Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

God’s Underground Work March 31, 2012

Filed under: Spring — Stephanie Rische @ 2:43 pm
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When I was living in my first place after college, I made the rather impulsive decision one Sunday afternoon to buy a package of daffodil bulbs. It was only after I arrived home that I realized I didn’t have anything even closely resembling a shovel. But by that point I was determined to make the bulb-planting happen. Today.

So I pulled out an old knife and thought, How hard can this be? As it turned out, digging 12 inches into the dirt might as well have been muscling to the center of the earth when you’re using a dull kitchen blade. By the time I was ready to drop the final bulb in the ground, my arms were aching and my knees and hands were caked with dirt, but I was feeling pretty satisfied.

Then I took my first real look at the brown, dead-looking thing in my palm. I’d seen plenty of daffodils in the past, and presumably they’d all started out this way, but suddenly I was assailed by doubts. How could something that looked like a rotting turnip be transformed into a sunny, yellow flower? But with a shrug I put the last bulb in the dirt and went inside to retire the now-worthless knife.

I promptly forgot about my little gardening experiment…until the next April. One day I looked out my back window, and to my surprise, a small but tenacious sprout was trying to poke its head out of the cold, unforgiving earth.

Isn’t that a picture of what God does with our lives too? To a casual observer, we look dead, ugly, hopeless. But God doesn’t give up on us. During those seasons when we’re all but buried, when it looks like Satan has won after all—that’s precisely when God does his best redemptive work. He uses those months under the cover of soil to build us up, make us strong, prepare us for who he wants us to be.

And when the first hint of spring arrives, we will stick out our heads, tentatively at first, and then with increasing boldness. As our faces open to the Son, he will transform us. From despair to hope. From death to new life.

And we, turnipy-looking things that we are, will be a tangible display of his glorious grace.


On Lollipops and Intercession March 27, 2012

Filed under: Numbers — Stephanie Rische @ 7:58 am
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The other day I had the privilege of seeing Hannah, one of my favorite six-year-olds. She and her mom and I were together for a girls’ day out, and as always, Hannah delighted me with her joy for life—telling me her latest knock-knock jokes, impressing me with the new words she knew how to spell, and catching me up on all the big first grade news that had happened since I saw her last.

I’ll never forget six year ago when Hannah’s mom, one of my dear friends, called me after she got her ultrasound results. “Guess what we’re having?” she asked me with that trademark mischief in her voice.

I was confident: “A girl!”

“Yes . . .” There was an, er, pregnant pause.

And a boy! We’re having twins!

Aside from their tow-headedness, Hannah and Josiah are as different as can be—she loves to read; he loves to build things. She likes to play princess; he likes to play engineer. But you couldn’t find a pair of siblings more loyal than these two.

We were at the store together, and Hannah’s mom let her choose a movie to buy. After carefully scanning the options, she opted for a case covered in pink glitter and hugged it to her chest. We were headed to the checkout line when Hannah paused mid-step. “Mom, I can’t get this one,” she said, her eyes wide. “I don’t think Josiah would like this one.” She promptly returned the movie to the shelf and made a more boy-friendly selection.

I raised my eyebrows and looked at my friend, impressed. Most first-grade princesses I know would rub their brother’s nose in such a victory and never look back.

“She’s always watching out for her brother,” Hannah’s mom told me. “Whenever we go to the bank and get a lollipop, she makes sure to get one for her brother too. She never wants him to miss out on something.”

Just a few days later, I read the account of Moses and his siblings in the book of Numbers. Apparently Aaron and Miriam were razzing him about his choice of a wife (Numbers 12:1-2). God was none too happy about their whining, and he struck Moses’ sister with a skin disease.

Moses’ response fascinates me: he didn’t act justified; he didn’t say, “I told you so.” Instead, he responded with the grace of intercession. He begged God on behalf of the sister who just moments earlier had been giving him grief: “Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘O God, I beg you, please heal her!’” (Numbers 12:13).

When my brothers and sisters in Christ are in trouble, what’s my response? Do I think, Well, they got what was coming to them? Or do I step in before our Father and intercede on their behalf?

In other words, will I be content with my own lollipop, or will I humble myself to beg for one on my sibling’s behalf as well?

I hope someday I’ll be a little more like Hannah.

I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.


God’s Gracious Smile March 23, 2012

Filed under: Numbers — Stephanie Rische @ 3:53 pm
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In my job as an editor, one of my biggest joys is receiving notes from readers and hearing how a certain book touched them. Of all the notes I’ve gotten over the years, though, there’s one that especially stands out.

