Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

Wherever You Go… April 27, 2012

Filed under: Ruth — Stephanie Rische @ 7:58 pm
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When my friend Anna and I were in college, a girl in our dorm shaved her head completely bald, sparked by some kind of dare or bet. This prompted a game of sorts among the girls in our suite: “What would it take for you to buzz your head?” We’d offer various tantalizing scenarios—a new car, a lifetime supply of dark chocolate, the payoff of all college loans, a cool grand in cash. All of us were pretty willing to sell out, if reluctantly. All except Anna.

Anna is one of the least vain people I know, but she does prize her long hair—not just because it’s one of her trademark physical features, but also because she sees it as a symbol of her femininity. And so, no matter what tempting offers were placed on the table, Anna would never agree to a head shaving, even in the realm of the hypothetical.

Almost a decade ago, Anna married Mike, who was one of three boys in his family. Her mother-in-law, Barb, was happy to have another woman in the family, and she took Anna in as if she were her own daughter. Over the years, Anna and Barb bonded over their mutual love for Mike, as well as a shared faith and a common interest in taking walks and planning holidays together. And then came along three of the true delights of Barb’s life: the grandchildren Anna and Mike have given her.

Last fall Barb retired from her job, and she was looking forward to spending more time on the lake with her husband and playing with her grandkids. Around the holidays she wasn’t feeling well, and she figured it was just a virus. But as the months went on and she still didn’t feel like herself, she finally decided it was time to go to the doctor.

It wasn’t a virus.

“A tumor,” the doctor said. “The size of a cantaloupe.”

And then the word she dreaded but knew was coming: cancer. Stage 3.

* * *

I’ve always loved the little book of Ruth, tucked between books of history and law the Old Testament. As I read the Bible chronologically, this story especially comes as a breath of fresh air, falling as it does in the midst of the hopeless cycles of disobedience, violence, and despair recounted in the book of Judges.

After Ruth’s husband dies, her mother-in-law tells her that she doesn’t have to stick with her, that she should go back to her people and find another husband. But Ruth responds with a striking display of compassion and loyalty:

“Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”

Ruth 1:16-17

* * *

When it was time for Barb to go to the doctor, she claimed she’d be “just fine” on her own. But Anna was resolute that she not go alone, and finally Barb allowed Anna to accompany her while she got her chemo treatments. Don’t ask me to leave you. When Barb didn’t care to have visitors after a particularly difficult treatment, it was Anna who insisted on bringing over a chicken casserole. Wherever you go, I will go. And when her hair started falling out in clumps and she decided it was time to shave it off, it was Anna who did the honors.

The word ruth isn’t commonly used in our vernacular, though its opposite (ruthless) is more familiar. According to Webster, ruth is defined as “compassion for the misery of another.”

True ruth, I would contend, is inherently an act of grace. It’s not about what’s in it for me. It’s about extending compassion to someone who’s in pain, someone who most likely can’t pay back this favor. It’s choosing to stick beside someone even at great cost to oneself.

Wherever you go, I will go.

Even if that journey involves a number 4 razor.

***

Question: Who is your Ruth?

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.

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My Tangled Mess April 25, 2012

Filed under: Judges — Stephanie Rische @ 5:32 pm
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When I was in junior high my family adopted the most adorable yellow lab puppy named Molly. Her only downside (aside from her propensity to steal the sponge off the counter and incite a chase) was her aggravating habit of getting herself tangled into a royal mess when we tied her up to go outside. She was still small enough to slide through the slats of the porch railing, but she failed to recognize the ramifications of such a pastime when tethered.

Inevitably Molly would weave back and forth through the railing slats, blissfully going her own way…until the moment she literally got to the end of her rope. At that point she’d let out the most pitiful whimper you’ve ever heard, begging us to rescue her. We did, all the while admonishing her about common sense and how to avoid such entanglements in the future.

But day after day it was the same: She’d get stuck. She’d whine for help. Ad we’d rescue her. And then the cycle would start all over again the next time we let her out.

As I read the book of Judges, I feel like I’m stuck in a similar cycle. The same pattern repeats itself time after time, for 21 chapters. The people go their own way, utterly forgetting about God. When things get bad enough, they finally call out to him for help. Yet over and over again, God shows them underserved kindness and rescues them. Then as soon as things are going well, they turn their backs on God and do their own thing again.

Whenever the LORD raised up a judge over Israel, he was with that judge and rescued the people from their enemies throughout the judge’s lifetime. For the LORD took pity on his people, who were burdened by oppression and suffering. But when the judge died, the people returned to their corrupt ways, behaving worse than those who had lived before them.
—Judges 2:18-19

 

As much as I’d like to think such cyclical problems are reserved for ancient people and puppies, I have to admit I’m the same way. I have a tendency to go my own way, and it’s only when I’ve run out of other options that I’m desperate enough to cry out to God.

