Refuge

In July, I began a new Bible reading plan.

I had finished school a month earlier and felt a little ungrounded. The last three years, much of my life and schedule had revolved around course deadlines and research projects. I was disoriented and sought a routine or practice that would help me find my way. At the beginning of July, we had a family reunion. As people shared memories of Grandpa and Grandma Derksen, their practice of daily Scripture reading and prayer was frequently mentioned. A couple weeks later, Mike and I went to Ohio to visit his family. I went to Grandma Robertson’s house to pick her up and saw her Bible laying open on the table. Grandpa and Grandma Robertson also had a practice of daily Scripture reading and prayer, which Grandma continues by herself.

I have spent countless hours reading Scripture throughout my adult life. I have followed various Bible reading plans and study methods. Sometimes I have focused on a few verses, sometimes on whole books. A lot of times, my efforts have been ambitious, like the time I read the Bible in 100 days. And, a lot of times, the goal has been smaller, like a verse a day. But in between these things, I have struggled to create a sustainable rhythm. Reminiscing about the faith and habits of my grandparents and Mike’s grandparents, I longed for something similar in my own life.

So I pulled a 1-year chronological Bible off the shelf and started reading it on July 24. Each day, I read the daily portion of Scripture, plus a Proverb (the chapter corresponding to the day of the month), and a Psalm (or 2 or 3 or 5, depending on the length, available time, and how much I specifically crave God’s word that day). I try to do this first thing in the morning, but it’s okay if I fit it in later. Some days, I read more than the daily portion of the 1-year Bible because I overlook the page markings. That’s okay.

This practice is both sustaining and sustainable. These are things I desperately need in my life, now and always. There is a comfort and stability that comes from devoting time and thought and energy to opening up God’s word each day. Some days, new insights jump out and grab my attention. Some days, it feels familiar and dependable. Either way, I know the regular habit is good for me. And today, the Scripture selection coincided with my personal calendar in a way that I could not have coordinated on my own, even with my best efforts.

—–

In Numbers 35, God is in the middle of giving instructions to Moses for the nation of Israel. We refer to this collectively as “the law”. There are cleanliness guidelines, instructions for sacrifices and offerings, rules about land ownership, and provisions for the poor and foreigners. The priests came from the tribe of Levi. Because the Levites were to be devoted to serving in the tabernacle, they were not to be farmers and shepherds like the rest of the tribes. God designated 42 cities for the Levites to inhabit. Six of these cities were to be “cities of refuge”.

These six cities shall be for refuge for the sons of Israel, and for the alien and for the sojourner among them; that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there. Numbers 35:15

Under the law, the general principle was “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life”. Taking the life of another resulted in losing one’s own life. The blood avenger would put the perpetrator to death. But there was a distinction between those who acted out of hate and those who did not act out of malice. For the latter, they were instructed to flee to the city of refuge for their protection awaiting trial before the congregation. If they were found to have unintentionally taken another’s life, they were to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, when they could return to their own land. These instructions were repeated in Deuteronomy 19 in the second giving of the law and again in Joshua 20, when Israel was preparing to finally enter the Promised Land.

In the middle of the law, which we often think of as weighty and overbearing rules to follow, is a striking picture of mercy and grace.

—-

Thirteen years ago today, I killed someone. And I permanently and seriously injured another person. Unintentionally, of course. But my actions (or more specifically, failure of action) ended the life of one person and dramatically altered the life of another. Criminal and civil charges were filed against me. I sought forgiveness from the family. I paid restitution. I looked for other ways to right the wrong I had done to others. But I, myself, had been broken. Most days, it felt like I was irreparably broken. The next couple years were painful in so many ways. I didn’t know who I was, because someone who could end the life of another, intended or not, did not fit into the image I had of myself or everything I wanted to be. I was disoriented and unstable.

My friends and family gathered around me and offered prayers and words of encouragement. I know those words were spoken with love and concern and the best of intentions, but they often felt distant and out of reach. The words lacked substance or something to hold on to. The words sounded to my ears like they were for someone else, for something different than my situation. They didn’t fit.