The e-mail came to me from a 10-year-old girl who had just finished reading a children’s fiction series about a girl and her horse:

I used to think God was too busy to ever think about us, and the only times he did was when he was mad about something. And I thought he was just always frowning at us, so I never really talked to him. I didn’t understand what it meant in the Bible when it says you’re supposed to fear God.


Young as she is, this girl articulated what so many of us, deep down, fear is true—that when God looks at us, his face is screwed up in a frown. He sees all our shortcomings and failures, and he wishes we’d be a little smarter, a little more well-behaved, a little more spiritual. Even if we acknowledge that at some level he’s obligated to love us, we picture him as distant or at least mildly dissatisfied with us.

Then the girl goes on:

But then I read these books and I realized I was wrong. Especially when I read how Ellie pictured God smiling. Since then I’ve thought about him smiling about different things, and I talk to him a lot. Anyway I just wanted to tell you that and thank you very much for the books.


In the book of Numbers, Aaron gets instructions about his duties as a priest. This role was especially significant in the Old Testament because the priest wasn’t just the spiritual leader; he was God’s representative to the people. The priest was charged with showing them, in a sense, what God looked like. So when the Lord revealed the blessing Aaron should give the people, it wasn’t just some nice, poetic-sounding language. It was a picture of God’s very face.

May the LORD bless you
and protect you.
May the LORD smile on you
and be gracious to you.
May the LORD show you his favor
and give you his peace.
—Numbers 6:24-26

When I read this verse, I can’t help but think of another 10-year-old. Me. As a kid, I was sensitive with a side of drama, so I often felt like going to school was some kind of epic battle. I feared that I wouldn’t fit in, that someone would make fun of me, that I’d fall short somehow.

But every morning my mom served as my own Aaron. She’d wait at the bus stop each day and recite the priestly blessing over my brother and me: “May the Lord bless you and keep you….May the Lord smile on you….”

No matter what battles might be waiting for me that day, there was something I could cling to that would make it all bearable: I knew what God’s face looked like. He wasn’t frowning; he was smiling.

And he was smiling on me.

I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.


Grace on the Streets of Bangkok March 20, 2012

Filed under: Leviticus — Stephanie Rische @ 8:06 am
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Jubilee. The word itself sounds like a party on the tongue.

This celebration is spelled out in the book of Leviticus: once the Israelites entered the Promised Land, every fifty years all debts would be forgiven, all slaves would be released, and there would be “freedom throughout the land for all who live there” (Leviticus 25:10). That year would be set apart as holy, and no work was to be done on the land for an entire year.

I can just imagine servants checking days off on a calendar, longing for the year of Jubilee, when their time of captivity would finally be over. Since the Jubilee came just twice in a century, most people probably experienced only one in a lifetime. Maybe the younger generation heard rumblings about the previous celebration and looked forward to the next one with great anticipation, half wondering if it was too good to be true.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a slave desperately longing for freedom. But I once got a glimpse of something similar through the eyes of a young woman on the streets of Bangkok.

I was on a short-term trip to Thailand, working with an organization that helps free women from the sex industry in Bangkok’s red-light district. Our group’s ultimate goal was to connect women to the ministry and let them know another way of life was available to them.

We did that by buying women out for the night so they wouldn’t have to work. For the equivalent of $20 in US currency, the woman (or in most cases, young girl) would be free to go home and just be a human being, with no pressure to belong to another person for the evening.

I’ll never forget the look on Buk’s face when our group bought her out the first night we were there. She kept trying to figure out what the catch was, what our hidden agenda was. Surely this was too good to be true. But when we finally got through to her that we’d paid her bar fee simply because we wanted to show her God’s love—because we, too, had been set free, redeemed—her smile was so bright it dimmed the garish neon lights of the strip.

I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words then, but I know now what I was seeing. Buk’s face told her own tale of Jubilee, if only for one night.

I don’t know where Buk is today, but I pray that one day she will experience permanent Jubilee—the eternal freedom we can experience knowing that Jesus paid the fee—for all of us.

I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.


God as Party Planner March 16, 2012

Filed under: Leviticus — Stephanie Rische @ 8:09 am
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When I think of my favorite family memories, I’m struck by how many of them revolve around holiday traditions. My siblings and I are grown up now (chronologically speaking), but we hold as tightly as ever to those old nostalgic habits whenever a holiday rolls around.

There’s the annual Turkey Bowl football game, played by three generations of family members; the “midnight moonlight walk” every Christmas Eve, when we get bundled up for a hike in the woods, whatever the weather; the New Year’s Eve time capsule, where we make outlandish predictions for the year ahead; and of course the egg-cracking contest that happens around the table at Easter brunch, complete with brackets and elimination rounds.

