Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

At the Intersection of Weeping and Joy September 28, 2012

Filed under: Ezra — Stephanie Rische @ 12:13 pm
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I fell in love with Daniel over a steaming bowl of Pad Thai.

It was our second date, and he had done his homework. He knew I loved Thai food, and he’d scoped out the perfect spot—a cute little restaurant near my house called Bistro Thai.

As we chatted over our watermelon juice (one glass, two straws), I was struck by all the things we had in common and how blue his eyes were and how he could make me laugh and how blue his eyes were. Did I mention how blue his eyes were? Still, I was telling my heart to take it slow.

I knew I was in trouble, however, when Daniel pulled out the big manila envelope, saying he had a surprise for me. Could this be what I thought it was?

By way of background: Somewhere between date #1 and date #2, Daniel and I had exchanged some playful banter that went something like this: he found out I did some writing and asked if he could read something I’d written. I made an offhanded comment that he’d have to give me some equally sensitive information in exchange, such as, say, embarrassing childhood photos. The conversation moved on, and I thought that was the end of it.

But sure enough, Daniel contacted his dad, eight hours away, who secured an envelope full of embarrassing childhood photos and delivered them to Daniel in time for date #2. (I later found out his dad had stayed up until 1 a.m. scrounging through shoeboxes for all the best pictures.)

As Daniel and I pored over the photos, with the scent of peanuts and cilantro mingling in the air, it was official. I was smitten.

And so every year since, to mark the anniversary of our first dinner at Bistro Thai, we’ve gone back and ordered the same thing, reminiscing about the now-famous photo incident.

Last week my friend was visiting, and I decided to introduce her to my favorite little restaurant. As we walked up to the building, a series of observations came to me one at a time, in isolation, leaving me somehow unable to process them as a unit. Strange, I thought, there’s nobody here. Followed shortly by, The front window is completely gone! And then, Hey, why is there a big orange notice on the front door?

I realize there are real tragedies in the world, like when people lose their houses and everything they own in the wake of a hurricane, or when people are displaced from their families and homelands due to the ravages of war. But in that moment, the “For Lease” sign in the window of our restaurant felt like a state of emergency. I suppose it was partly sentimental, but maybe it was also a microcosm of those grander losses in life—that sense of remembering what once was and knowing that as hard as you try, you can never quite go back to the way things once were.

The book of Ezra recounts the significant event when a wave of Israelites returned from exile and started rebuilding their beloved temple. After it had sat in ruins for 70 years, there was much to celebrate as the new foundation was laid:

“He is so good!
His faithful love for Israel endures forever!”

Then all the people gave a great shout, praising the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s Temple had been laid.

But many of the older priests, Levites, and other leaders who had seen the first Temple wept aloud when they saw the new Temple’s foundation. The others, however, were shouting for joy. The joyful shouting and weeping mingled together in a loud noise that could be heard far in the distance.
—Ezra 3:11-13

Maybe you’ve lost something precious to you—perhaps a place, a relationship, or a dream has been stripped away—and you know that things will never be the same again. Even if, by some miracle, that sacred place is rebuilt or the relationship is restored or the dream is redeemed, you know in your heart that it will never be as glorious as the original version. And when that happens, when you’re standing on the rubble of the old and on the cusp of the unknown, I think the only thing to do is weep it out.

More and more I’m realizing that life doesn’t usually come at me one tidy emotion at a time—weeping for a season, then joy for a spell. No, it’s usually tangled together in a messy jumble—“joyful shouting and weeping mingled together,” as with the Temple round two.

One day there will no longer be a need for a Temple of any kind, because Christ himself will be the Temple (Revelation 21:22). In Christ, we have the hope that one day God will bring restoration and redemption on a grander scale than we can even imagine. But until then, there just may be times when our weeping and our joyful shouting will swirl together, heavenward, in a loud noise.

