Failing Lent

Church seasons are my jam. I love how struggling through Lent prepares me to celebrate Easter and engaging in Advent readies my heart for the miracle of Christmas. But this year I’ve failed. 

I started Lent with grand dreams to write a letter a day. I’m talking a hand-written, thoughtful, prayerful, encouraging note from yours truly. I bought 40 cards, made a list of 40 people, and began imagining those little rays of happiness flying into mailboxes all around the world. 

That commitment lasted about a week. 

Slowly writing a card got replaced with an ever-expanding to-do list that made even a 10 minute pause seem impossible. And often, I just forgot. Making a new habit was difficult, and soon a whole week had gone by without a card. Then a second week. My shiny, pretty cards mocked me, and I had a vague sense of guilt for not following through on my plan.

It has been a busy season. (I loathe that word, “busy,” especially the way it’s worn like a badge of honor for overcommitted folks with poor boundaries… especially when that person is me.) Some unexpected roadblocks came my way that needed my attention, and my good intentions were crushed under my feet as I rushed off to fix problems and put out fires. I’m surely not the only one. 

That’s why I was so relieved when I sat down to read my daily devotional toward the end of Lent and found this thoughtful reflection by Jan Kwiatkowski: 

“Most likely you started Lent with specific intentions and desires and then found yourself having to adjust, perhaps letting go of some of your original intentions, or maybe you realized that you took on more than was possible this season… I don’t think it matters to Jesus what any of us did or did not accomplish… we never 100% get any spiritual practice right… Trust that compassion and love surround you waking and sleeping, no matter what is done and left undone.”

Whew! I’m so grateful for this reminder that God is not a harsh taskmaster who refuses to grade along a curve. Instead, we serve a God who knows all of our human weaknesses and our most intimate struggles and flaws… and still calls us “good.” 

We are made in God’s image.
We are God’s beloved children.
We are God’s good creation.

Even when we fail.
Even when we are unloving.
Even when we don’t look good.

The Bible is full of stories of God’s lovable failures and imperfect followers. Whenever I need to remember that, I flip to the Psalms. They remind me that this following-God-life is not about performance or perfection and that it’s okay when my ridiculous humanity far outweighs my hopes for holiness.

One of my favorite passages comes from Psalm 73:

Surely God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.

(Ugh, same.)

When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,

I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.

(Oh I know that feeling.)

Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.

(I’m clinging to that promise.)

My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever. 

(Yes! Amen. Thank you, Lord.)

– Psalm 73:1-2, 21-24, 26 

My Lenten failures reminded me of how utterly dependent I am on God and how very grateful I am for grace. And if that’s the case, can they really be considered failures?

Aging Gracefully (and a birthday examen)

We all know the benefits of a childlike faith. But what about childlike aging?

Children embrace birthdays with joy and wonder. They’re eager to reach another year and celebrate another milestone. So children will say things like:

“When I’m 6, I’ll go to school.”

“When I’m 12, I can stay up late.”

“When I’m 16, I’ll be the one driving.”

And on and on it goes. When each age brings new opportunities and abilities, there is no reason to look back with longing or regret. Toddlers don’t miss being infants any more than teenagers would want to return to elementary school. Instead, the focus is always on moving forward and embracing the exciting unknown.

Then, somewhere along the line, everything shifts. We start looking ahead with fear and looking behind with a wistful longing for simpler days and smoother faces. It’s different for everyone, but for me, the big shift happened when I turned 30. 

A few months before my birthday, I was gripped with a terrible fear that I had “wasted” my 20s. Why oh why hadn’t I invested more time in dating? Why had I been so eager to rush onto the mission field? Maybe if I’d played my cards better, I wouldn’t be entering a new decade completely alone in a foreign country. 

That was a heavy, sad period of my life. It was the longing of my heart to be married, and I had nearly convinced myself that God was deaf to my many pleas. My unmet desire took up a lot of space in my heart and mind, making it very challenging to walk into the future with hope in God’s love and provision. (To this day, I still have anxiety dreams where I’m old and single and suddenly realize I forgot to ever go on a date!) 

Yet, within two years of that fated 30th birthday, I married the best man I’ve ever known. And six years after that we’re still happily married and living a life we love. It turns out there had been a whole lot to look forward to in my 30s; I just hadn’t been able to see it beyond all of my fears and regrets and doubts.