As I was making my way through Leviticus, with all its rules about sacrificial offerings, clean and unclean foods, purification rites, and even regulations about mold, I have to admit my eyes were glazing over a bit. So I was sufficiently taken off guard when I hit Leviticus 23. In the midst of all the talk of laws and consequences, God had another command for his people: declare a national holiday! (Seven, for that matter.)

It’s easy for me to think of God (especially as he appears in the Old Testament) as a rule maker, an enforcer, a judge. But a party planner? Hardly.

As I reflected on the celebration instructions God gave his people, it occurred to me that he knows we aren’t made to work nonstop, going through the motions day in and day out. He also knows that left to our own devices, we’ll just keep trudging along in the everyday, not taking the time to pause and appreciate the things he’s done and the people he’s placed around us. So he encourages us—no, commands us—to celebrate.

The word celebrate is used six times in one chapter: “Celebrate,” God tells his people. “Celebrate each year”; “be careful to celebrate”; “celebrate with joy” (Leviticus 23).

I’m not sure God had family football specifically in mind, but I do think he envisioned the memories, the laughter, the connections that occur when families and friends gather together.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’d best get to work on organizing the bracket for that egg-cracking contest in a few weeks….

I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.


Counterintuitive Washing March 13, 2012

Filed under: Leviticus — Stephanie Rische @ 4:51 pm
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One of my pet peeves about winter in the Midwest is the salty cars. Specifically, my salty car. (Yes, I know it’s currently 70 degrees outside, but I haven’t quite made it to the carwash yet.) At any rate, it isn’t uncommon for me, about halfway through the workday, to look down and realize my black pants have inadvertently brushed against my dirty car.

As someone who grew up with all the glories and messes of the four seasons, it isn’t hard for me to relate to a certain aspect of the regulations about sacrifices described in Leviticus: the idea that once something clean touches something unclean, the once clean object or person is now defiled (Leviticus 5:2-3).

I’ve been around long enough to know that when a mud-splattered puppy bolts through the living room, it’s not the freshly vacuumed carpet that rubs off on the dog; rather, the rug takes on the dirt and grime. When a kid falls onto the grass in his brand-new pants, it’s the pants that get the stain, not the other way around. And it’s not that different with sin, I suppose. If sin so much as sneezes in my direction (whether I’m seeking it out or not), I know I’ll get its tainting effects on me.

So as I read God’s instructions to the priests about the impure making the pure dirty, it made sense to me. That’s just the way our world works. But I stopped in my tracks when I got to this part: “Anyone or anything that touches these offerings will become holy” (Leviticus 6:18).  Now this doesn’t jive with my understanding of the world. How could touching something pure cleanse something that was dirty?

That is, I suppose, the counterintuitive nature of grace.

Thankfully, we no longer live under the system of animal sacrifices. But it is much the same for us today. When I come into contact with Jesus, the pure and perfect Sacrifice, he isn’t tainted by my uncleanness, my sin. Instead, I am made clean and whole by touching him. It’s only then that I can stand confidently before a holy God.

My soul’s own carwash. Spot free.

I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.


The Gift of Presence March 9, 2012

Filed under: Exodus — Stephanie Rische @ 12:51 pm
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Today marks a dubious anniversary in my life. On this date last year, I was flat on my back, having just received a one-word explanation for why I felt like I’d been run over by a Mack truck: mono.

It had been a whirlwind of a month leading up to the diagnosis. Within the span of just a few weeks, the man of my dreams put a sparkly thing on my finger and asked me to marry him; I went on a cruise with my future in-laws; and shortly thereafter I hopped into a minivan with my family for a cross-country trip to meet my new nephew. All this while in the throes of planning a wedding scheduled for less than six months away. It’s little wonder, I suppose, that I found myself unable to get out of bed one morning not long after the whirlwind subsided.

One of the worst parts about the mono (aside from the fire in my throat and the relentless teasing about how I’d contracted “the kissing disease”) was the solitary nature of it. I couldn’t go to work; I didn’t want to contaminate my friends and family; and based on the swollen state of my adenoids, even talking on the phone sounded like torture. With a warning from the doctor about a six-week recovery time, suffice it say I was feeling pretty lonely.

Enter Prince Charming.

Daniel faithfully came over to my house when I was sick, bearing gifts of throat spray, Tylenol, chicken noodle soup, and ice cream (purely for medicinal throat-soothing purposes, of course). But the best gift he gave me was his presence.

I was poor company, and I knew it. One glance at my unshowered self in the mirror, complete with my manic hair and sweatpants-of-the-week, and I wondered if this fiancé of mine was going to take back that thing he’d said about “the rest of our lives.”

