Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

God the Romantic May 30, 2012

Filed under: Psalms — Stephanie Rische @ 8:12 am
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It was the longest my husband, Daniel, and I had been apart since we got married—approximately 61 hours (not that I was keeping track). I’d been out of town for work, and although the conference was well worth my while, by the time my coworker dropped me off at my car, I was ready to be heading home.

 

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I looked to my right and saw a guy on a bicycle. Wow, I thought, that looks a lot like Daniel’s bike. I checked to see if the light had changed, then glanced at the cyclist again. Hmm, he’s built a lot like Daniel too. I did a double take. Wait…that IS Daniel!

 

Sure enough, he had ridden the 20 miles from our home just so he could see me at the soonest possible moment. On a pragmatic level, it didn’t make much sense. All that time and energy could have been poured into something more productive, more practical. Something that would have offered a more tangible payoff than merely the look of shock and wonder on my face.

 

Once we got Daniel’s bicycle loaded in the back of my car and the decibel level of my squealing came to a decrescendo, we headed home together. The sun was just starting to set, and we were driving straight toward it. It was one of those skies you’d be hard pressed to describe with definable colors, even with the help of one of those 150-crayon Crayola boxes. The clouds out the passenger window were on fire with iridescent oranges and yellows. Straight ahead, rays of light were bursting through a curtain of purply clouds.

 

And in that moment I was reminded that, like Daniel, our Creator is a romantic. Sure, he made this world operational and scientifically coherent, but I appreciate that he also made it beautiful. Impractically so. He could have made a perfectly functional black-and-white world…one without sunsets and 20,000 varieties of daisies and 339 species of hummingbirds.

 

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
the moon and the stars you set in place—
what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them?
—Psalm 8:3-4

 

I have to wonder if God, too, delights in surprising us. He must figure it’s worth all the effort to create something so breathtaking that we are jolted out of our routine, forced to double-take, compelled to look at him with fresh eyes.

 

That night as our car rolled westward, I found myself amazed that the Creator-God, who could have been doing anything at all in our great big universe, would choose, in that moment, to be with “mere mortals” like us.

 

In the presence of such majesty, we can only join with David in his psalm of praise:

O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!

—Psalm 8:9

***

Question: What part of God’s creation causes you to do a double-take?

 

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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Songs of Lament May 25, 2012

Filed under: Psalms — Stephanie Rische @ 8:15 am
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As I’m reading the Psalms, one of my favorite things is how emotionally honest they are. David and the other psalm writers don’t whitewash their feelings—they put them out there, raw and “unspiritual” though they may be. Some psalms soar in choruses of joy; others pound out refrains of anger. And then there are the ones that are pretty much sobs put to paper.

 

At least 50 of the Psalms fall into that last category. These songs of anguish are frequently referred to as laments—cries of grief intended to go straight to the Lord’s ears. I recently heard this definition of a lament from Gregg DeMey, a pastor in Chicago: “To lament is to tell the difficult truth to someone who loves you in the hope that it will make a difference.”

Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in distress.
Tears blur my eyes.
My body and soul are withering away.
I am dying from grief;
my years are shortened by sadness.
—Psalm 31:9-10

 

How often do I get at least one of the pieces of that definition wrong? Sometimes I’m not transparent with God, and my prayer never gets past the surface to how I’m really feeling. Or maybe at times I tell him the difficult truth, but I don’t really think he cares. Or maybe, if I’m honest, I’m not convinced he can do anything about it.

 

One of the most fascinating aspects of these laments is the way they tend to make an emotional pivot before the psalm wraps up. Despair turns to hope. Fear turns to faith. Doubt turns to praise.

But I am trusting you, O Lord,
saying, “You are my God!”
My future is in your hands.
—Psalm 31:14-15

 

So how do we get to that crucial but? How can we turn the corner from lament to trust? I’m noticing a surprising trend in these laments: while they begin with I, they tend to land closer to we. When I’m hurting, my default is to shrink inward, turtle-like. But if these psalms are any indication, we need community to process pain.

Love the Lord, all you godly ones!…
Be strong and courageous,
all you who put your hope in the Lord!
—Psalm 31:23-24

 

Here’s a challenge for all of us in the week ahead: Let’s tell God the difficult truth. Knowing that he loves us. In the hope that it will make a difference. And let’s not do it alone.