Eventually Molly grew out of her rope-tangling habits, if only because she was too big to fit through the railing slats any longer. I hope that I’ll grow up eventually too—that one day I’ll be mature enough to walk consistently with him instead of putting myself through cycle after tireless cycle.

But for now, I stand amazed at his endless patience and grace. Thank you, God, for unraveling me and my tangled mess. And thank you for doing it over and over again.

 

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.

 

My Own Scarlet Letter April 23, 2012

Filed under: Joshua — Stephanie Rische @ 5:39 pm
Tags: , ,

Don’t tell my high school literature teacher, but I’ve always thought Nathaniel Hawthorne was a little over the top when it came to symbolism. Come on, Nate, a bright red letter A over Hester’s heart? Did we really need the literary two-by-four?

But then, several years ago, I found myself in a well-to-do church in Bangkok, receiving scathing glares for being in the company of a couple of Hester Prynnes, and I felt the sting of the scarlet letter in a more personal way. Suddenly the big red A no longer seemed excessive.

After being on the streets of Thailand’s red-light district for a week as part of a short-term trip, our group had befriended several women who were trapped in the sex industry there. We invited Gun and Kim to attend a local church with us, and to my surprise, they agreed to meet us there on Sunday.

As a group of Westerners, we would have stood out like the proverbial bull in the china shop anyway. (As hard as we tried to keep our voices down, we couldn’t shake the “loud American” stereotype.) But when we showed up with several women from the streets, all eyes in the sanctuary turned conspicuously on us. I’m no expert on Thai etiquette, but I could tell immediately that our friends weren’t quite dressed in what the congregation would consider “Sunday’s best.”

As we got looks ranging from disgust to pity to judgment, I found myself experiencing conflicting emotions: first, a sense of indignation—an almost maternal protectiveness for these women I’d grown to love. Women who desperately needed love, acceptance, grace. But almost as quickly, to my shame, I felt a wave of defensiveness wash over me. I’m not one of them! I wanted to explain. I’m a good Christian, just like you!

I imagine the prostitute Rahab must have felt marked too when the Israelite spies were in her neighborhood, scouting out potential property for the Promised Land. She may not have had a literal letter on her clothing, but no doubt everyone knew who she was and felt no qualms about condemning her.

But here’s where Scripture surprises me. Although Rahab may have had the sketchiest reputation in town, she and her family were the only ones to be saved when the Israelite army besieged the city. The sign she was given—the mark to indicate to the soldiers that they should spare her home—was a red cord.

Here were her instructions:
You must leave this scarlet rope hanging from the window through which you let us down. And all your family members—your father, mother, brothers, and all your relatives—must be here inside the house.

—Joshua 2:18

In the span of a day, Rahab’s life was turned inside out. She went from bearing a symbol of shame to being marked with the red symbol of salvation. And that scarlet thread didn’t just spare her own family: this former prostitute was woven into the lineage of David and eventually the Messiah himself (Matthew 1:5).

Somewhere about halfway through the church service, as my mind wandered amid a sea of unfamiliar words, it hit me: I am one of “them.” I am a sinner, with a glaring red S over my heart. And I am in desperate need of grace.

There is good news for Gun and Kim, and there is good news for me. We no longer have to be defined by the scarlet mark of our sin. Because of Christ, we can hang the scarlet cord of salvation out our window, and we, too, will be saved.

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 Everlasting Arms April 17, 2012

Filed under: Deuteronomy — Stephanie Rische @ 8:01 am
Tags: ,

Early in our relationship, my now-husband and I bonded over a common enemy: the red-winged blackbird. (Clearly, we were meant to be.)

We were walking and chatting together on the bike path when we discovered that in recent months both of us had been dive-bombed by said birds (without any provocation our part, I might add). Daniel had been riding his bicycle and I was out for a jog, and apparently both of us got a little too close to Mama Blackbird’s nest. That’s when militant squawking ensued and there was some talon-to-head contact.

Daniel handled things with his trademark unflappable calm, proceeding to simply ride faster and outpace the bird. I wish I could say the same for myself, but all the rush-hour commuters who witnessed my full-body flailing at the corner of Route 25 might tell you otherwise.

Perhaps my bad experience with birds has tainted my view, but I have to admit I was a little surprised to find God compared to a bird several times in the book of Deuteronomy. God as a lion? No problem. A lamb? I can work with that. But a bird?

In Deuteronomy 32:11 we see God described as carrying us on his wings:

 

Like an eagle that rouses her chicks
and hovers over her young,
so he spread his wings to take them up
and carried them safely on his pinions.