Meanwhile, I’m holding my breath that one day there will be a new restaurant where Bistro Thai once was. Maybe, despite the loss, it will also be the foundation for something new. Something full of joy.

 

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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They Wouldn’t Have Found Me Guilty September 25, 2012

Filed under: Daniel — Stephanie Rische @ 12:04 pm
Tags: , ,

One of the highlights of Sunday school when I was a kid was after music time, when the teachers would pull out the big blue Flannelgraph board.

 

I loved hearing the stories about all the old Bible heroes—especially when Pastor Bob was the storyteller. He had a way of recounting Scripture in a way that made me scoot to the edge of my little carpet square, eager for a front-row seat to the unfolding action. Along with Noah, I could practically smell the monkeys on the ark. I could hear the buzzing of the flies when the plagues hit Egypt. I felt the disciples’ surprise when they pulled in the net bursting with fish.

 

 

But my favorite story of all was the one about Daniel in the lions’ den. It had all the elements of a good narrative—high drama, the whiff of danger, a few villains, a hero to cheer for, a happy ending, and zoo animals, to boot. I loved the part when the king came to peer over the edge of the den the next morning to find out what had happened. (Cue Flannelgraph image of cuddly lions with a hint of a smile on their feline faces, with a serene-looking Daniel using them as so many body pillows.)

 

As I read this account now, many years after my Flannelgraph days, I’m still struck by God’s miraculous intervention and the drama of the story. But this time I’m also drawn to the often overlooked beginning of the story—the reason Daniel got thrown in the lions’ den in the first place.

 

Simply put, he prayed.

 

When Daniel learned that the law had been signed, he went home and knelt down as usual in his upstairs room, with its windows open toward Jerusalem. He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God. Then the officials went together to Daniel’s house and found him praying and asking for God’s help.

—Daniel 6:10-11

 

He prayed faithfully, three times a day. Even when it was illegal—and potentially deadly—to do so.

 

And his prayers weren’t just “Thanks for this bowl of Cheerios” or “Now I lay me down to sleep” or “Please, God, let me make it through this stoplight.” No, we’re talking real, extended times of prayer when he got on his knees, thanking God and crying out to him for help (Daniel 6:11), when he confessed the sins of his people and interceded on their behalf (Daniel 9:1-11).

 

And all this got me to wondering: Would there have been enough evidence to throw me in the lions’ den?

 

 

How often am I guilty of drive-thru prayers, shooting up brief, halfhearted thoughts in God’s direction, rarely setting aside intentional time to sit in front of the window and pray, Daniel-style?

 

I have a long way to go to become the kind of pray-er I want to be. But if they ever made a Flannelgraph image of me one day, my dream is that it would be of a woman sitting by the window. On her knees.

 

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.

 

When Skeletons Come to Life… September 21, 2012

Filed under: Ezekiel — Stephanie Rische @ 4:38 pm
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I’ve always felt a little sorry for some of those Old Testament prophets. Not just because their teachers no doubt mispronounced their funky-sounding names in class, but because their lives were often used as rather startling object lessons. A few cases in point: Hosea was told to marry a prostitute; Isaiah had to walk around naked and barefoot for three years; and Jeremiah was given orders to bury his underwear in a hole by the river until it rotted.

The prophet Ezekiel was no exception. For him, the object lesson was about a heap of bones:

[The Lord] led me all around among the bones that covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out. Then he asked me, “Son of man, can these bones become living people again?”

 

“O Sovereign Lord,” I replied, “you alone know the answer to that.”

—Ezekiel 37:2-3

 

His response is precisely why I’m no prophet (aside from my pronounceable name). I would have said something like, “Um, God, no offense, but those bones look really, officially, 100% dead.” But Ezekiel said, in essence, “I don’t know if you will bring those bones to life. But I know you can.”

Maybe right now you feel like nothing more than a heap of dried-out bones. You feel certain that it’s game over, that all hope is gone.

But here’s what God says:

 

Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again! I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.