But that’s not what happened. Daniel looked at me, having sacrificed his other plans for the evening to sit on the couch beside a girl with little energy and fewer coherent thoughts, and said one of the most wonderful sentences ever uttered. “I know you don’t feel beautiful right now,” he told me. “But you have never looked more beautiful to me than you do right now.”

When the Israelites were on the long road from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, they had plenty of needs—basics like food, water, and physical safety. But they also had a need for something deeper from God: his company.

Once the thrill of freedom wore off, I’m sure it didn’t take long for them to panic and realize they were in the middle of the desert and didn’t exactly have a map to show them where they were going. They didn’t just need physical supplies; they needed God to sit with them, even when they were mopey and unshowered and in general just lousy company. They needed the comfort of God’s presence.

This need was reflected in Moses’ prayer for his people: “O Lord, if it is true that I have found favor with you, then please travel with us. Yes, this is a stubborn and rebellious people, but please forgive our iniquity and our sins. Claim us as your own special possession” (Exodus 34:9).

And that’s just what God gave them—in the form of a cloud by day a pillar of fire by night. That gift wasn’t so different from the gift I received in my sweatpantsed-state. It’s the gift of love. It’s the gift of presence.


I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.


The God of the Detour March 6, 2012

Filed under: Exodus — Stephanie Rische @ 12:27 pm
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Over the years I’ve presented God with a number of scripts for my life, largely fleshed out and filled with contingency plans where necessary, just waiting for his stamp of approval. What with him being so busy running the universe and all, I figured I was doing him a favor.

To date, God hasn’t followed a single one of those scripts.

He has unceremoniously scrapped my plans about my career trajectory, where I was going to live, and notably my marriage/children timeline. As I look back on the pattern of God’s work in my life, I notice a distinct pattern: I always ask for the straight line, the shortcut. And he, almost without exception, takes me the long way around.

When the Israelites were set free from their slavery in Egypt, I’m guessing they, too, assumed they’d go right from point A to point B, with no detours along the way. After all, God had just performed ten miracles in the form of dramatic plagues, and now he’d promised them a land of their own. Surely he’d take them straight there, right?

But here’s what the Bible says:

When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land. God said, “If the people are faced with a battle, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led them in a roundabout way through the wilderness toward the Red Sea. Thus the Israelites left Egypt like an army ready for battle.
—Exodus 13:17-18

As it turned out, the “roundabout way” wasn’t something God did to his people out of spite. It was, without question, an act of grace. He used the detours to protect the Israelites and to build their character along the way.

In retrospect, I’m grateful God hasn’t accepted my life plans. In each scenario, he knew I wasn’t ready for point B yet. There was still some work he wanted to do inside me before I could make it in that new destination. And looking back now, I know that if I’d taken the shortcuts, I’d have missed out on some of the richest parts of my life.

So, God of the Detour, I hand over all my scripts to you. Let me embrace not just the Promised Land you’re leading me to but also the roundabout way you’re taking me to get there.

I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.


On Silk Parachutes and Wedding Gowns March 2, 2012

Filed under: Family — Stephanie Rische @ 7:57 am
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My grandma and grandpa just celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary. More than six decades ago, they got married in a simple ceremony on a Tuesday morning—just as soon as they could after Grandpa returned from the war.

I’ve long admired the photograph of my grandmother, beautiful and wide-eyed in her elegant silk gown. But it wasn’t until recently that I heard the story of the dress.

Apparently, since silk was needed overseas for the war effort, it was an extremely hard to come by in the 1940s. But my grandmother, spunky woman that she is, remained undeterred as she planned her wedding. She wrote a letter to her fiancé—my grandfather—requesting that he send a used parachute from Europe so she could have it made into a dress.

Sure enough, the package of white silk arrived, and under the seamstress’s deft fingertips, the object that was once a symbol of war and tragedy was transformed into something new and beautiful.

Nothing would erase the things Grandpa experienced in the war—the deaths he felt responsible for, the buddies who didn’t make it, the missions he shouldn’t have returned from. And nothing would take away the pain of Grandma’s years of waiting as she worried and prayed over his safe return.

God didn’t magically take all that pain away. But somehow all those memories got stitched together into the fabric of the silk parachute as they began their new life together. The token of what had separated them was transformed into a resplendent dress, now a tangible sign of their love.

Isn’t that what God does too? He takes the cross—the ultimate object of sin and punishment and death—and transforms it into a symbol of hope and reconciliation and new life. He takes our tragedies and failures—the very things that once separated us from him—and transforms them into a beautiful garment for us to wear. A garment he calls grace.

Note: After my grandmother wore this dress, she handed it down to her daughter and then her granddaughter for them to wear at their own weddings. For more about this story, including photos of the dress over the next two generations, check out the write-up in the Daily Herald.