Now I’m getting uncomfortably close to another milestone birthday. Later this month, I’ll turn 38, which is within spitting distance of 40. Somehow another decade of life is coming to an end, and, once again, there’s a strong temptation to fight the march of time. Except now, my inner dialogue sounds more like this:

“When I was in my early 30s, I didn’t have these ugly wrinkles.”

“When I was in my 20s, I didn’t worry about my 401K.” 

“When I was a teenager, it was a lot easier to bounce back after an injury.”

Struggling with these thoughts ushers in a lot of guilt. I know many of my concerns about aging are trivial. I know I’m lucky and blessed to reach this age and be this healthy. And I know that “good Christians” probably shouldn’t spend quite so much time researching anti-aging creams! 

So I’m trying to return to a childlike approach to aging. I want to once again embrace the aging process with joy and wonder, eager and excited to see what God has in store for me up ahead. 

Honestly, I don’t know how to age gracefully, but this time around I do know that God is not deaf to my pleas. As I’ve been praying and seeking and asking for help in this transitional time, God reminded me of one of my favorite prayers: the Examen. This evening prayer is a way of examining the last 24 hours to look for God’s activity in your life. 

Since the Examen has deepened my ability to depend on God day by day, I decided to create a Birthday Examen to see how God may be moving through this aging process. My hope is that this will be the first step in learning to age gracefully.

Birthday Examen

I begin by quieting myself in God’s presence, taking a few moments to breathe deeply and remind myself that God is with me right here and now. 

Then I think back through each month of the last year. The memories play out in my mind like scenes in a movie. 

When a difficult memory arises, I imagine God holding and loving me through it. 

When a joyful memory arises, I thank and praise God for that precious gift. 

After reviewing the year, I ponder these questions with the Lord:

  • When in the last year did I feel most full of life? I spend some time remembering exactly what those moments felt like. 
  • How can I discover more of those life-giving moments in this upcoming year? I let the Holy Spirit guide my imagination.
  • When in the last year did I feel farthest from God? I look honestly at what caused that feeling of separation.
  • How can I prevent feeling far from God in this next year? Do I need to repent of anything or ask for help? I discuss this openly with the God who loves me so very much. 

Finally, I ask God for a word, phrase, or verse to carry with me as I enter this next year of life. I repeat it a few times as I end my time of prayer.

Faith, Hope, and Batteries

The saga of the batteries. Tale of humor. Tale of woe. How taking 24 batteries on an international flight refined my faith and made me question my sanity. 

Our story begins on the drive to the Dar es Salaam airport when I realized that I forgot to leave a box of batteries at the mission house. Being the anxious rule-follower that I am, I quickly looked up Emirates airline’s battery policy. It said, “Batteries… must be carried in carry-on baggage only… Each passenger is limited to a maximum of 20 spare batteries.” Ha! Funniest thing I’ve read in a while.

When I passed through the metal detector stationed at the airport entrance, all the batteries were divided between two carry-on bags (so that neither my husband nor I would exceed the limit). They flagged the bags for a full check and pulled out the 24 batteries in sheer amazement at my stupidity. “These belong in your checked luggage,” the screener informed me. 

I dutifully transferred them. Then it was time to go up to the counter to check in for my flight. But those batteries were really bothering me. When I signed in for my flight online, I clicked a box that said I didn’t put any batteries in my checked luggage. Now I was a liar! Whatsoever should I do?

Well, I don’t recommend this, but what I did was run the whole scenario past the gate agent, who then called his manager, who then told me that batteries are the same as “personal electronic devices” (PED), and their rule was that you could have up to 15 PEDs in each piece of checked luggage.

So now I needed to open my bags, count the batteries in front of them, and make sure I was under the limit. That was fun. 

The next scene in our saga takes place at the departure gate when my husband hears his name over the loudspeaker. Then a serious-looking police woman escorted us below the terminal to a small windowless room where a burly Tanzanian man went through every item of my husband’s luggage. Now for some unexplained reason, he had to put the 8 packaged batteries in a carry-on and leave the 4 remaining loose batteries in a checked bag. The 12 batteries in my checked bag were never mentioned. 

Don’t worry. It gets even more nonsensical. 