—Ezekiel 37:5-6

 

We serve a God who is stronger than anything. Even death. And if he can bring a pile of dry bones to life, I’m pretty sure he can do anything.

He can bring your lost child home.

He can heal that relationship that seems broken beyond repair.

He can dig out the splinter that is lodged deep in your heart.

He can raise up your buried dreams.

He can bring dead things back to life.

Oh God, put your breath into us. Bring us back to life. And we will know that you are the Lord.

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 Most Daring Act in the World September 18, 2012

Filed under: Lamentations — Stephanie Rische @ 4:34 pm
Tags: , ,

Louie Zamperini did a lot of daring things in his life. As I devoured the pages of Unbroken, which chronicles the story of his life, I found myself continually amazed that the book is nonfiction. How could one person bravely withstand so many hardships…and live to tell about it?

As a bombardier in World War II, Louie valiantly embarked on missions in the Pacific, knowing that his craft could be shot down at any moment by Japanese planes or face the equally dangerous prospect of mechanical failure over the vast ocean. But his battles in the war were only the beginning. He survived a fiery plane crash. He fended off sharks with his bare hands. He faced starvation, extreme heat, and enemy fire. He endured emotional and physical torture in a POW camp.

But in my mind, none of those things, heroic as they are, constitute his most daring act.

No, his most daring act was that he hoped.

Louie hoped when it was ludicrous, possibly even insane, to keep on hoping. Every time something good comes his way and you think he’ll finally get his break, things blow up in his face. Yet somehow he never gives up hoping.

When the few chocolate bars—the only food left for the three men stranded on the raft—was scarfed down in a single sitting by one of his fellow survivors, Louie didn’t give up hope.

When their precious bait was snatched up by greedy sharks, he didn’t give up hope. When he managed to grab a large seabird with his bare hands and the meat turned out to be inedible, he didn’t give up hope.

When the plane that flew overhead turned out to be enemy aircraft instead of their salvation, he still didn’t give up hope—not even when the plane opened fire and their raft became riddled with bullet holes.

It wasn’t long before Louie’s friend and fellow survivor Mac gave up. But still Louie held on:

Given the dismal record of raft-bound men, Mac’s despair was reasonable. What is remarkable is that [Louie], who shared Mac’s plight, didn’t share his hopelessness….It had not yet occurred to him that he might die.

Yes, this was Louie’s most daring act: he hoped against all odds, against all evidence to the contrary.

At first blush, the book of Lamentations seems to be strictly a chronicle of sorrow and hopelessness. Jerusalem, God’s chosen city, and even the holy Temple have been destroyed. The people have been taken into captivity at the hands of the Babylonians. As the prophet Jeremiah looks bleakly into the future, he is consumed with grief:

For all these things I weep;
tears flow down my cheeks.
No one is here to comfort me;
any who might encourage me are far away….
I have cried until the tears no longer come;
my heart is broken.
My spirit is poured out in agony.
—Lamentations 1:16; 2:11

This is pretty much what you’d expect from a book with a name like Lamentations, what you’d expect from someone who is mourning the desolation of his beloved city. The shocking part—the daring part—comes out of nowhere, in chapter 3. In the midst of the prophet’s laments, he suddenly does a 180 and bursts out with an incredible yet:

Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
therefore, I will hope in him!”
—Lamentations 3:21-24

 

Like Louie, the prophet dared to hope when those around him could see only despair.

Today I pray that you will make the daring decision to hope. Against all odds. Against all evidence to the contrary.

May you have hope that your tragedy will end but that the Lord’s love never will.

May you have hope that the morning will come again, and so will his mercies.

May you have hope that his faithfulness is greater than whatever struggle you’re up against.

And when all hope is gone, may you have hope that he will plant new hope in your soul 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.

