stir crazy. Like a weightlifter who only exercised one side of her body, I was imbalanced in my ability to follow God. 

So much of my identity was wrapped up in my work. I was most satisfied when my days were full of meaningful tasks. Sitting, waiting, and being still seemed like impossible feats. Yet the borders remained closed, and I stayed stuck.

I felt useless, irritable, and on edge. So I began begging God for something to do. When it got too noisy in my head, I started writing down my thoughts.

For years, I’d kept a prayer journal with small entries here and there. Now I was filling up multiple pages a day. There was something soothing in pushing a pencil across a page: at least I was doing something!

Over time, I wrote myself into stillness. 

It’s challenging to explain how this happened, except to say that I know God was there. He taught me how to write a few words, and then pause to listen for His Voice. I slowly became more comfortable with sitting and waiting. The silence wasn’t so scary when He was there with me. 

Writing helped me lay down my addiction to going and learn to be still. God used writing to teach me that my identity had nothing to do with my productivity, no matter how fused the two concepts were in my mind.

I’d always prided myself on being a super productive Martha, but God was slowly teaching me to choose “what is better.” By God’s grace, I was no longer so “worried and upset over many things.” I was learning to sit at the Lord’s feet like in Luke 10:38-42.

Once I finally started understanding how to “Be Still,” God ordered me to “Go” once again. 

The sudden shift in energy was palpable: after 4.5 months of staying, my husband and I now had 48 hours to go. But with the borders to Kenya still closed, we weren’t able to go to our long-awaited destination. So our mission agency told us to return to the U.S. and await further instructions. 

I sat on the plane wondering: What was the point of staying if it didn’t get me where I wanted to go?

Then I re-entered noisy, chaotic America, and those lessons about silence and stillness sustained me.

When the dream of ever getting to Kenya faded, the ability to separate my identity from my productivity kept me sane.

Later I asked God what I was supposed to do in the U.S., and He turned my writing into a ministry.

In the end, staying prepared me for going: God wove the two seemingly opposite concepts together in ways I would never have asked for or imagined. And that weaving has continued over the last year of being “stuck” once again — this time back in the U.S. 

But this time, I’m not quite as obsessed with wondering when I’ll get to go again. Learning to be still and know that He is God shifted my priorities and clarified my purpose. And maybe that was the point all along.

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Alyson Rockhold has served as a medical missionary in Haiti, Tanzania, and Zambia. She recently published a 7-day devotional about learning to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10). You can access it for free by clicking here. 

Freefall and Float: Following God on Non-Linear Adventures

by Alyson Rockhold

I landed in Tanzania in 2007 as a fresh-faced college kid taking a semester off to teach English. Those four months altered the course of my life. When school called me home, I vowed to return to Tanzania soon. It took 7 years to fulfill that promise. Those years were filled with great tension and worry: Would I ever get back “there”?

The homing device that had burrowed under my skin eventually returned me to Tanzania in 2013. What relief to finally be living the life I’d always dreamed of! What confusion when I had to go back to the states in 2015!  Another vow to return “there” soon: More long years of waiting.

In 2019, I got close to “there” when my husband and I moved to Zambia. I kept whispering in his ear about how desperate I was to go to Tanzania. So, when our organization planned to transfer us to Kenya in early 2020, all I could think about was that Tanzania was right on the way!

We got to Tanzania on March 9th. Within a few days, Corona rumors became reality. The borders closed on March 16th. Ultimately, our three-week vacation turned into 4 months of living in limbo. I was finally “there,” but everything felt wrong.

When I dreamed of going to the missions field, I thought it was all about getting “there.” Once I got “there,” I would establish a thriving ministry, become fluent in a new language, and get connected to the local community. In essence, I would live like the missional heroes whose biographies I had devoured in high school. I never envisioned living in 4 different countries over 7 years, preparing to move to a 5th but stopped by political unrest, and then being en route to a 6th only to be halted by a deadly virus.

My story looks nothing like I imagined it would. It does not follow the pattern set before me by my heroes. There are many curved roads, roundabouts, and U-turns on my journey. I’ve expended so much energy fighting to get “there,” consumed with the fear that being “here” meant I was a failure. But what if instead of teaching me how to march in a straight line, God has been equipping me with the tools needed to attain freefall and float?

