Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

The Ultimate Book Burning August 28, 2012

Filed under: Jeremiah — Stephanie Rische @ 1:37 pm
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The images looked like scenes from an apocalyptic movie: the smoke looming dark and angry on the horizon, marching onward like an unstoppable army. Hungry flames devouring everything in their path, from the most modest of homes to the most palatial, form pricey furnishings to irreplaceable keepsakes.

As tragic as those images from the Colorado fires were earlier this summer, I found the recent Oklahoma fire even more devastating in a certain respect. It’s one thing for natural disaster to strike thorough the fault of no one in particular. But to see such a savage wake of destruction because someone intentionally threw a burning newspaper out of a car seems not only heartbreaking but utterly senseless.

When I read the story of King Jehoiakim of Judah in the book of Jeremiah, I had a similar reaction. The king received a special message from the Lord, intended just for him. The prophet Jeremiah had compiled all of God’s messages since the days of King Josiah and sent them directly to Jehoiakim, warning him to repent before God’s judgment came upon him and his country.

But instead of receiving this as a wakeup call and humbling himself before God, King Jehoiakim did something rather shocking. He had one of his officers read the scroll to him piece by piece, and each time he finished a section, the king took out his knife and burned up the very words of God.

Each time Jehudi finished reading three or four columns, the king took a knife and cut off that section of the scroll. He then threw it into the fire, section by section, until the whole scroll was burned up. Neither the king nor his attendants showed any signs of fear or repentance at what they heard.

—Jeremiah 36:23-24

He heard the truth, and he threw it in the fireplace.

When I talk to people who don’t know God and his Word, I ache for them, knowing what they’re missing out on. But it’s also understandable. After all, they don’t know anything different. But perhaps the more purposeless tragedy is when someone like me, who has direct access to God’s Word, cuts it apart, piece by piece, and sets it aflame.

Oh, I’d never burn the pages of my Bible, of course. But each time I decide that one little lie won’t hurt, I take a knife to what God says about truth. Whenever I deem his laws about gossip irrelevant for my particular situation, I might as well be tossing that part of Scripture into the fire. Every time I rationalize my worry, turn a blind eye to the poor, or act out of selfishness, I’m destroying God’s Word in my life, piece by piece.

Sometimes it seems inexplicable that any of us would choose God’s judgment instead of embracing grace. But as King Jehoiakim realized, grace, by its very nature, means that we have to change. We can’t stay where we are; we can’t stay who we are.

No matter how you look at it, Scripture must involve a knife and a fire. The question is, will I cut away and burn the parts I don’t like? Or will I allow the Word to cut away and burn the ugly parts of 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.

 

Bridging the Gap August 24, 2012

Filed under: Zephaniah — Stephanie Rische @ 8:14 am
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On a recent Wednesday evening I drove to a building that was just a few towns away, but the moment I stepped in the door, I felt like I’d walked into another world.

My husband, Daniel, was the “visiting artist” for mentally ill adults who live at various group homes in the area, and I was going along as his assistant. (For the record, I can’t even draw stick figures, but I figured at the very least I was qualified to wash out the paintbrushes.)

Having had limited exposure to individuals with mental illness of this severity, I was a little nervous, unsure what to expect. Daniel told me all I needed to do was be there, that showing up would be enough. But still I worried.

As the participants finished dinner, I joined them around the table and tried desperately to come up with conversation topics we could connect on. What common ground would I be able to find with people whose lives looked so different from mine—many of whom had been dealt the harsh blows of homelessness, unemployment, and addiction, some of whom had been abandoned by family members and shunned by society at large?

Fortunately for my tongue-tied self, Daniel is a master at breaking the ice. “What do you like to do for fun?” he asked the group, making eye contact with each person who would meet his gaze. And with that simple question, the table launched from awkward silence into animated conversation.

I found out that Jim is a diehard darts player, that Steven has a passion for his motorized kayak (who knew such a thing existed?), that Betty Ann loves anything yellow, and that Gene could cite every statistic about the Chicago Bears from 1986 on.

Before I knew it, it was time to start the art project, so I distributed the scissors, glue, and paint. As the participants got to work, I realized that we had not only creative talent but also some quick wit represented in the group.

Before we began, Chris had told me that using scissors wasn’t his forte. But once we got going, I noticed he was doing a meticulous job, and I told him as much.

“Hey, you’re good at cutting,” I said.

Without missing a beat, he responded, “I’m good at cutting the cheese, maybe!”