But in the Old Testament, in Numbers and Deuteronomy and Joshua, in the Old Covenant, there were six cities of refuge.

refuge

[ref-yooj]

noun

  1. shelter or protection from danger, trouble, etc.: to take refuge from a storm.
  1. a place of shelter, protection, or safety.
  2. anything to which one has recourse for aid, relief, or escape.

dictionary.com

There was shelter – for me.

There was protection – for me.

There was safety – for me.

There was relief – for me.

These words were something I could plant my feet on. Not all at once, of course. But when I felt ungrounded or disoriented, I could stretch out and touch it with my toes to see if it was really there. Over time, I started being able to put some weight on it. Slowly, tentatively. I had to learn how to crawl and then stand and then walk upright in this new place of safety. And thirteen years later, I am mostly grounded in it. Some days feel a little wobbly and off balance. But this city of refuge is a place where I can return to regain my footing.

—–

This morning, as I followed the example of generations before me with a practice to keep me grounded, and by the grace of God in working all things for good, I am reminded that I am safe because the God of Israel set aside six cities of refuge.

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Who Decides

One of my childhood dreams was to be a writer. I used “dream” instead of “ambition” because it was not something I took very seriously then. I joined the Young Author’s Club at school and wrote a few short stories when I was young. All four years of high school, I had one semester of writing with Mrs. Dean . That was my favorite class, and she was my favorite teacher. Outside of school, I rarely wrote.

The idea of writing has nagged at me a handful of times in the 20+ years since I sat at the computer in Mrs. Dean’s classroom. But even though my husband and a few others have more recently encouraged me, I still have not really done anything with it. Inside of me, however, that dream has been taking root.

I spent countless hours in the last 3 years working on finishing my bachelor’s degree, and that has been my excuse for not writing (besides class papers and an honors thesis and a research project, of course). I will be continuing on to graduate school, but I have a year to wait. Over the last few months, as the end of school was in sight, I started thinking that I could spend this in between time writing. I listed it in my 2017 goals. I registered for a Christian writer’s conference this fall. I shared my plans with a couple close friends.

In the two weeks since I turned in my last school assignment, I have written “write” on my to-do list almost every day. I would have been happy with only a journal entry, although regular blogging would be better. It’s only been two weeks, which is so small in the timeline of my life, but I keep crossing it off the list (not as “finished”, but as “nah, not gonna do that”). I blame busyness, but it is fear.

Fear holds me back.

I’m afraid of a lot of things, but a random comment on someone else’s blog about the weight of responsibility and humility for writers and other public figures sums up a big chunk of my fear.

I am not an author or blogger and God knows that the world of social media doesn’t need one more. I sometimes struggle with the multitude of Christians who seem to be craving an enormous influence with people that they will probably never even know this side of eternity.

Ouch.

Every time I think of a reason I should write, I also think of a reason I shouldn’t. Feeling like there are already so many writers goes under the latter. Discerning which reasons are fact and which are fiction, which are meaningful and which are bogus, is work. It’s hard work that involves God seeking and soul searching. I don’t have any answers, at least not definitive ones. But I know my heart tugs at me to write.

I don’t know what kind of writer I am or what kind of writer I will be. Maybe I will write a book. Maybe two. Maybe with a fancy publishing house. Maybe self-published. Maybe I will become famous. Maybe I will only have a blog with 3 regular readers (my husband and my mom being 2 of them). But I know that, at least for right now, and at least for my own benefit, I need to write.

And a random person online who doesn’t think there is room for another writer in the world doesn’t get to decide that for me.

A Prayer for the President

When I first heard that Trump was seriously considering seeking the Republican nomination, I had grave concerns about the possibility of him becoming President. I did not vote for him in the primary or in the general election. He’s been President of the United States for just over a week, and many of my fears are being confirmed. Part of that is because I strongly disagree with some, but not all, of his early actions and future agenda, especially with the way they are being implemented. Part of that is because I am deeply grieved by the tone of the national conversation surrounding his actions. I find myself avoiding all news articles because it seems like everything is strongly slanted one way or the other. I don’t know how to respond to anything because I am having trouble seeing clearly through all the fear and anger around me.