 

Big Promises September 14, 2012

Filed under: Jeremiah — Stephanie Rische @ 12:21 pm
Tags: , ,

The night before our wedding reception, Daniel and I had a “toast time,” when everyone in attendance was invited to share a memory or a toast. Why have just a couple of toasts, we figured, when you can have twenty? (I should insert here that the champagne wasn’t proportional to the number of toasts. Just in case you were worried.)

Daniel and I took a turn too, seizing the opportunity to thank the people who had brought us to this place on the eve of saying our vows. I’m not sure I communicated everything I wanted to on account of all the blubbering and sniffling, but what I tried to say was thank you. Thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks, Grandma and Grandpa. Thanks Papa Jack and Gramma Lo. For many things over the years, but right now, on this night especially, thank you for showing us what it looks like to make a big promise. And then keep it.

That summer of our wedding, both my parents and Daniel’s parents celebrated 35 years of marriage. We had seven of our eight grandparents still with us, still married to the same person they’d said “I do” to 50-plus years ago, just as we would the next day.

As I looked at the faces around me and started doing some mental calculations, I realized that between both our sets of parents and grandparents, we had almost 300 years of marriage represented in that room.

In that moment Daniel and I had no idea what the next 50 years would hold for us, what it would look like when we came face-to-face with “for worse,” “for poorer,” “in sickness.” But one thing we knew: by God’s grace, we came from a line of people who kept their promises.

And better yet, we had a God would never retract his promise from us, a God who would never renege on his covenant.

Just after the prophet Jeremiah received a message from the Lord that his beloved Jerusalem would fall, God followed up with another promise to his people—a promise of restoration.

I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me. I will find joy doing good for them and will faithfully and wholeheartedly replant them in this land. This is what the Lord says: Just as I have brought all these calamities on them, so I will do all the good I have promised them.

—Jeremiah 32:40-42

 

As thankful as I am for our family legacy of kept promises, I’m even more thankful for God’s bigger vow. His everlasting vow.

He goes beyond “Till death do us part” and gives us a forever promise: I will never stop doing good for them. They will never leave me. He stands before us at an altar of sorts, assuring us that nothing will part us from him. Not even death.

 

{Note: I wore my mom’s wedding dress for the toast time, and Daniel wore his dad’s wedding suit.}

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 Spotting: A Modern-Day Emancipator September 12, 2012

Filed under: Grace spottings — Stephanie Rische @ 8:10 am
Tags: , ,

Last month I attended the Global Leadership Summit hosted by Willow Creek. They had quite a lineup of speakers, from Jim Collins to Condoleezea Rice, but I was especially taken by a woman with a small voice and a big story.

When Pranitha Timothy was getting ready to graduate with her master’s degree in social work, she felt like God gave her a vision for life, straight from the words of Scripture. As she read these words from Isaiah 42, she sensed that God was speaking them afresh for her.

Look at my servant, whom I strengthen.

He is my chosen one, who pleases me.

I have put my Spirit upon him.

He will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout

or raise his voice in public.

He will not crush the weakest reed

or put out a flickering candle.

He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.

He will not falter or lose heart

until justice prevails throughout the earth.

Even distant lands beyond the sea will wait for his instruction.

—Isaiah 42:1-4

But shortly after she sensed this call, tragedy struck: Pranitha was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Thankfully, the doctors were able to remove the tumor, and it turned out to be benign. But in the process, she lost movement in 60 percent of her face and she no longer had feeling in her shoulder and neck. Worst of all, she could no longer speak. This woman with a dream for justice suddenly found herself mute.

Shattered, Pranitha returned to the Isaiah passage, asking God why he would give her this vision only to snatch it away before she could even begin. But upon closer reading, she was struck anew by certain parts of the passage: God’s servant “will not shout or raise his voice….He will not falter or lose heart.” Pranitha hardly dared to believe it, but what if God hadn’t revoked his call after all? What if it would just take a different form than she’d ever envisioned?

