Refuge Ranch | A Place to Belong

I seriously love my job as the Director here at Refuge.  It’s an amazing role that suits me well.  Each day at the Ranch looks different – which is great because I am not much for routine.   Some days I have the joy of working with the kids and horses we serve up close and personal, some days are spent meeting with potential donors, others are filled with stuffing envelopes and other mundane office work – and I love every bit of it.

Many, many of my days over the last 13 years have been filled with the most important task necessary for running any farm – moving manure.   In our extreme central Illinois humidity, in frigid, below zero temps, in the beautiful reds and golds of a midwestern Fall, and in the bright, warming days of Spring, one thing is constant at the Ranch.   Manure – and it has to be dealt with regularly to keep the Ranch clean and the horses healthy. 

Anyone who has owned or worked around horses knows that managing manure is always a problem.  What does one do with the daily output from a herd of 20 horses and a couple of cows?  Some people burn it, others put it in a manure spreader and use it to fertilize fields.   At Refuge, we compost it.   We take all of that manure and pile it in huge piles at the back of the ranch.  Then we let it sit.  Over time, by some miracle, a chemical reaction begins to take place.   With the right amounts of moisture and oxygen (we have to flip it with the tractor every now and then) and time, somehow all of that waste is magically converted into some of the richest, most nutrient dense earth you can find – refuse transformed into something valuable and life-giving.   What was undesirable now has tremendous value and we give it away – to farmers and gardeners, or anyone who is willing to take it off of our hands!   We have plenty – an unending supply – because manure is a constant here.

It sounds a little bit like life…maybe a lot like life, or a lot like my life anyway.  I’ve seen my fair share of crap.  Way more than I would like, and I suspect that a lot of other people feel the same – like they’ve had more than their fair share of unwanted waste dumped on their life.  But the composting bit, I’ve also found that to be true.  I have found that with the right amount of surrender and trust and more than a little patience, in the hands of the master Gardener, some sort of miraculous chemical reaction begins to take place.  

The soil of my heart and my life is still a long way from the rich, beautiful earth I would like it to be.   There are still rocks and thorns, patches of hard, cracked clay, and areas so overgrown and choked with weeds I am not even sure what’s back there.  The ground is littered with things, old and new, that threaten to keep it from producing anything good or useful – addictions, a promiscuous past, broken relationships, abuse, selfishness, busyness, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, pride – you know, just to scratch the surface.  But bit by laborious bit, in ways I could have never imagined, God has taken even the most painful, sinful, shameful, and unwanted seasons and is transforming them into rich soil that can grow beautiful things.   Fruits like love and joy, perseverance and faith, empathy and a testimony of hope for others who are still stuck in the…manure.

Refuge Ranch is one of those fruits.   My entire life, the enemy has targeted me with a particularly painful, tailor made arrow:  the lie that I don’t belong, that I will never belong.  If I could name one persistent, overshadowing emotion that has followed me through my life it would be loneliness.  I grew up the youngest of 4 siblings – by 13 years and I experienced much of my life as an only child.  School was always difficult for me.  Academically I did well, but socially I struggled.  I was gangly and awkward and completely unaware of how uncomfortable my intense personality made people feel.   In high school I bounced from peer group to peer group, always on the peripheral, willing to do just about anything to belong but never quite managing.

By the time I staggered into my early twenties, I was a single mom of 2 (beautiful children who are some of God’s greatest gifts to me), heavily partying and seeking belonging and fulfillment in every unhealthy way imaginable.   My life was completely out of control and it was in the midst of that chaos that God reached in and began to make everything new – began the composting process, if you will.

For me, there was no dramatic moment of conversion – no life changing sermon, no altar call or street preacher.  There was just a quiet moment of surrender.  One of my brothers had come to know Christ years earlier.  He saw past the hopeless wreck I had made of my life and he didn’t give up on me when most others had.   There was a silent prayer at his kitchen table one evening where I acknowledged that I had made an absolute mess of my life and while I wasn’t sure why God would even want it – it was His if He did.   

I knew what it was “supposed” to look like to be a Christian.  I also knew what my life looked like, and I knew those two things were completely incompatible.  I fully expected to fit in at church as well as I had fit everywhere else – which was not at all.   I equally expected a cargo load of judgment and condemnation.  Instead, what I found was a community unlike anything I had ever experienced.  Ultimately I found the kind of love and acceptance I had been desperate for my entire life.  Not the superficial kind where you finally feel like you’re “in” with the right people.  The kind of love that comes alongside.  The kind of love that  gets down in the mud with you…even though it’s some pretty nasty muck.   The kind of love that meets you relentlessly in the very depths of your gaping pain.  The kind that walks toward you rather than ducking the other way because that is just too much mess for another human to handle.   That community came alongside me and my kids and they loved us back to life.  It was the most tangible experience of Christ’s love that I have known on this earth.

I wish I could tell you that my path has been one beautiful trek up the mountain since then, but that could not be farther from the truth.  In fact, some of the deepest betrayals and pain I have experienced in my life have come in the 20 some years since I gave my life to Christ that night at my brother’s kitchen table.   I have continued to wrestle with besetting sin and pride.  I still wrestle with consequences of my past choices and sin.   But the people in that community of believers left an indelible mark on my life and a deep passion to be a catalyst for that same kind of community for others.  Community that makes a place for the very least, the most lost and broken, the needy and the abandoned – all of us, really.  Community that loves like Christ.

I don’t think we can fully get there this side of heaven.  Our enemy is real.  And he is hell bent on making sure we don’t find one moment of true belonging in this life or the next.  Those arrows still find their mark in me sometimes. That voice creeps in and tells me I don’t really fit.  Not in the church.  Not when I am still wrestling with sin and pride, not when I have gained so little ground, not when my marriage is struggling, or I am struggling as a parent or ministry leader.   I am still too much – and not enough.  But it’s different now.  It is different because I have experienced a taste of true belonging –  in Christ and with His people.   Its fulfillment may not come until the day I meet Jesus, but in the meantime, I plan to exhaust the rest of my life seeking to bring in the wounded and hurting, chasing down the ones in the margin, so they know no matter what they have done, no matter how far they have wandered or how lost they think they are, there is hope.  There is home.    There is a place to belong.

December 14, 2020

  1. Deb Marsaglia says:

    What a beautiful message!! We all struggle with acceptance in different ways. The devil is always trying to pull us in his path but with God’s strength, we can overcome his pull. You are an inspiration to many and we love you for being so open and honest.

    • Chris Daniels says:

      Deb, you are so right that we all struggle with acceptance! Thank you for being a part of the Ranch family and creating a space for others to belong!

  2. Bill & June Carroll says:

    The website looks great and you have done such an amazing job with Refuge Ranch. It seems like only a few years ago that you were trying to get it started.

    • Chris Daniels says:

      Thank you Bill & June! It DOES seem like only a few years ago. How has it been more than a decade?! You have both been such an encouragement over the years and I am so grateful for you!

  3. Becky Wheeler says:

    Thank you for risking, Chris! Your message is as relevant as it is beautiful. I, too, never felt like I belonged. (I suspect the enemy uses that on a lot!) My story is not that different from yours. Your honesty and vulnerability is your gift to others. They serve as a beacon in the darkness that’s so prevalent in this world! Bravo, friend!

    • Chris Daniels says:

      Becky, I just saw this reply! Thank you so much for your ongoing love and support for the Ranch and our mission. This encouraged my heart today!

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