After our extended layover in Dubai, we went through security once again. Of course, my husband’s carry-on was flagged. The security agent reached her hand in, pulled out the batteries, clucked her tongue saying, “This is far too many,” and unceremoniously dumped them in the garbage.

We had now had four airline security professionals tell us four different things with equal amounts of confidence and certainty. Even though none of them was actually correct!

This epic journey left me wondering: What am I confident about? What is even worth being confident about? I have opinions. I have beliefs. I have books that have given me information and studies that have given me data. But what am I truly, 100% unswervingly confident about?

When I really think about it, when I really dig down deep in my soul, I have to admit that a lot of what I confidently proclaim may very well be false. People, very smart people, used to think the world was flat. Others thought the planets revolved around the earth and believed it enough to put Galileo in jail when he claimed otherwise. And on and on I could go giving examples of confidently stated beliefs that were ultimately proved false. 

I don’t even need to go back through history for examples. Turning on the TV is enough to prove the point. Every news channel has educated people with impressive resumes arguing different sides of every issue. Whether it’s meteorologists incorrectly predicting the weather or political pundits wrongly anticipating voting results, again and again we see that you don’t have to be correct to be confident. 

And, let’s be honest, I could also say the same things about many churches. Calm down and hear me out. One church is convinced that baptism requires full immersion. Another claims sprinkling is better. Both are full of Jesus-loving people who have read the Bible, some of them in the original languages. (I could continue with more examples, but I want to avoid any nasty comments, so I’ll stop there.) As my husband says, “All churches are 70% correct in their theology. It’s the 30% that we’re endlessly arguing about.”

So all of this has left me wondering, “What am I truly confident about?” Here’s what I have so far:

  1. God is love. The Bible is a love story between God and God’s beloved creation. Every story of forgiven sinners and sought-after fishermen and abundantly blessed nomads shines brightly with the great love of God. The God who creates life, gives freedom, and sacrifices everything to save us from ourselves. 

My life also speaks of this truth. I’ve felt God’s love, known God’s love, and seen God’s love in action. The love of God has strengthened me, held me, comforted me, and kept me safe. I am confident that God loves me and you and every other person on this planet. 

God’s abundant love flows from my heart to the world around me. I show my allegiance to the God of love by loving others. They should know we are Christians by our love – not by our rules or stances or controversies.

  1. God is here. God’s presence permeates everything. It’s most obvious to me in nature. A flower in bloom displays God’s love of beauty and attention to detail. A mighty oak tree shows God’s strength and power. A cooling breeze tells of God’s gentleness just like the rising sun speaks of God’s faithfulness.

It’s harder to discern God’s presence in the dark, ugly places of this world. When death, disease, and decay move into our lives, it can seem impossible to find God there. In those moments, you can’t feel or see or experience God’s loving presence. Often it’s only in hindsight that you realize the loving arms of God were right there supporting you all along. 

Knowing that God is with me right here and now puts my whole life into perspective.  I can turn to God for help any time I need it. I can be a detective of grace, searching for God in my daily life. As Mother Teresa said, I can even look for God’s presence in “the distressing disguise of the poor.” 

I could go through the Nicene Creed and tell you all the other things I believe about God. I could open the Bible and show you all the verses I cling to about God. But honestly, it is those two truths that I am most confident about. It is those two truths that I orient my life around. It is those two truths that guide my decisions and shape my days. 

God is love. God is here. That is what I strive to speak confidently about to a world so desperately in need of God’s loving presence – from Dar es Salaam to Dubai to wherever else I may go.

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

Most nights, I barrel towards bedtime like an exhausted marathoner yearning for the finish line. Each item on my to-do list is like a mile marker that I’m eager to check off as I keep moving forward. And once I’ve checked off 24 or more, I can finally rest.

The one time I actually ran a full marathon, all I wanted to do at the end was sit and breathe and be grateful and amazed that I survived. But in my daily marathon, I tend to spend those precious moments before I turn off the light in much less purposeful and intentional pursuits. I’ll be honest, bedtime is when the bulk of my screen time minutes get used up. The doom scroll catches me, and my tired mind is lulled into complacency by the never-ending ribbon of beautiful babies, adorable pets, and enviable trips of my social media friends.

