Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

The Raw Grace of Christmas December 29, 2012

Filed under: Christmas — Stephanie Rische @ 3:08 pm
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It’s December 29, and the Christmas letdown is officially here. The gifts have been opened, and now it’s time for returns and exchanges. The cookies and the decorations are on the verge of going stale. The alarm clock is a harsh reminder that Christmas is no longer two blissful weeks of vacation from school. And now it’s officially just winter, without the twinkly lights and festivities to take the edge off.

 

It is in the midst of this post-holiday malaise that I remember Christmas isn’t really, after all, about sentimentality or fuzzy feelings. And it’s certainly not limited to a day in December. Ultimately it’s about grace in all its rawness and terror and mystery.

 

Frederick Buchner wrote this beautiful reflection on the grace of Christmas:

Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed—as a matter of cold, hard fact—all it’s cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.

The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God…who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”

Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.

—Frederick Buechner, Whispers in the Dark

 

As the Christmas season in all its commerciality winds down, I pray that we will all experience the perennial grace of the Incarnation, which knows no calendar.

 

The Incarnation: Unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. May it ever be so.

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Veiled in Flesh December 26, 2012

Filed under: Hebrews — Stephanie Rische @ 5:00 pm
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For all that I’ve been a decorating grinch this year, I do adore Christmas carols—especially the old classics we used to sing by candlelight in my childhood church. I love the soaring melodies of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and the haunting minor chords of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and I know pretty much all the words by rote. But I guess I’ve never given much thought to how much theology is packed into those songs.

 

Take “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” as a case in point. Here are a couple of lines from the second verse:

 

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity

 

Way back in Exodus, Moses begged God, “Show me your glorious presence” (Exodus 33:18). But God said there was no way Moses would be able to take in so much glory, so much holiness, and live to tell about it. “You may not look directly at my face,” he told Moses, “for no one may see me and live.”

 

God’s radiance is simply too much for sinful, broken human beings to gaze on without their hearts instantly stopping in their chests. When Moses made his bold request, God told him that the closest he could get was to see the Lord’s backside. He hid Moses in the cleft of the rock, covering him with his own hand. It wasn’t until God had already passed by that he removed his hand so Moses could catch of a glimpse of his glory from behind. But getting to look at God’s face? No way.

 

That’s why the Incarnation—God himself wrapped in human skin—is such a profound mystery.

 

Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.

—Hebrews 1:1-3

 

Jesus is God’s glory in human form. For thousands of generations, people longed to see him, to catch a glimpse of his glory, but the most they were able to access was his backside. But now, through the Incarnation, we can come face-to-face with God…and live to tell about it.

 

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see…

 

As we think about the baby in the manger this Christmas, let us gaze with eyes of wonder as we look at the glorious face of God.

 

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

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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.

 

 

Advent Prayers December 21, 2012

Filed under: 1 Corinthians,2 Timothy,Romans — Stephanie Rische @ 12:01 pm
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As I read Paul’s letters to the early churches, I’m uncovering an intriguing thread I never noticed before. I’ve heard plenty about Paul’s deep theology, his sometimes controversial teachings, his practical instructions…but I guess I’ve never thought much about his prayers.

 

Oh my word, his prayers.

 

Paul opens just about every letter to the early churches with heartfelt prayers for them, and let me tell you, this guy was a praying powerhouse. His words are filled with faithful requests, soaring blessings, and most of all, extravagant thanksgiving.

 

A few cases in point:

I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith in him is being talked about all over the world. God knows how often I pray for you.

—Romans 1:8-9

 

I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus.

—1 Corinthians 1:4

 

I thank God for you….Night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.

—2 Timothy 1:3

 

I am a prayer novice at best—or more aptly, a prayer slacker. When I read Paul’s prayers, I am reminded just how milquetoast my prayers are. I ask God to bless my loved ones, and I come to him on their behalf when they’re in some kind of pain or trouble. But how often do I spend time just thanking God for them?

 

During Lent, my husband, Daniel, and I prayed for one person or family each day leading up to Easter (you can read the story here). It was such a rich experience that we wanted to find a way to mark the Advent season too. So each evening before dinner, we toss aside the bills and junk mail to find the Christmas cards and letters and photos we received from friends and family that day. Then we pray for those people.

 

I confess that our prayers don’t come close to Paul’s stirring masterpieces, but maybe God doesn’t mind so much. And while we’ve always enjoyed our loved ones’ updates and pictures, there seems to be a deeper layer to it this year. I have to wonder if this prayer habit just may be opening our eyes to how much we have to thankful for.