The next chapter paints a similar image of God soaring across the skies as we fly tandem with him. All the while he’s driving out the enemy that’s out to get us:

There is no one like the God of Israel.
He rides across the heavens to help you,
across the skies in majestic splendor.
The eternal God is your refuge,
and his everlasting arms are under you.
He drives out the enemy before you;
he cries out, “Destroy them!”
—Deuteronomy 33:26-27

 

And suddenly I see the red-winged blackbird scenario from another angle. What if, instead of the one being dive-bombed, I were one of the babies in the nest?

I have to admit that, personal biases aside, birds must be some of the most graceful animals—soaring, as they do, almost effortlessly through the sky. But when their little ones are in danger, watch out, because nothing is going to get in their way.

Gratefully our God has both these sides to his own character. He rides across the heavens in majestic splendor, but at the same time, when his children are in trouble, he doesn’t hesitate to drive out the enemy before them.

Every time I see a bird soaring through the sky, may it remind me of those everlasting arms that are under me. Those arms that are both graceful and protective.

But in the meantime, I’m not taking any chances: you’ll find me on a different jogging trail from now on.

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.

 

Grandma’s Prayer April 13, 2012

Filed under: Gratitude — Stephanie Rische @ 7:54 am
Tags: , ,

“Grandma, how can we pray for you?” I asked.

For the 40 days of Lent, my husband, Daniel, and I did an experiment of sorts, and each day leading up to Easter we prayed for a different friend or family member.

I was especially curious what my grandma would request prayer for. She’s in pretty remarkable health, physically and mentally, considering she’s almost 90. But even so, she no doubt has her share of aches and pains she might want relief from. Or, I figured, she might ask for prayer for Grandpa, whose health has been gradually declining in recent years. On top of that, she has 12 children, more grandchildren than I can keep track of, and even some great-grandchildren now. There were plenty of items she could have ticked off for a prayer list.

But after a pause, she surprised me with her response. “You know,” she said, “I’ve spent most of my life petitioning God for things. But at this stage in my life, I find I have just one prayer left.”

I held my breath, waiting for some profound spiritual insight.

“I just want to say thank you.”

I knew phone etiquette compelled me to say something, but an unswallowable lump had lodged itself in my throat.

Grandma broke the silence. “God has been so faithful to us. It’s easy to forget all the beautiful things he has done,” she said. “I’ve spent so much time asking. Now it’s time to be thanking.”

The day Daniel and I chose to pray for Grandma and Grandpa fell less than a week later. That day Grandma found herself by Grandpa’s side in a hospital room. It was “just” the flu, but in his weakened condition, the doctors were concerned. He was dehydrated, and his white blood cell count was alarmingly low.

I confess that my mind was distracted as we prayed: Would Grandma change her request if she’d known what was coming? I wondered. Does she regret not asking for protection, for healing, for a physical miracle? What good is thankfulness, after all, when you’re sitting beside the hospital bed of someone you love?

But I know Grandma better than that. No doubt she was sitting by Grandpa’s side offering prayers of thanksgiving even at that moment. Thanking God for giving her this man in the first place. Thanking him for the 66 good years they’d had together. Thanking him for being God, even now.

I hope I can learn that kind of graceful praying someday. And with a model like the one I have, I hope I won’t have to wait until I’m 88.

 

***

Question: What can you say thank you for today?

 

Home, Gracious Home April 10, 2012

Filed under: Deuteronomy — Stephanie Rische @ 4:49 pm
Tags: , ,

If ever a man had a right to feel homeless, it was Moses.

After being adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter as an infant, he spent most of his childhood separated from his family, his people, his culture. Then, as a young man, Moses was exiled out of Egypt and found himself setting up camp in yet another strange land. He was, without question, “a foreigner in a foreign land” (Exodus 2:22).

After God got Moses’ attention in the form of a spontaneously combusting bush, Moses headed back to Egypt. But this was no nostalgic journey back to the homeland. Instead, he was there to do a jailbreak of sorts for his fellow Israelites, who were living as slaves under the harsh rule of the Egyptians.

Once they’d made their break from Egypt, Moses again found himself homeless. But this time he wasn’t the only one without a forwarding address. He was in charge of several thousand people who quickly expressed their displeasure at their lack of four walls. For 40 years, they wandered through the wilderness, longing for a permanent place to call home.

Perhaps that’s why the opening lines of Psalm 90 hit me so powerfully, knowing they were penned by this reluctant vagrant:

Lord, through all the generations
you have been our home!
Before the mountains were born,
before you gave birth to the earth and the world,
from beginning to end, you are God.
—Psalm 90:1-2

When I was in my early 20s I bought a place of my own, and let’s just say it fell into the “has potential” category. When I arrived on the day of the closing, I was shocked to discover that the family who lived there hadn’t packed the majority of their things yet. I wasn’t even able to get into the house until five hours after the agreed-upon time. Complicating matters, I’d closed on my old place the same day, so everything needed to be unloaded that night.