I often feel vaguely guilty for the less-than-admirable ways that I use the final moments of each day. I’ve read enough self-help books to know that this time could be very powerfully utilized to grow my gratitude, set the tone for the next day, and even inform what I dream about that night. And over the years, I’ve made many resolutions to use that time better. I’ll keep up the new habit for a few days, but inevitably, after a particularly hard or exhausting day, I throw in the towel. “I deserve to rest! This is my time! I want to be done with responsibilities for today!” are the thoughts that run through my mind as I pick up my phone, and begin, once again, to scroll.

Now there’s really nothing wrong with this. It’s not a sin. And sometimes looking at funny things on the phone can be a helpful way to let my mind relax and ease into sleep. So I’m not saying that the act of being on my phone at night is a problem in and of itself. This isn’t a call to feel guilty or pressure to be perfect. This is just a realization that scrolling on my phone at night usually leads to less sleep and scrolling through social media almost always leads to less contentment. 

Simply put, I feel better when I use my phone less so I’m often searching for ways to curb my screen time. I’ve tried many methods to cut down on my nighttime phone use: keeping the phone out of my room, turning my phone off an hour before bed, making strict screen time limits for myself. I’ve tackled this issue from the negative more times than I can count.

But the only time I really enjoyed and found strength and encouragement in my nighttime routine was when I learned about the examen. This is a prayer practice taught by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and it’s practiced in Jesuit spirituality. It is a simple prayer routine that yields rich fruit. 

The examen is a review of your day, a time to reflect on what happened and discover how God was at work in your world. So often our days fly by at jet speed; the examen is a way to slow things down and pay attention.

Here are the five steps of the examen:

1. Give thanks

Gratitude is a superpower. We all have access to it, but it is very easy to ignore. So, I love that the examen starts with giving thanks. This is a moment to pause, breathe deeply, and thank God for whatever pops into your mind.

2. Ask for light

Now ask God to guide your thoughts during this time of prayer. Imagine the light of God’s love shining on you right now. Then pray that God would illuminate how He was at work in, through, and around you today.

3. Examine the day

Let your day play like a movie in your mind. See yourself waking up and moving through all your daily activities. If a moment grabs your attention, stay with it for a while. Trust that God will reveal what He wants to teach you about that event. Maybe the Holy Spirit will prompt you to ask for forgiveness, give thanks again, or pray for the strength to make a different choice tomorrow. Soak in whatever lessons God brings you during this time.

4. Seek forgiveness

If your reflections revealed a sin– ask for forgiveness. Remember that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

5. Resolve to change

After reviewing today, what is one way you could make tomorrow better? End your prayer time by asking for God’s help and guidance for the next 24 hours.

We just passed the halfway mark of this year. I find that this time of year is a good point to evaluate and reset my goals and priorities for the next six months. My second half of the year resolution is to reincorporate the examen into my nighttime routine. I’m excited to see how God will use this simple prayer practice to strengthen, encourage, lead, and guide me. 

Love the One in Front of You

 

She clutches the leaves to her chest while eyeing me warily. The fact that she sees me every day has not lessened her fear. But her grandmother’s bright eager smile and enthusiastic wave more than offset the toddler’s reaction. Greeting this sweet family has become the best part of my morning walks.

I recently traded the busy, all-consuming work of a medical missionary for the quieter life of a stay-at-home writer. My days used to be filled with sick people in need of healing, and the demands always outweighed my time. But since moving back to the US and trading in my stethoscope for a laptop, the entire rhythm of my world has been turned upside down. I now go days without seeing people unless I force myself out of the house. Thus, my twice daily walks.

The little girl and her grandmother are from China. The only word in English that they know is “hello.” But something in the way that her grandmother beams and throws her whole arm into waving at me makes me feel loved and happy and hopeful. After a few weeks of daily greetings, I finally put my missionary skills to use and learned some words in Chinese. The shocked look on the grandmother’s face when I said, “Nǐ hǎo” was the highlight of my whole week.

Some days they’re the only people outside of my family that I talk to face-to-face. And we only know a few words of each other’s language. But somehow it’s enough. Somehow we let smiles and waves and laughter fill the distance between us.

The little girl is slowly warming to me. I always look forward to seeing what she’ll be collecting that day. Sometimes it’s rocks, other times it’s sticks, and leaves are always an old faithful. Once she even cornered a cat. Placing both hands on her knees, she leaned forward to investigate, her eyes wide with wonder. It is there in those small interactions that I find joy and connection and even God.