While I was praying last night, I opened up the Bible and came across Psalm 72. This prayer was from Solomon, when he was king of Israel. As I read it, I shifted thoughts to our current political situation and used it to form a prayer for the President. At first glance, it seems that the President’s agenda is at odds with everything King Solomon was seeking. I pray that his heart and mind will be changed.

I am going to pray this prayer daily for the next 30 days as I try to wrap my head around what is going on in the United States. Will you pray it with me?

A Prayer for President Trump

O God, give President Trump Your judgments and Your righteousness
May he judge the people with righteousness
And the afflicted with justice.

Let the mountains bring peace to the people,
And the hills, in righteousness.
May he vindicate the afflicted of the people,
Save the children of the needy
And crush the oppressor.

Let them fear You while the sun endures.
And as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he come down like rain upon the mown grass,
Like showers that water the earth.
In his days may the righteous flourish,
And abundance of peace till the moon is no more.

May he deliver the needy when they cry for help,
The afflicted also, and him who has no helper.
May he have compassion on the poor and needy,
And the lives of the needy he will save.
May he rescue their lives from oppression and violence,
And their blood be precious in his sight.

So may he live and prosper;
And let them pray for him continually;
Let them bless him all day long.

 

Permission

I was reading an entry in Shauna Niequist’s devotional Savor the other day entitled “Permission.” She talked about being worn out from all the activities and demands in her life and described several friends and family members telling her it was okay to let some things go. Being in a “worn out” phase recently, I sighed and thought, “Yes, I need permission from the people in my life to let some things go.”

That started a dangerous train of thought for me. I couldn’t imagine the people in my life giving me permission to back off on anything. I noticed a bit of envy seeping in that Shauna has such a supportive family when I feel like my family and others demand a lot from me. Then I felt of sprig of bitterness sprouting up toward those people. And the negativity kept going.

Then some things happened this week that shifted my thoughts.

The first draft of a literature review was due for my research project. I had been working on it for several months already, gathering sources, outlining the major points, and clarifying my thoughts. I had not actually started writing it though until this week. Some might have said this was due to procrastination. I would have argued that it was because I simply had not had time to devote to it. Then, when it came to the time I had scheduled to work on it, I simply couldn’t. I practiced brush lettering strokes. I cut my toenails. I eradicated the morning glories that were taking over a flower bed. I wrote out a schedule, hoping that if I could see how few hours I had left to work on it I would be able to focus on it. I just couldn’t. I was mentally and physically exhausted, and the work of writing, which normally is very easy for me, seemed impossible.

I also, as part of my anything-but-writing distractions, got involved in an discussion about mommy guilt and the standards we feel we need to meet in an online community that I have been part of for years. I typed out words of perspective and encouragement to moms of children much younger than than my kiddo about how they could decide not to stress about so many things because they are not very significant in the grand scheme. When their children are older, they will have much bigger battles to face, and they shouldn’t wear themselves out now. Some people appreciated my words. Some, not so much.

As I was thinking about that discussion, I realized how hollow my words felt to me. Not because I didn’t mean them, because I did. But because I was struck by how much time and energy I put into trying to meet the perceived needs and expectations and standards of others. Because I am exhausted and worn out right now because I fail to follow my own advice. Because I want to be known as the one who takes care of everyone and can do it all. Because I knew that a major factor in having such a difficult time writing my paper was because I felt like everything I was typing wasn’t as good as it could or should be. And I was paralyzed by it.

I looked at the time, 9: 30 p.m. on Thursday. Less than 21 hours until the paper was due, and I had to sleep and work all day during that time, too. I decided that it would have to be okay to fail. I sent an email to my professor telling her that I was going to be turning in what was probably the worst paper of my life. I was able to write then. I had to give myself permission to let go.