At one moment, looking around at the filthy condo, still cluttered with the previous owners’ abandoned belongings, I despaired that this place would never feel like home. I took a breath and went from room to room, trying to size up what I was up against.

My despair melted into humility and gratitude at what I saw. When I peeked into the bathroom, I noticed my aunt, her sleeves rolled up, scrubbing the upstairs toilet. Two of my friends were in the guest room, unloading box after box of books (and never once complaining about the ridiculous book-to-person ratio). My mom’s head was deep in the oven, muscling off a decade of grime and grease. My dad was carrying my fold-out couch up the stairs—the one that was so heavy he’d previously sworn he’d never move it again. My uncle was removing garbage bags full of trash left by the old owners. Another friend was on her way to get dinner for the whole crew.

In that moment, I had a revelation. Home is not found in a place; it’s found in relationship. Even if I had nowhere to lay my head that night, I had home. It was written all over the faces of these people who loved me.

At the end of his life, Moses was instructed by God to climb Mount Nebo. From there God showed him the Promised Land—the home his people had been longing for so many years. The Israelites would be able to enter, but Moses would only get to see it from afar (Deuteronomy 32:48-52).

It seems heartbreaking to me, even a touch unfair, that this servant of God who had led the people so faithfully for decades wouldn’t be able to settle into this long-awaited homeland himself.

But Moses knew better. He’d already discovered his true home.

Eventually my condo did feel like home, thanks to the people who graced me on moving day and the ensuing days thereafter.

But I hope I never forget that home, real home, is more than a mailing address.

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 Burden of Love April 5, 2012

Filed under: Lent — Stephanie Rische @ 12:26 pm
Tags: , ,

During Lent this year, my husband and I have embarked on a 40-day adventure of sorts. Initially we went through the list of things we might give up, as tradition would dictate. But this year, to our surprise, we felt compelled in a different direction—to the discipline of adding something to our daily routine instead of taking something away.

And so, during this countdown to Easter, we decided to pray for one friend or family member each day. We asked 40 people how we could specifically pray for their needs on the date set aside for them.

These were all people we knew well, and we figured we were pretty much up to speed on what was happening in their lives. But as the e-mails and calls started rolling in, something unanticipated took place. All at once we were given an invitation to go deeper into their stories, their hurts. Something about this simple invitation—“How can we pray for you?”—cracked open a sacred place between us. A place of sharing real life with one another.

One by one we logged the requests:

• The mother who just days earlier had received the diagnosis: Stage 3 cancer. A tumor the size of cantaloupe.
• The woman who recently got stationed at an army base on the other side of the world and feels so alone.
• The young husband who needs a job to provide for his wife and unborn baby.
• The girl whose father is mentally ill and is desperate to feel God’s Father-love for her.
• The couple who is grieving the baby they never got to meet.
• The man whose wife of 50-plus years is slipping away from him in the grip of Alzheimer’s.
• The older brother who is begging for God’s intervention on behalf of his prodigal brother.
• The aging parents who worry about how to care for their special needs son as their health declines.

According to the Gospel accounts, several women were there with Jesus on the first Good Friday, as he walked that long, arduous road to the cross. The Via Dolorosa, it’s called—“the Way of Suffering.” From a practical standpoint, there wasn’t much these women could do. They couldn’t carry Jesus’ cross, they couldn’t stop his pain, they couldn’t prevent the blow that awaited him at Calvary.

According to tradition, Jesus’ mother and Veronica, among others, walked this road with Jesus, wiping sweat from his face, mourning and wailing for him. They walked with him because they loved him. They walked with him to show him he wasn’t alone during his darkest hour.

Over the past 40 days, some of our prayers have been answered; others have been met with conspicuous silence. But along the way, something unexpected, mysterious, has transpired. I’m not sure I can put my finger on it exactly, there has been a shift in my soul.

As we’ve walked this journey alongside these people we love, we’ve experienced the unexpected blessing of sharing their burdens, their hurts, their crosses. We may not be able to remove their suffering or change what they’re going through, but there are small things we can do. Like wiping their brow. And reminding them that they’re not alone.

When one of our friends sent us his prayer request, he added this note at the end: “I hope, no matter what blessing and grace you seek for others, you yourselves receive grace and blessing from sharing God’s heart and the burden of love.”

He was more right than we possibly could have understood at the time. As we approach Good Friday, the most surprising discovery has not what we’ve given but what we’ve received.

Somehow in the process of trying to extend love, it has splashed back on us instead.