 

***

Question: Which part of lament do you find the trickiest?

 

The Joy of “Again!” May 22, 2012

Filed under: 2 Samuel,Psalms — Stephanie Rische @ 8:06 am
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“I can’t go to sleep, Daddy,” Lyla said. “My heart is crying.”

My brother and his family were on vacation in Florida, and he’d gone in to check on my three-year-old niece, who was supposed to be napping.

He put his hand on the top of her head. “Why is your heart crying?”

“My heart wants to go in the water. It won’t stop crying until it can go swimming again.”

Never mind the fact that she’d been splashing in the pool all day yesterday, she’d been out the entire morning that day, and tomorrow would be more of the same. Her little heart never tired of this bliss. Again, Daddy!

I have to confess that at this point I’m getting a bit bogged down in my chronological reading. Yes, I love the fact that the psalms are right next to the events that inspired them, and David has enough drama to put Days of Our Lives to shame. The part that’s getting to me is the repetition.

Ever since I hit the book of 2 Samuel, I’ve been getting waves of scriptural déjà vu. About halfway through my daily readings, I find myself stopping to wonder, Didn’t I just read that? And then I realize I’m getting the story a second time, this time from the 1 Chronicles perspective.

I wish I could say I jump at the chance to ingest these truths a second time around, soaking them in over my cup of coffee, but that’s not how things typically pan out. I find myself skimming the repeated sections, my mind wandering toward my ever-lurking to-do list. My sense of efficiency takes offense at such repetition.

 

But my brother’s story stops me short. Is this what it means to have a childlike faith? To be a child, after all, is to love repetition, to be fully present in the moment. To be a child is to beg your father, “Again! Again!”

G. K. Chesterton poses the idea that children may be onto something spiritual in their love of repetition:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, Do it again; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough….It is possible that God says every morning, Do it again, to the sun; and every evening, Do it again, to the moon. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

I just read David’s song of praise twice—once from 2 Samuel and once from the Psalms. But this time when I got to the repeated bits, I tried to approach them like a child—with delight in the repetition.

I will praise you among the nations;
I will sing praises to your name. . . .
You show unfailing love to your anointed,
to David and all his descendants forever.
—2 Samuel 22:50-51

I will praise you among the nations;
I will sing praises to your name. . . .
You show unfailing love to your anointed,
to David and all his descendants forever.
—Psalm 18:49-50

May I take my cue from little Lyla: Again, Daddy! Again!

***

 

Question: What do the little people in your life teach you about childlike faith?

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.

 

Four Feet Off the Ground May 18, 2012

Filed under: 2 Samuel,Psalms — Stephanie Rische @ 4:43 pm
Tags: , ,

My first summer job as a teenager was as a gymnastics coach at the YMCA. I was in charge of the Beginners class, which ranged from four-year-olds in pint-sized leotards to junior high girls who had watched the Summer Olympics and been inspired by the likes of Shannon Miller and Kerri Strug.

Invariably the girls were enamored with the tumbling mats and the uneven bars. They loved somersaulting and cartwheeling to their hearts’ content, and they delighted in swinging on the bars. But there was a consistent nemesis for these budding gymnasts: the balance beam.

I couldn’t blame them. Here they were supposed to walk on a four-inch slab of wood four feet off the ground—and most of their heads didn’t even reach the top of the beam! But the fact remained: if they were going to pass the class and advance to the next level, they’d have to make it from one end of the beam to the other. All by themselves.

I’ll never forget the five-year-old twins in my class: tow-headed girls named Zoe and Chloe. Chloe had successfully completed each requisite for the class and had her certificate proudly in hand, marking her promotion to Advanced Beginners. But her blue eyes got big when a realization struck: her sister hadn’t walked the beam yet.

My progression for teaching this particular skill went like this: first, I’d have the girls walk on a line on the floor to show them that four inches was wider than they thought. Then when each girl got up on the beam, I’d keep pace alongside her, holding her hand each step of the way. When I was confident the gymnast was ready, I’d send her on her first solo attempt.

Zoe had the skills to conquer the balance beam, and she knew exactly what she needed to do. But she was facing an obstacle more daunting than the four-foot apparatus in front of her: a mental one. As soon as I’d let go of her hand, she’d look at the ground below, and all she could think about was how far she had to fall. But here’s the thing about walking four feet above the ground: if you want to make it to your destination, you have to keep your eyes up. Otherwise you’ll lose balance, perspective. And that’s when you’re destined to fall.