I learned this phrase when I stumbled upon Denise Levertov’s poem, “The Avowal.”

As swimmers dare

to lie face to the sky

and water bears them,

as hawks rest upon air

and air sustains them,

so would I learn to attain

freefall, and float

into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,

knowing no effort earns

that all-surrounding grace.

As I try (and mostly fail) to get “there,” God embraces me right where I am. Surrounded by his grace, I find contentment unbound from circumstance.

I release my goals: freefall.

I  relax into grace: float.

I freefall: The ground beneath me is slippery, but His grace bears me up.

I float: The way ahead of me is unclear, but God sustains me.

I freefall and float: Surrendering my quest for straight lines and discovering beauty in each unexpected turn.

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Alyson’s medical missions work has taken her to Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia.  Along the way, she’s discovered a passion for sharing stories that honor God and encourage people.  Her writing has been featured on A Life Overseas, Busted Halo, Verge Magazine, Red Letter Christians, and more.  You can follow her at www.alysonrockhold.com.

Hearing Voices

by Alyson Rockhold

When an email requesting volunteers in Tanzania hit my inbox, it was a knock-you-off-your-horse type moment. Gratefully, God didn’t strike me blind like Paul, but I definitely slid off my chair and onto my knees in recognition of His Voice. I had been studying missions for a year and was consumed with a growing restlessness and dissatisfaction over the last few months. It didn’t make sense to study how to serve God for four years from the safety of my little college bubble. I was ready to go, to do, to share God’s love in real and tangible ways.

After hearing that Voice of calling, I had prayed for weeks for my parent’s support. I didn’t want to disobey my earthly father in trying to follow my heavenly one. So, when my dad readily agreed to the plan, I took his acceptance as a sure sign of its divine origins.

Then I rushed into my mission professor’s office, bursting with the good news. He had also served in East Africa and was passionate about that place and those people. He had even agreed to teach me Swahili and helped me secure school credit for it. I never imagined he wouldn’t support me now.

“You should not go to the mission field without a husband.”

His words hit me like a rock to the gut. I was flooded with disappointment. I thought this man respected me and God in me. Now he was telling me I was not enough. I was not made of the right substance to serve God on my own.

Where only seconds before I was filled with hope and excitement, I now harbored doubts and fears. How could one sentence call into question what God had told me so plainly to do? This was God‘s calling clear and true: take a semester off of college, travel to Tanzania, and teach English for four months.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. However, I do know I had entered as a self-assured adult but was leaving as a chastened child. I slunk out of his office, feeling embarrassed and small.

Would his pronouncement crush me, or would defying it make me stronger?

Later, a favorite verse came to mind: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)

Well, what if I want to please both?

As a perfectionistic people pleaser, I wasn’t able to stop caring about my teacher’s approval. I craved his acceptance and had labored hard to earn it. If I left school now without my professor’s blessing, could I ever return to my religious studies there? I feared I would be branded a dissident. My status as a model student was being called into jeopardy, and I was desperate not to lose it.

Yet, something deeper was at stake. As a girl about to exit my teens and become a young woman, this moment was a watershed: whom would I depend on to define me, to help me make my decisions, and to determine my future path? God or man?

Ultimately, the decision came not from hours of Bible study or intense prayer or the advice of others (although I sought all those things). Instead, the answer came from deep within my soul.  God was there. The Word of God written on my heart. The Voice of truth that never wavers.

God gave me an inner fortitude that I could never have summoned up on my own. The answer was clear: I could live with one man’s disapproval, but I would never find abundant life apart from my Creator.

And since we serve a God who consistently does far more than we could ever ask or imagine, I finally did graduate from that college. My time in Tanzania had clarified my call to medical missions, and I walked across the stage as a dual missions and biology major. The sweetest graduation gift that I received was a note from that same professor, simple and handwritten. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have tried to dissuade you from your calling. I’m glad you didn’t listen.”

I’m grateful I knew which Voice to listen to.