Sometimes I struggle with feeling like my new life here in America is not as important to God as my old life in Tanzania. Is writing books as worthy of a calling as saving lives? Am I doing enough good in the world? Is God disappointed in me? Am I disappointed in me?

Then I remember Mother Teresa’s advice to love the one in front of you. All of the amazing, self-sacrificial, sainthood-worthy things that she did were born of small moments of great love. I may not be in India, picking beggars up off the streets, but I can love the one in front of me. I may not be dispensing medicine or performing operations, but I can wave at a little girl and her grandma. I may not do all the godliest things, but I can trust that the desire to please God does, in fact, please God.

That last line is from a prayer that has been a lifeline for me as I’ve struggled with more questions than answers. It is written by the great Thomas Merton. And I figure that if he dealt with doubt, fear, confusion, and a lack of conviction, then it’s okay that I do too.

I hope his words minister to you deeply:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Wherever you are in the world today and whatever work you are doing, I hope you know that God sees you. God looks on you like a loving Father, not a disappointed boss or strict teacher. God is smiling on you, his beloved child, and waving with great joy when you turn toward him.

Changing Seasons

My husband’s eczema causes his skin to crack and peel when the seasons change. As the weather cools and the heaters blast, his skin sheds. Then again when summer comes, the process repeats itself. Over and over, year after year, the cycle continues. 

In our five years of marriage, I’ve seen my husband react to this inevitable occurrence in two different ways. Either he plans for it, stocking up on lotion and treating his skin with extra care. Or he complains about it, picking at his imperfections and wishing that God had made him some other way. 

With an outsider’s perfect perspective, it’s easy to watch this unfold and wonder why he doesn’t just prepare for this twice-yearly event. How could it ever take him by surprise?

I pondered this as I lay in bed this morning, feeling guilty about my lack of motivation to get up and seize the day. The hustle and bustle of the holidays are over, and I feel wrung out and ready for a nap. I wish I weren’t this way. I wish I thrived on activity and was full of vim and vigor for the New Year. So I complained about it, picking at my imperfections and wishing that God had made me some other way. 

Maybe you can relate. Is there something about yourself that you wish were different? Do you crash up against your limitations and complain bitterly about their very existence? Are there certain seasons that seem to highlight those shortcomings or specific times in the calendar that are inevitably clouded with sadness? 

Perhaps it’s the anniversary of losing a loved one or the melancholy that descends around your birthday or the cyclical frustration with holiday weight gain. You find yourself caught up in a season of struggle and wonder what you did wrong to land in that place again. Then you look back over how many times you’ve fallen into that same rut and grow weary thinking about the inevitability of it all. 

If so, you’re not alone. And you might take comfort in knowing that this is not a new phenomenon. Over 400 years before Jesus, this complaint was recorded:

“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go… The sun rises and the sun sets… The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes… All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full… All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

If someone posted this as their Facebook status, I’d probably just roll my eyes and think, “How dramatic!” But knowing that it’s in the Bible (Ecclesiastes 1:1-9) makes me examine it again. And the more that I read it, the more I admire how the author of Ecclesiastes holds nothing back. He even seems to sink more and more deeply into his frustrations. The subtitles in the first two chapters say it all:

Wisdom is Meaningless
Pleasures are Meaningless
Wisdom and Folly are Meaningless
Toil is Meaningless

I’m guessing the author didn’t deal with the cultural expectation that faithful people should have it all together and radiate with the joy of the Lord at all times. He seems under no compunction to tie a happy, godly bow around the terrible things that he sees or the low feelings he’s experiencing. 

When I’m in a low season, I find a lot of comfort in Ecclesiastes. Each time I read it, I remember that it’s okay to feel like this. It’s okay to complain about life, pick at life’s imperfections, and wish that God had made this life some other way. Solomon did it, why can’t I?

But then I keep reading. When I reach Chapter 3, I am so relieved to find the subtitle: A Time for Everything. The song starts playing in my head, but I politely turn down the music. I need this ancient wisdom. I long to understand it, believe it, and live it. So I read it slowly, trying to soak it in verse by verse:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

(I take a deep breath)

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

(I take a deeper breath)

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

(My shoulders start to relax)

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up,

(I begin to accept these truths)

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak.

Then I get to verse 11 and am reminded that

God has made everything beautiful in its time. 