And when I saw Jon mixing the paint colors to create beautiful shades of chartreuse and burnt orange, I told him I was impressed with how artistic he was.

With a wry grin and a self-deprecating chuckle, Jon shot back, “Wait…did you say artistic or autistic?”

As the evening progressed and our hands gradually became kaleidoscopes of tempera paint, I had a sudden realization: I was having fun. And I had a lot more in common with these new friends than I thought I would. Daniel was right: there was power in simply showing up.

Somehow the chasm that had once loomed so large in my mind was shrinking once it was removed from the realm of the theoretical. Now that we were sitting at the same table, face to face, our differences didn’t seem so unbroachable.

It got me to thinking about the Incarnation—how God himself showed up in our world in human form. How he narrowed the huge gap between us and him—a gap infinitely more yawning than any perceived gap between me and another equally valuable human being.

Zephaniah prophesied about the Incarnation, when God would span that divine gap and make his dwelling with the likes of us:

 

The Lord your God is living among you.

He is a mighty savior.

He will take delight in you with gladness.

With his love, he will calm all your fears.

He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.

—Zephaniah 3:17

No doubt there are profound aspects to the Incarnation, theological conundrums that scholars could devote a lifetime to. But as I sat there with my hands covered in paint, I was struck by a rawer side of the Incarnation. A God who showed up. A God who didn’t grit his teeth to make small talk with us but instead delighted in us. A God whose Incarnation was birthed out of gladness and love.

Jesus showed up. He bridged the gap. And he did so with delight.

May I never think I’m above doing the same.

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.

 

“Even Though” Prayers August 21, 2012

Filed under: Habakkuk — Stephanie Rische @ 8:13 am
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I was once part of a small group that was stuck in a rut, and in an attempt to shake things up, we decided to study one of the minor prophets. On something of a whim, we landed on the book of Habakkuk, not entirely sure what we were stumbling into.

As it happened, the book turned out to be a bit of a downer. In you had to boil down the prophet’s message into a couple of key points, you’d probably end up with something cheery like judgment and destruction. According to some commentaries, one third of the book can be categorized in a genre called “an oracle of woe.” Not exactly what you might call a beach read.

But as our group talked about the book, we were struck by its authenticity—the raw way the author cried out to God about the injustices he saw and begged God to act on behalf of his people. The book of Habakkuk is heart-wrenchingly honest, and achingly beautiful.

Ultimately the prophet didn’t get all his questions answered; he never fully grasped what God was up to. But he concluded with a song of trust—the kind of trust that moves in when human understanding fails.

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,

and there are no grapes on the vines;

even though the olive crop fails,

and the fields lie empty and barren;

even though the flocks die in the fields,

and the cattle barns are empty,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord!

I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!

—Habakkuk 3:17-18

Sometimes I wonder what Habakkuk would have written if he’d lived several thousand years later, in our era. These days most of us don’t grow fig trees or rely on an olive grove for our livelihood. But such a song of trust rings just as true for us today, regardless of our situation.

Even though the job prospects are drying up

And there is no money in the bank…

 

Even though another treatment has failed

And doctors have exhausted all other options …

 

Even though another month has gone by

And the crib remains empty and barren…

 

Even though another lonely night has passed

And the other side of the bed remains empty…

 

Even though another prayer has been offered

And the heavens reply in stony silence…

 

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord!

I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!

Whatever “even thoughs” you find yourself up against today, may you cling to that ever-gracious “yet.”

 

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.

 

Once Upon a Time, I Wore a Pretty White Dress… August 14, 2012

Filed under: Isaiah — Stephanie Rische @ 1:41 pm
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One year ago today, my dad walked me down a tree-lined aisle toward a little clearing, where all the people I loved most were singing an a cappella version of “Be Thou My Vision.”

I knew, in theory, that the wooden arch ahead of me had been lovingly draped with tulle and calla lilies by my family. I knew that Pastor Tim was standing at the front with his trusty Bible and a smile on his face. I knew that somewhere in the front row my mom was bawling and that Grandma was snapping roll after roll of pictures.

But I couldn’t see any of that. I could only see one thing: the vision of my handsome groom standing at the end of the aisle. He was beaming so wide I thought the grin would burst off his face. And he was looking right at me.

 

Whenever I was asked before the wedding, I assured people that I wasn’t the crying type, and I was confident I wouldn’t need my waterproof mascara. But the moment my eyes locked on my husband-to-be, I was overcome with all the meaning wrapped in that single moment—how it was the culmination of so many hopes and prayers, how God had given me much more than I’d been asking him for, how all the waiting had been worth it.