Reading the account of David’s affair with Bathsheba is a bit like watching those Olympic gymnasts on the balance beam. You hold your breath, knowing a misstep could result in the catastrophic loss of everything they’d worked so hard to achieve.

Perhaps the worst part about David’s story is how oblivious he was to his fall at first. Despite his status as a man after God’s own heart, he didn’t confess straight away—not after Bathsheba turned up pregnant, not after he received word that Uriah had been killed on the front lines of battle. It wasn’t until the prophet Nathan confronted him, boldly calling him on his sin (2 Samuel 12), that he finally broke down and repented.

His heartbreaking cry for mercy is recorded in Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
—Psalm 51:1-2

As humans we have a tendency to embrace a cheap imitation of grace, interpreting it as an excuse to brush off sin or downplay its consequences. But Scripture presents a clear pattern: repentance and godly sorrow first, then mercy.

On the last day of the gymnastics class, I looked at Zoe. “Okay, kiddo,” I said. “Today is your day.”

She got onto the beam, her little knees knocking. Then, instead of standing beside her, I went to the far end of the balance beam. “Keep your head up,” I told her. “Just look at me.” Step by step she inched forward, her eyes never leaving mine.

There are times we need friends who will walk beside us and urge us along. But there are other times we need a coach who will boldly tell us to lift our eyes off the ground so we can walk the straight and narrow. Sometimes the most grace-invoking thing a friend can do is confront us.

In this precarious walk called life, we all need a Nathan.

***

 

Question: Do you have a Nathan? If not, who can you invite to be your Nathan?

 

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.

 

 

Eating with the Enemy May 15, 2012

Filed under: 2 Samuel — Stephanie Rische @ 4:54 pm
Tags: , ,

One of the stories my family likes to tell on me is the Crotchety Old Man on the Bike Path incident. You might hear various renditions and or embellishments depending on the source, but the basic version goes like this:

 

The five of us were taking a family bike ride along the Mississippi River, with our 70-pound dog in tow in the baby Burley. (I realize this is not normal.) About halfway into our ride, we approached a clearing that looked like the perfect spot to skip rocks and let the dog out for a swim. There were houses on one side of the bike path, which we steered clear of, but the land on the river-side of the path appeared to be common property.

 

That’s where we were dreadfully wrong.

 

As soon as we hopped off our bikes and headed toward the river, an older man came storming out of his house. “Git off my property!” he shouted. He laid into us, one by one, ranting about trespassers and threatening to call the police. Then he got right up in my face. “If I came over to your house and started walking on your lawn,” he shouted, “what would you do?”

 

I blinked and, without thinking, replied, “Well, we’d probably invite you over for dinner.”

 

I’m not sure who was more surprised—Mr. Crotchety Old Man or me. But all at once, the anger spewing out of him dissipated. On his way back to the house, he looked over his shoulder. “There’s a park thatta way,” he said, pointing.

 

One of the most surprising things about grace, I’m learning, is its reciprocal nature. When you’ve been graced yourself, that grace has a tendency to overflow onto someone else.

 

David had experienced truckloads of unwarranted favor from God over the course of his life. He started out as a nobody—a poor shepherd with no future to speak of. Yet he was the one God chose to anoint as king; his was the family God chose for the lineage of the Messiah.

 

For all his royalty and stardom, David never forgot where he came from. Here’s his response to the covenant promise the Lord made to him:

Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And now, Sovereign Lord, in addition to everything else, you speak of giving your servant a lasting dynasty!
—2 Samuel 7:18-19

It doesn’t seem coincidental that just a couple of chapters later we see David taking the grace that was poured out on him and sharing it with the one person everyone else thought should have received his wrath.

The former king, Saul, had spent much of his reign been trying to kill David, running him out of the country, and generally making his life miserable. Yet after Saul died, David went out of his way to find his enemy’s one living descendant—not to seek revenge, but to show him kindness for the sake of his friend Jonathan.

From that time on, Mephibosheth ate regularly at David’s table, like one of the king’s own sons.
—2 Samuel 9:11

David showed Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth the ultimate grace: he invited him to dinner.