(To be fully transparent, I did end up taking off work Friday afternoon so I could actually finish the paper, even if it wasn’t what I wanted it to be–not because I needed a certain grade, but because turning in a completed first draft would make it easier for me later.)

Between the discussion on expectations and mommy guilt and my case of writer’s block, I realized that it isn’t other people that need to give me permission to let go. It’s me.

I’m the one who decides the expectations and standards I need to try to live up to. And no one else can do for me what I refuse to do for myself. I have to start by giving myself permission to let go.

If you’re tired and worn out, maybe you, too, need to give yourself permission to let go.

permission

The Moon

Between school deadlines, work demands, and some summer traveling, I’ve been running myself ragged the last few months. I decided that what I wanted for my birthday last week was some time to rest and recharge – by myself. I had exactly 37.5 hours, from Tuesday evening to Thursday morning, to be by myself at Kickapoo State Park.

My time alone was magical and refreshing and sacred. It was everything I hoped it would be and then some. I was looking forward to turning 39 on Thursday, believing that the number was just a number. The last year of my 30’s will not be spent filled with regrets over the past or feeling like my life is passed me by. Life is full and good.

Magical and refreshing and sacred, or it was until my sleep on the second night was interrupted by an urgent phone call that reminded me that my respite was only temporary. There was nothing I could do about the situation. I prayed and laid awake for awhile, trying to push aside all the worries that were threatening the peace of earlier that day. Sleep finally returned only to be interrupted by a text updating me on the earlier call. The worries that had been nagging me already were giving way to full-blown fear. I prayed. I sang. I recited Scripture. I prayed. I tried to remember all of the good things from my time alone, which only hours ago had felt warm and sweet but now felt cold and distant.

At 3 a.m., I went for a walk. I remembered from my last walk through the campground before going to bed, that the moon was big and bright.The sky was illuminated, despite the wee hours of the morning when it is usually the darkest, so I was sure it was beautiful right then, too. I had to walk a bit to get to a place where the view was not obscured by trees.

When I stepped into the full view of the moon, I couldn’t believe how incredibly beautiful it was. Big and bright and close. The actual full moon time was only a little over an hour later. I love the sky. I gaze at the sky a lot – during the day. I look at the moon sometimes. But I like sleep, so I usually miss out on these things. At the campground, with no streetlights or cars passing by, the moon was in full glory. It was breathtaking. I watched the moon for awhile, breathing the cool early morning air slowly and deeply, feeling the aching in my soul fade just a bit.

The moon, as gorgeous as it is, has no light of its own. The light we see is that which is reflected from the sun.

There was a smattering of clouds in the sky. As each one passed in front of the moon and blocked the reflection, the sky all around it still shone with its light. The cloud would pass, and the moon was exactly as it had been before. Even though it had been covered in darkness, it remained the same. When the wispy tails surrounded the moon, they appeared as iridescent swirls, making it even more beautiful.

I want to be like the moon, not shining with my own light, but reflecting the Light of the Son.

I want to be like the moon, unaffected by the clouds of darkness, not changing who I am because of present circumstances.

I admired the moon for a little longer and headed back to the camper to return to bed for the two hours I had left to sleep before re-entering my normal life.

I would like to be able to say that I woke up in that same frame of mind, but the day, even though it was my actual birthday, was filled with hard and heavy things. It certainly did not feel like a very happy birthday, a fact which pained me every time I read a birthday wish from friends and family. Honestly, I spent the day wishing I could go to bed, which I did at 8:35 p.m. Happy birthday to me.

The situation that came to my attention is still here. The clouds are more of the dark and stormy kind than the wispy ones I saw that night. The worries and the fear are looming close by, threatening to creep in.

But when I take a few moments to pause and contemplate, I see the moon shining bright, reflecting the Light. The clouds pass by, and the moon is unchanged.

I want to be like the moon.