As I looked at Daniel’s face, I told myself, Freeze this moment. Take a mental picture right here, right now. Never forget this.

 

 

Since that day, Daniel’s love has continued to give me new insight into the way God loves his bride. It’s not an obligatory love; it’s a love that is basked in delight.

 

The Lord delights in you

and will claim you as his bride….

Then God will rejoice over you

as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride.

—Isaiah 62:4-5

 

God’s love, in other words, beams so wide it is liable to burst off his face.

If you are doubting today whether God loves you, lift up your head and look at his face. He is standing there at the end of the aisle, just waiting for you walk toward him. See the delight in his smile, and know that he rejoices over you.

You are his beloved, and he has eyes only for you.

 

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 His Hand August 11, 2012

Filed under: Isaiah — Stephanie Rische @ 9:38 am
Tags: , ,

Not long ago I had the privilege of spending the afternoon with joy personified—joy that goes around in the form of a seventh grader named Becky.

According to doctors, Becky has an extra chromosome—Down syndrome. Although I’m not familiar with all the medical implications that go along with that diagnosis, I would agree that Becky does have something extra. But in my books, the extra that stands out most is her joy.

When my husband and I went on a walk with Becky and the rest of her family on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I suddenly saw the world through fresh eyes—eyes of wonder and pure delight.

Where I might have walked right past a swampy bog, Becky had her eyes peeled the whole time, certain that at any moment she’d see a turtle sunbathing on a rock. Where I saw a field of weeds, Becky squealed with delight and promptly gathered a dandelion bouquet for me, including some to be tucked behind each of my ears.

 

 

Skipping with happiness on the way home, she looked at me with a grin that lit up her entire face. “Can I hold your hand?” she asked.

And so I walked the rest of the way back with both hands full, one with a yellow bouquet and the other with joy herself.

Later that evening we all sang hymns together, led by Becky’s older sister, Hannah, on the piano. Hannah asked for requests, and after a few selections, Becky piped up, “Let’s do my favorite! ‘Before the Throne’!”

I was a bit chagrined to discover how rusty I am on my hymns, and I wasn’t sure I could even pull out a tune for that one. So as the song started, I just sat back and listened.

Before the throne of God above

I have a strong and perfect plea…

 

As I looked around the room, my gaze fell on Becky. She sat perched on her chair, her face beaming and her legs swinging to the music. To my amazement, she knew every word of the song. I listened as she belted out the next line:

My name is graven on His hand

My name is written on His heart

 

Just last week I came across a startling statistic: some 90 percent of women who find out in prenatal testing that their baby will have Down syndrome choose abortion. As we sang, I couldn’t help but think of the extra joy Becky’s family would have missed if she’d never been born—the joy all of us would have missed.

Can a mother forget her nursing child?

Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?

But even if that were possible,

I would not forget you!

See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.

—Isaiah 49:15-16

As I looked at Becky’s face, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sing, even if I managed to dredge up the tune. Not with a lump the size of a small turtle in my throat.

I closed my eyes, and a vision flashed through my mind—of God’s big hand holding the hand of a smiling seventh grade girl. She gives him a bouquet of hand-picked dandelions, and as he reaches out to take them, I notice that he has a tattoo on his hand. Right there on his palm is etched the name of his beloved child. Becky.

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.

 

That’s Not Fair! August 7, 2012

Filed under: Isaiah — Stephanie Rische @ 1:32 pm
Tags: , ,

My sister is eight years younger than me, which gave me a tactical advantage over her for a good four years (after which point she started keeping pace with me in every quantifiable way). But at some point before she wised up, when she was old enough to appreciate having money in her piggy bank but young enough to be lacking some key fiscal principles, I used the age gap to my advantage.

We had just met one of Dad’s friends, Roger, who had collected a massive bag of loose change from his car and given it to us. Jackpot! As the oldest, I took it upon myself to distribute the money among the three of us kids. After all the coins had been split evenly, inspiration struck.

“Meghan,” I said, “wanna trade?” She looked at me skeptically. “I’ll give you all my big bronze coins for your little silver ones.” She agreed, and my plan worked flawlessly…until we got home and Meghan dashed inside to share the news of her trades with Mom. At that point Mom ordered all the pennies and dimes to be swapped back, along with an “abuse of power” tax from my stash.

The truth is, trades tend to be sketchy business. As adults, we are wary of the inevitable catch; we know that the other person is in it for what they can get out of the deal.