And so, after a period of recovery, Pranitha joined International Justice Mission and devoted her life to setting slaves free in her homeland of India. Over the years she has gradually regained some range of movement in her body and face. And God has given her a voice—a thin, feeble voice, but a voice nonetheless.

To date, Pranitha has led more than 50 slave rescue operations with IJM. She serves as a legal witness, representing these individuals in court, and she has also developed an aftercare strategy to help freed slaves find healing and integrate back into society.

To Pranitha’s surprise, in God’s hands her weakness has become one of her greatest strengths. Her trials provide a kind of common ground with the slaves she seeks to help. When they see the struggles she herself has faced, an immediate connection is formed—a level of trust that is usually hard won from people whose lives have been consistently marked by fear and distrust. She can speak from firsthand experience about what it means to rely on God on a daily basis, from a place of desperate need. “This pain constantly reminds me every day that I need God,” she says.

As I sat enraptured by Pranitha’s stories of risking her life to set slaves free, I was reminded of God’s heart for captives. I, too, was a slave to sin, trapped and full of fear. Christ risked everything to come to my rescue and break me out of my chains.  He defended me before my accusers, and he continues to take care of me after I’ve been set free.

It is because of grace that I’ve been set free. And it’s because of grace that he calls me to set other captives free too.

*             *             *

For more about International Justice Mission and their mission to end slavery and trafficking around the world, check out IJM’s documentary film, At the End of Slavery or read the book The Just Church, available this October.

 

My Heart of Stone September 7, 2012

Filed under: Ezekiel — Stephanie Rische @ 8:14 am
Tags: , ,

Daniel and I recently went on a road trip to St. Louis with two goals in mind: to celebrate our first anniversary and to introduce ourselves to our new six-pound relative.

The moment we laid eyes on our little burrito-wrapped nephew, it was love at first sight. We spent the next several hours exclaiming over his perfect toes, his full head of hair, his tiny fingernails, his wide blue-gray eyes, his whispery eyelashes, his knobby knees. We delighted every time he opened his mouth to yawn or furrowed his eyebrows or made a gassy face (which we shamelessly interpreted as a smile).

He charmed us entirely, without a spark of effort of his part. We’d only just met this little human being, yet our hearts couldn’t be any more tender toward him.

Later that evening Daniel and I headed downtown, and as we walked around the city, I was reminded that my heart’s default setting is decidedly not tender.

I saw the old man with the sign that said, “HOMELES. Need $ for food.” I averted my eyes and walked right by, toward our hotel with the running water and the downy white comforter.

Then there was the crowd of drunk guys heading back from the baseball game, swearing and laughing and generally making fools of themselves. I cast judgmental thoughts in their direction and picked up the pace, not bothering to wonder what hurts they were seeking to drown.

After that we were approached by a man who seemed to suffer from some kind of mental illness and was desperate to share his three jokes with us. I nodded politely but uncomfortably and gripped Daniel’s hand a little tighter, willfully ignoring the loneliness that must have provoked such a solicitation.

Safely back in our room, I faced an ugly realization about my heart condition. I ignore the needy, judge the broken, brush off the lonely. My heart is a heart of stone.

How is it, I wonder, that this same heart that is so hard toward those on the city streets can melt on the spot for Baby Colin? It’s not that our nephew has done anything for us; we love him just because he’s family. Just because he’s ours.

Through the prophet Ezekiel, God gave a message to the exiles who were scattered in enemy territory. God promised that one day they would return to their homeland and that he would do an even greater miracle inside them:

I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart, so they will obey my decrees and regulations. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God.

—Ezekiel 11:19-20

How quickly I forget how tender God’s heart is toward me, although I’ve done nothing to deserve it. He loves me just because I am part of his family. Just because I’m his.

I want that kind of a heart transplant—my old, stony heart in exchange for his heart. A heart that sees the sketchy, hard-to-love people under the streetlights the way God sees me. Tenderly. Responsively. As if they were my own family.

Because indeed they are.

 

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.