 

Make the Days Count

Over the last few years, as part of my job, I’ve led groups of 5 or 6 employees at a time through The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. I pass out books to everyone at the beginning and assign reading. Then we meet weekly and discuss each habit. (I am well aware that many most of them don’t actually read the book. Being an avid reader, I don’t understand that, but I can accept it. I make sure to explain enough that they have a basic understanding, and we discuss it anyway.)

Habit 2 is “Begin with the end in mind,” which is one of my favorite habits to discuss. In the book, Covey introduces the habit by challenging readers to picture showing up at their own funeral someday and imagine what they would like people to say about them. The purpose is to help people clarify what is truly important to them and use those as guiding principles for decision making, both on a daily basis and long-term.

Last November, when I started describing this exercise, I looked across the table and had to pause. In that group was Larry, who had been first diagnosed with cancer 7 years prior and had been actively battling cancer for nearly 3 years.  This was not a hypothetical, many years down the road consideration. This was something that was actively on his mind.

Before that group started, Larry had joked with me that he would read the book if it was about fishing. I found a vintage Field & Stream cover photo online, printed it out and pasted it on the front. When I gave it to him, I told him that I had an extra special copy of the book just for him. The first time we met as a group, he looked at me in all seriousness and said, “You know, Mary, you can’t judge a book by its cover. This book doesn’t talk about fishing at all.”

He participated in the discussions each week, sharing stories about his wife, his sons, and his grandkids. He talked about the things that were important to him – doing his job well, his wife, his sons, his grandkids, restoring antique tractors, hunting and fishing. He played jokes on the others in our group.

A few weeks ago, Mike and I visited him in the hospital. We talked and laughed about tricks he used to play on his co-workers. He talked about how much he loved his job and he wanted to come back to work. He again talked about the things that were important to him – working hard and his family. He looked at me and said, “Mary, that book wasn’t about fishing, but I read it anyway. I thought it was pretty good.”

Yesterday, Mike and I attended his funeral.

Larry had asked his long-time friend and hunting buddy Gary to share some words that he wanted to make sure his wife, kids, and grandkids heard when he was no longer to say them himself. They were lovely words of gratitude and encouragement.

Gary also shared a few words of his own about their times together and the things that made Larry the kind of guy who will be terribly missed for many years to come. Gary said that he looked long and hard to come up with the perfect saying or poem or story to sum up Larry’s life. He came across the perfect one, which was perfect for two reasons. First was that it described Larry so well, and second was that it was short and sweet, which Larry would have liked.

“Don’t count the days, make the days count.” -Muhammad Ali

That’s what Larry did. Only 5 weeks ago, Larry was still debating whether or not he was going to retire at the end of this month when he was to turn 62. He worked until 4 weeks before his death. He only took off work for appointments and treatments as necessary. (He saved a few vacation days for fishing trips and tractor shows. He definitely wasn’t “all work and no play.”) He told me that he tried going to a cancer support group a few times, but he quit going because he felt like everyone wanted to talk about dying, but he was still alive so that’s what he was going to do. That’s what he did. He lived his life.

I could tell a dozen stories about how great a guy Larry was. I heard stories about him long before I met him because he and my brother Zach shared a love for tractors. Zach loved talking tractors with Larry, and I think Larry equally enjoyed talking tractors with Zach. My brother has some special needs, and I notice when people take the time to take an interest in him. Larry was one of those guys. At work, there are tales galore, all completely true, about him playing jokes on people – sending new employees on a hunt for a pallet stretcher, telling people they could make extra money by picking marshmallows off the marshmallow trees, convincing them that spray paint was boot waterproofing spray. He knew a lot about hydraulics and machines, and he would gladly share his knowledge. The one time I saw him truly be angry was when he felt like someone had disrespected one of his boys. His friend Gary said that he was one of those guys that leaves an impression on people, and I agree.

I think, though, that more than remembering him for a great guy, he would rather have people live the way he lived.