This ancient wisdom releases me from the pressure to rush through the low seasons in search of the high ones. They remind me that where I am, who I am, and how I feel are quite all right. And they point me to the One who is big enough to hold all of those seasons in His hands. The Unchangeable One, whose mercies are new every day. The One who is with me and for me yesterday, today, and forever. The Eternal One who makes things beautiful and gives my life meaning.

Jesus, Take the Phone

My phone wouldn’t send a text message. It wouldn’t make a call. It wouldn’t even let me get online. And it had the audacity to continue not working even after I used the fail-safe method that cures all technology: turning my phone on and off again.

So I put my cell phone aside for the night. I’d already scrolled past 100 updates from 100 of my least favorite acquaintances. I guess I could go to bed an hour early, and it wouldn’t hurt too much. I figured the malady would surely be resolved by the morning– just another technological blip to annoy me.

Panic set in when my phone still wasn’t working the next day. Panic turned to anger after one online chat representative transferred me to another who kept telling me I needed to call the customer service line. How many times could I remind them that I didn’t have a working phone?

My shoulders were up by my ears, my jaw was clenched, and a barrage of ungrateful thoughts was running through my head . . . all aimed at the hapless employee who was absolutely not at fault for my non-working phone but had become an easy target for my frustration. I found myself apologizing, backpedaling, and stopping myself from treating this flesh-and-blood person as if she were as she appeared to me at that moment – three blinking dots on my computer screen.

The rest of the saga included borrowing a phone, 33 minutes on hold, four transfers, and two dropped calls. In the end, the phone company said they would send me a replacement part, which would take three business days to arrive. And today was Friday.

How would I survive?

I lost count of how many times I mindlessly picked up my phone and opened my email tab. When did life get so boring? Even though I had plenty to do, I was itching for my next fix. I needed a photo of a friend from junior high whom I haven’t seen in person for over 20 years. I was desperate to know what her lunch looked like! And surely I was missing out on all of the salient political points and religious insights being shared across all of my social media platforms. I felt so out of the loop! There was a whole world going on online, and I had been cut out of it. I felt like a 13-year-old who got uninvited to the sleepover.

These kinds of delays, breakdowns, and miscommunications were a normal part of my life when I lived overseas. I anticipated and accepted them as part of our crazy missional journey. I could even bring some curiosity into those experiences, wondering what they would reveal to me about the culture. But since returning to the U.S., my frustration fuse has shrunk. I want everything to work perfectly the first time, and I’m much less patient with my fellow Americans than I was with my Tanzanian friends because I’m always in a rush.

Case in point: within my first week of being home, I was using Google Maps, and an alert came across the screen letting me know that a better route was available. It could save me a whole three minutes! I literally laughed out loud at the ridiculous notion that getting there three minutes faster would matter. But it only took a few months before I was caught up once again in our go, go, go culture and happily accepting spare minutes anywhere I could find them.

Right before we returned to the U.S., God had started nudging me to cultivate silence in my life. So over the last 2 years, I’ve learned about meditation and contemplative prayer and found great solace in spending 10 minutes each morning soaking in God’s presence. But my recent phone-induced panic showed me that God now wanted to work on how I was filling the rest of my 23 hours and 50 minutes. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, the notifications on my phone and all of the apps and information it offered were filling my brain with far too much noise.

Technology is only part of this. Living on mission in any country can get real noisy real fast. There are always more demands for our attention and more problems to be solved than time to solve them. Like the insistent beeping of my phone, my desire to meet the endless needs of a hurting world around me can quickly wear me out and exhaust me if I’m not continually returning to God’s presence.

God has challenged me to give an honest accounting of how I spend my time. I’ve realized that whenever I had a free second, I was unconsciously reaching for my phone to fill the gap. It was easier to spend a few moments distracted by other people’s lives or witty memes than to reconnect with God’s presence or go to heaven in prayer or take a moment to say thank you. I had been enjoying my 10 minutes of quiet but not allowing the fruit of that time to spill over into the rest of my day.

So I asked for God’s forgiveness. I uninstalled some apps, put screen time limits on my phone, and asked for the Holy Spirit to intervene and turn my attention back to God when technology or anything else tries to steal it away. It’s a process of learning and unlearning. I’m hoping for progress and releasing any demands for perfection.

And I’m praying – Jesus, take the phone.


 

 

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.