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Alyson’s medical missions work has taken her to Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia.  Along the way, she’s discovered a passion for sharing stories that honor God and encourage people.  Her writing has been featured on A Life Overseas, Busted Halo, Verge Magazine, Red Letter Christians, and more.  You can follow her at www.alysonrockhold.com.

If “they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” will they know we are missionaries by our listening?

by Alyson Rockhold

The brooms in Tanzania start early each day. A familiar “swish, swish, swish” emanates from every house. When I moved here, I was shocked that most women sweep their houses daily and mop the floors three times a week. At first, that routine seemed kind of ridiculous to me. So, I made the most basic mistake warned about in Missionary 101: Judging instead of Listening. I didn’t ask anyone why they swept every day. I didn’t stop to remember that Tanzanians are experts at living in Tanzania. I just stubbornly clung to what I knew to be true of housekeeping in America and tried to apply it here.

Then for weeks I complained that there was always grit in the bed. I bemoaned the fact that my husband’s allergies were getting worse. And I was dismayed to find that spiders were literally living in every corner of the house! When I grabbed a broom to knock down all the spiderwebs, I finally realized my folly. I could’ve saved myself a lot of aggravation and annoyance if I had started by listening to the people who live in this place.

As I was mulling over this lesson, I started re-reading The Poisonwood Bible, a fictional account of one family’s failed mission to the Congo. The first time I read this book, I was dreaming of the mission field. From that distance and without any experience, it was easy to stand in judgement on all the decisions that led to their downfall. Yet today, with plenty of my own cultural missteps fresh in my mind, I found this book to be a compelling reminder of the importance of being a missionary who opens my ears far more often than I do my mouth.

The book has a poignant example of the value of listening that begins when the father decides to dig a garden. His Congolese housekeeper tries to help him, but he ignores her every suggestion. He is convinced that he knows best, and he lets her broken English and lack of education be an excuse to cast aside her insights. The result is crop failure and a nasty rash from the poisonwood tree. Throughout the story, every time the father refuses to listen to his neighbors, his heart grows more hardened and his mistakes become more disastrous. Ultimately, his mission is ruined by his closed ears and hardened heart.

It makes me wonder if our ears and heart are somehow linked: Is our willingness to listen connected to our ability to love? The story of Isaiah’s call to missions has a lot to teach us about this. When God calls Isaiah to missionary service, he famously replies, “Here am I. Send me!” Years ago, as a new missionary, I used to love the thrill that came with claiming Isaiah’s words as my own. Now I wish I had paid more attention to what God says next. In Isaiah 6:10, God instructs the prophet to tell the Israelites that He will punish them by hardening their hearts and making their ears dull. This chapter has an important message for young missionaries: After your eager “Yes!” to God, continue in His service by keeping your hearts and ears open.

I’ve had to learn the hard way, through dust and spiders (and examples too embarrassing to enumerate here!), that my ears are two of the most important tools I have for cultural adaptation. I need them to learn a new language, to hear the stories of the people, to honor customs and experiences. I’m starting to see that there is a mysterious connection between my ears and heart, a powerful link between my ability to listen and my capacity to love. If the old hymn is true that They will know we are Christians by our love, perhaps also They will know we are missionaries by our listening.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the church of his generation that “Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener.” I wonder if the same can be said of our generation. When I open social media, I see so much shouting, so many multiplications of messages, so many voices desperate to be heard. Is anyone truly listening?

In these divisive times, the ministry of listening can sometimes be misconstrued as a weakness. Yet, I believe that God is calling His people to have the courage to listen well and the grace to keep our hearts malleable to the wisdom of others. Sometimes listening involves sacrifice. I must lay down my privilege and pride to enter into dialogues willing to truly hear voices that may challenge and chafe me. Listening is a confession that “I don’t know it all,” and I need your words to guide and teach me.

I am begging God for the grace to cultivate the skill of listening as a form of spiritual hospitality that by “paying full attention to others and welcoming them into (my) very being…(I can) invite strangers to become friends” (Henri Nouwen).

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Alyson has lived half of the last seven years overseas including time in Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia. Her resume includes such diverse experiences as teaching English, assisting with C-sections and making weekly cookie deliveries to the elderly. She’s so thankful to have a grounded, wise, hilarious husband to share the adventures with.