Figure out what’s important. Figure out what matters to you. And then just do it. Don’t wait for something better to come along. Don’t wait for the perfect situation. Don’t sit around worrying about the next bad thing to come. Just live. Live your life while you still have one.

don't count the days

Things I Do Because I Am Afraid

Last month, I wrote about the difficulty I was having deciding what Things I Do and Things I Don’t Do. In the back of my planner, I divided a page into two columns. I titled one “Things I Do” and one “Things I Don’t Do.” I’ve added a handful of things to each list.

If I were to sit down and write everything I currently do, it would be plenty long. It might look impressive to list everything, and I might feel good about being able to do so many different things with my life. But that would be missing the point. The point of this exercise is to make a conscious decision to spend the resources available to me on things that matter to me.

As I think of things that I do, I’ve been asking myself these questions:

  • Does this align with my values?
  • Is this an area of my gifts, talents and abilities?
  • Do I find enjoyment and a sense of meaning in this activity?

These questions have been helpful, but I think I need to add another one.

A couple months ago, I started to panic about my undergraduate plans. The degree program that I am in has a set schedule covering all of the specific requirements for a BS in Health Psychology. I already had a number of credits. I took a few classes through the local community college to pick up the math and science credits I was missing. The program allows you to write essays about lessons you’ve learned throughout your life on different topics, and I was planning on doing that for the 7 credits I was short for a bachelor’s degree.

But I am not planning on stopping with a bachelor’s degree. To achieve my goal, I need at least a master’s degree. I have a grad school program selected, and it has competitive admissions. I reviewed the grad school entrance requirements. My coursework is more than adequate, but I started to worry about the educational and professional references. I think I have great educational references, but I probably should have a better professional reference. I would love to have a reference from the field of social work, but who have I had enough contact with in recent years that could provide that?

The program requires prior human services experience via professional, volunteer, internship, or research. I have been involved in the foster care and adoption community for many years, but does that count? Has it been formal enough? What about organizing the Empowered to Connect simulcast the last two years? But that is really only event planning and didn’t involve creating educational material. Does it still count?

I talked to my academic advisor who said that some, but not all, graduate schools accept the credits for prior learning. Well, maybe I could take a couple more classes from the community college. I have more than enough upper level credits already, so they should be sufficient. I signed up for a 4-week summer class. But what about the “experience” part?

The department chair talked to me about a practicum possibility. That specific one wasn’t going to work for me, but that discussion sparked several ideas. Within a few days, I had a potential practicum/internship lined up. I was ecstatic! I would be get college credits, valuable experience working with seasoned professionals, and I would have a solid professional reference! This was going to be perfect.

Three days before my summer class was to begin, it was cancelled due to low enrollment. I was disappointed because I was truly looking forward to the course. I looked at class schedules. It isn’t going to be offered until next spring/summer, and I don’t want to wait that long to get this out of the way. So I signed up for another 4-week course that starts next week.

One week after my class was cancelled, I learned that the internship possibility fell through.

I was again disappointed.

After about 15 minutes of disappointment, I started trying to figure out other options for volunteer experiences for my grad school application.

I told my therapist about this the next time we met. When I started telling him my new plan, he interrupted and asked me why I was doing this. Basically, he told me that it was silly for me to try to fit in a volunteer experience on top of everything else I do at that moment. I disagreed but said I would consider it.

Here’s what I realized when stopped and considered it: I am trying to add more to my already fully schedule because I am afraid.

I’m afraid that I won’t be accepted to a specific program. I’m afraid that I will be told that I’m not qualified. I’m afraid that I will be told that I don’t know enough. I’m afraid that I will be told I’m not enough.

I let the department chair know that I would not be pursuing a practicum or internship.

I’m still afraid that I won’t get in to grad school. But I can’t make myself crazy(ier) trying.

Since then, I’ve noticed that a lot of things that I do are motivated by fear.

So here is the additional question, which might even be the most important one of them all.

What is my motivation? Is this motivated by fear?

If the answer is yes, then it should be listed under “Things I Don’t Do.”