As I read Isaiah, I’m amazed how many times God talks about trades that will take place when he comes to redeem his people. From a human perspective, God’s trades seem too good to be true. We bring God everything we have, but even our best offerings are worthless. And yet God doesn’t hesitate to take our ugly things on himself and give us the good things that are in his hands—things of beauty and great value.

In the book of Isaiah, we read about God’s mind-boggling trades—the gifts he gives us in exchange for our worthless things:

*Gold for bronze

*Silver for iron

*Bronze for wood

*A crown of beauty for ashes

*Blessing for mourning

*A double blessing instead of shame

(See Isaiah 60:17 and Isaiah 61:3.)

 

We hand him our sin, and he gives us salvation. We give him our brokenness, and he gives us healing. We extend our unworthiness, and he bestows on us his grace.

I was at a Vacation Bible School event for fifth and sixth graders recently, and they were singing—or more accurately screaming—the words to this song as they ran and danced around the sanctuary:

I’m trading my sorrows

I’m trading my shame

I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord

I want to have that same kind of boundless joy as I remember the trade God has made with me. It was the ultimate unfair trade. In an unprecedented move, the one with the power took the loss himself… and gave us everything instead.

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 Stephanie Sandwich August 4, 2012

Filed under: Isaiah — Stephanie Rische @ 10:27 am
Tags: , ,

When I was a kid, our church had one of those “harvest festivals,” where you have all the candy and fun parts of Halloween, minus the ghosts and witches. Rumor had it the main attraction would be the giant cardboard-box maze that would cover the entire church basement. My little brother and I were ecstatic.

 

My mom volunteered to help coordinate the event, so we went to church with her for the afternoon. While she decorated and prepped food, Kyle and I scoped out the maze. It was even more colossal than we’d dreamed, with countless twists and turns and dead ends. Even so, we felt up to the challenge. After all, I was pretty big stuff now that I’d turned double digits.

 

Things were a little dicey at first. We took one wrong turn after another until we had no choice but to break out of the boxes and stand up to get our bearings in the fluorescent-lit basement. We pressed on until we finally made our way to the end of the maze. Once we had the route down, we practiced it tirelessly for the rest of the day, and by the time Mom was ready to take us home to change into our costumes, we were confident we could make it through blindfolded, maybe even backward. Not that I was one to brag.

 

But when we came back later that evening, somehow everything looked different. The basement was pitch dark, with strobe lights flashing and creepy music blaring, interspersed with recorded shrieks and laughter. I mustered up an internal pep talk, reminding myself that I’d completed this maze dozens of times that very day. And besides, as the older sister, I had to put on a brave face in front of my brother.

 

We got in line and anxiously awaited our turn. When we got to the front of the line, the chaperone asked if we were sure we wanted to do this. His doubt only increased my resolve. Of course I was big enough to do this! I took hold of my brother’s hand, and we ducked into the maze.

 

We were only a few steps in before I decided there was no way this was the same maze we’d practiced earlier that day. Surely someone had rerouted the whole thing while we were home changing! I would never have admitted it out loud, but I was more terrified than I’d been in my entire decade of living.

 

Despite my big-sister bravado, I knew it was time to admit defeat. Kyle and I backed out to the starting point and went to bob for apples.

 

Then a family friend, a high schooler, came to our rescue and volunteered to take us through the maze. I was skeptical at first, seeing as I was still a bit rattled by the whole experience. But he assured me we could make a train: I would hold on to his ankles and Kyle would hold my ankles. We’d be in this together. And so we made it through the maze, with Kyle as the caboose and me sandwiched in the middle.

 

Sometimes the scariest thing when we’re up against a difficult situation isn’t the situation itself but feeling like we’re facing the blackness and creepy noises alone. We reach out in front of us, and we can’t see a thing. We glance over our shoulders, and it seems like an empty wasteland from behind. We feel exposed, vulnerable to attack.

 

After Israel was captured and exiled to Assyria, they felt that same sense of abandonment and isolation. But through the words of the prophet Isaiah, God reminded them that they weren’t alone.

 

Get out! Get out and leave your captivity….

You will not leave in a hurry,

running for your lives.

For the Lord will go ahead of you;

yes, the God of Israel will protect you from behind.

—Isaiah 52:11-12

 

God promised to go both ahead of his people and behind them. As they crawled through the dark, scary places, they could hold on to his ankles, knowing he would guard them from anything that jumped out in front of them or snuck up from behind.

 

Whatever dark mazes you’re facing today, may you know that God goes before you to guide you. Behind you to protect you. And that you are sandwiched safely in the middle.

 

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.