How do you praise God when your plans keep disintegrating?

by Alyson Rockhold

At the end of last year, my husband and I found ourselves unexpectedly back in the U.S. Our missions agency was in the middle of transferring us from Zambia to South Sudan when instability in the region forced us back home. We had left friends in Zambia believing God was leading us to a new country: had we misunderstood? During this time of uncertainty, I struggled with sadness over the death of our great plans. I wrestled mightily with being so reliant on family and friends to provide for us as we found ourselves without a home, a job or even a whiff of a timeline for moving forward. 

During church one Sunday, I realized that my mouth was forming the words of a praise song but inwardly I was singing a lament. Each word of praise I tried to force out of my mouth tasted like chalk: a dry, anemic thing with little belief behind it. I knew the sadness itself wasn’t the problem, because God has given us the full range of emotions and wants us to bring him out hurts and concerns. However, I had let my lament become so big in my mind that I had forgotten that God is bigger. 

That night I searched the internet for praise resources and stumbled upon a PDF entitled 31 Days of Praise. Each day included an attribute of God and  a short prayer. I started right away. Over that first month, I saw my vocabulary of praise strengthen in a way that also made my sadness and fears weaken. So I continued going through that document day by day over the last five months.

This vocabulary of praise was a lifeline for me when we eventually canceled our plans to go to South Sudan and began moving forward with a new assignment in Kenya. Reminding myself about the truth of who God is gave me the strength to continue trusting Him as we moved yet again into the unknown.  As our new plans begin to take shape, I realized we would have time to visit friends in a remote area of Tanzania before finally re-settling in Kenya. Our Tanzanian friends asked us to teach at their school while we visited. We were happy to comply! 

Little did I know that two weeks after leaving American soil, I would once again be stuck, jobless, reliant on others and have no idea when this will change. Yet, this time I feel totally different. Maybe a short overview of the last week will shed some light on why:

 

March 18: We learn that Kenya’s borders are closed for at least the next 30 days.  As a result, we are stuck in Tanzania. Also, with an unknown start date, we can no longer stay on our agency’s insurance. We scramble to find an alternative. 

           -Today’s praise: God of Peace: I praise you with all my heart  because you are the Lord my peace. You are the God of peace who will soon crush Satan under my feet.    (Based on Romans 16:20)

OK Lord, all I see around me is chaos, but I trust that you are the God of peace.

 

March 19: Tanzanian schools are closed for the next 30 days. Now we are not only stuck here, we are jobless. We finally get decent Internet access and are overwhelmed with reports about COVID19 around the world. 

            -Today’s praise: The God Who Heals: Father, I praise you because you are the God who heals your people physically, emotionally and spiritually. (Based on Exodus 15:26)

Heavenly Father, this virus is terrifying. What if it harms my family or reaches us here? Oh God, I believe you are the great healer!

 

March 20: The couple that was supposed to serve with us in Kenya has already returned to the U.S. We assess what we brought here when we planned on staying for a month (We left a big box of supplies for Kenya with friends in another city and only brought the minimum to this remote location.) Important things like cheese and chocolate got left behind and we really wish we had those now to comfort us!

          -Today’s Praise: The God of All Comfort: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Compassion and the God of All Comfort.” (2 Corinthians 1:3)

Father, my flesh is longing for worldly comforts. I praise you as the God whose very presence is comfort!

 

Since COVID-19 has trapped us here in Tanzania, our plans are once again moot! And yes I’ve definitely sung some laments. Yet, each time I have the truth of Scripture to re-center me and words of praise to refocus me. I can look back now and see how God used the struggles of last year to teach me how to bear with uncertainty and trust in His goodness no matter my circumstances. And I’ve discovered that praise can be the bridge between what my eyes see and what my heart knows to be true. Praise God!

Do you struggle to praise God when your circumstances aren’t exactly praiseworthy? I would love to hear what lessons God is teaching you during this challenging time. 

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Alyson has lived half of the last seven years overseas including time in Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia. Her resume includes such diverse experiences as teaching English, assisting with C-sections and making weekly cookie deliveries to the elderly. She’s so thankful to have a grounded, wise, hilarious husband to share the adventures with.