May there always be room at our table for the grandsons of our enemies. And for crotchety old men.

 

***

Question: Who do you need to invite over for dinner today?

 

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.

 

Graceful Remembering May 11, 2012

Filed under: 2 Samuel — Stephanie Rische @ 7:53 am
Tags: , ,

At a conference I attended recently, I heard a firsthand account of graceful remembering. An author named Margot Starbuck told the story of her childhood and her quest for the Father-love she never had from her earthly fathers.

Margot experienced the double whammy of abandonment early in her life, having been given up for adoption as a baby and then having her stepfather succumb to alcoholism and leave the family when she was a young girl. These abandonments from the very people who were meant to reflect the parental love of God sent her on a desperate search for the true nature of God’s love, which she chronicles in her memoir, The Girl in the Orange Dress.

What struck me most when I read Margot’s story wasn’t so much the tragic nature of her memories, but what she left out.

She never shies away from the truth or the pain of what she went through, and she doesn’t excuse her father and her stepfather for their absence. But the focus in her remembering is on the way she grew from her losses and the mysterious good God brought out of them. She offers both men the kind of forgiveness and grace they don’t deserve. But then again, that’s what grace, by its very definition, is all about.

I was equally amazed when I read the funeral song David wrote for his nemesis, King Saul. David had been nothing but faithful to Saul all his life, fighting for him, defending his honor, protecting him against assassination attempts. By way of thanks, Saul tried to kill and him and then drove him out of the country.

And yet this is how David remembered Saul after his death: 

How beloved and gracious were Saul and Jonathan!
They were together in life and in death. . . .
Oh, how the mighty heroes have fallen!
—2 Samuel 1:23, 25

I imagine David hadn’t forgotten all the evil Saul had inflicted on him when he was alive. But when it came to his final reckoning, David chose to remember with grace rather than bitterness.

Just as Margot did.

Surprisingly, Margot told us that her book has served as a reconciliation tool of sorts between her and her dad. Her father, the very one she wrote about abandoning her, now gives her book to just about everyone he meets.

How beloved and gracious, indeed.

 

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 Tear Jar May 8, 2012

Filed under: Psalms — Stephanie Rische @ 8:05 am
Tags: , ,

ImageMy husband, Daniel, has given me many gifts in the nine months we’ve been married, but one of the most gracious is the way he handles my tears.

Over the years I’ve prided myself in my ability to handle things pretty stoically, at least to all watching eyes. But somehow since saying, “I do,” I’ve found I’m much leakier than I used to be—perhaps because I’ve found in Daniel such a safe place.

One of my favorite images in the Psalms is the picture David paints in Psalm 56 of God collecting all our tears in a bottle. David was no stranger to sadness. For all that his life was charmed—what with giant killing and a promotion from shepherd to king—he still had plenty to feel down about along the way.

It seems significant that David wrote about God’s tear jar when he did: just after being rejected by two communities. First, by King Saul, whom David had served faithfully, both with his music and in battle, risking his very life only to be repaid with a spear aimed at his head. On the heels of that rejection came another one: this time from the Philistines, whom David had been fighting with side-by-side since his exile. It was in that moment of feeling alone that he cried out to God:

You keep track of all my sorrows.
You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
You have recorded each one in your book.
—Psalm 56:8

When I picture heaven, I envision one room that’s filled with shelf after shelf of jars—jars of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Each one is labeled with a name, and on the inside are all the tears that person sheds during his or her time on earth.

Something I love about the tear jar image is what it says about God’s view of our suffering. He doesn’t tell us to suck it up; he doesn’t instruct us to plaster a fake smile on our faces; he doesn’t wag his finger and rebuke us for being babies. He tenderly collects every tear, validating each stab of pain we feel. No teardrop is too bitter. No sorrow too small. Each one is lovingly guided into the jar.

When Daniel and I first got married, I found myself frequently apologizing for my tears. Especially when they felt weak or unnecessary or just plain silly. But each time Daniel would put his arms around me and find the nearest napkin or paper towel or sleeve to wipe my runny mascara. Then he’d say, “You don’t have to be sorry. The Daniel-and-Stephanie team is okay with tears.”

God’s team, gratefully, is the same. The jars in heaven with your name on it is proof.

“Where there are tears, we should pay attention.”
—Frederick Buechner

 

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.