 

Thank you, God, for my grandparents, who once again got their letters written, addressed, and mailed while I was still eating Thanksgiving leftovers.

 

Thank you for boy #4 for our friends this year, and for the impish joy on all those kids’ faces.

 

Thank you for little Allie, with her dad’s brown eyes and her mom’s sparkly imagination.

 

Thank you for Emery, the miracle baby who was born this year—the bubbly, smiling, rolling-over answer to so many prayers.

 

Thank you for Lauren and her annual quotables (“Now that my room is clean, I can stop, drop, and roll if there’s a fire—and not get hurt!”).

 

I don’t say it enough, but thank you, God, for the people you’ve put in our lives. Help me to keep saying thanks all year, even after all the Christmas cards are put away.

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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 Parenting Philosophy December 18, 2012

Filed under: Ephesians — Stephanie Rische @ 5:08 pm
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mommy war

It’s not that I’ve been entirely oblivious to the so-called Mommy Wars in recent years, but as someone with no kids of my own, I never realized just how many smaller skirmishes exist within the larger battle.

 

I was blown away recently when a friend was filling me in on some of the various (and often heated) parenting philosophies out there—attachment parenting, continuum parenting, distraction parenting. I may be naive, but I guess I figured that when my mom threw me on her hip while she was making dinner, she did it without knowing there was a label for it. And when she pulled me away from the light socket and handed me a toy instead, she did it out of practicality, not because it was all the rage in the latest parenting book.

 

My friend told me she and her husband had decided to subscribe to distraction parenting—the concept of replacing a child’s negative or dangerous behavior with something positive. I’d never thought about it in such explicit terms, but I suppose it makes sense—not only for toddlers, but for grown-ups, too. I know from experience that if I’m trying to weed out a bad habit, I can’t simply stop doing it. I need to replace it with something better, or else I’ll go right back to filling that hole with the same old pattern (or a worse one).

 

When I started reading the book of Ephesians, I was surprised to note that maybe God is into distraction parenting himself (although I somehow doubt he’d get into a Mommy War over it). He doesn’t just tell us to stop doing something bad; he encourages us to replace that sin with something positive instead.

  • If we are ingrained in the habit of lying, we’re not just to stop; we’re to start speaking the truth to each other (Ephesians 4:25).
  • If we have a problem with stealing, we’re to replace that with the habit of generous giving (Ephesians 4:28).
  • If we have a tendency to let abusive words slip off our tongues, we need to replace them with good words, helpful words, encouraging words (Ephesians 4:29).
  • If we are enslaved by our anger, we need to change course, treating people with tenderness and forgiveness instead (Ephesians 4:31-32).

 

As I look ahead to a new year, maybe I need to give some thought not only to what needs to get weeded out of my life, but also what needs to fill that spot instead.

 

In other words: What good distractions do I need in my life right now?

 

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

 

Two Sizes Too Small December 14, 2012

Filed under: 2 Corinthians — Stephanie Rische @ 11:57 am
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There’s no way around it: I’ve been a decorating Grinch this Christmas. Every year in the past, one of my highlights for the season has been the annual Christmas tree tradition. As a kid, I loved choosing the perfect tree to chop down and then hanging all the ornaments—the white dove from Grandma, the little ballerina shoes from Aunt Mary, the now-eyeless clothespin reindeer I’d made in second grade. When I got my own place, I made it my priority—ahead of a couch and a kitchen table—to get my own artificial tree, and I’ve been putting it up faithfully ever since.

 

Until this year.

 

Mom tells me this yuletide fatigue shouldn’t set in for another 20 years or so, but for whatever reason, I’ve been prematurely struck by the grinchies. As I dug through my Rubbermaid tubs full of Christmas paraphernalia, tossing aside decorations that seemed like too much effort, I realized there was only one nonnegotiable item I simply had toput out: the Advent wreath.

 

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is a beautiful, mysterious kind of anticipation about watching those cold, lifeless wicks burst into flame like so many miniature stars of Bethlehem. The Light of the world, intercepting our darkness.

 

I find it interesting that two of God’s most dramatic intersections into history—when he created the world and when he broke through heaven to put on human skin—are both marked by light. The very first chapter of Scripture records God’s declaration “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). Then when Jesus arrived on the scene, he was revealed as “the light of the world” (John 8:12).

 

And there is good news for those of us who still struggle to stave off the darkness, to hold at bay the terrors of the night. According to Paul, God’s light is not confined to the first day of creation or to the 30-some years Jesus walked the earth:

 

God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

—2 Corinthians 4:6

 

When the early Christians created the church calendar, they decided to celebrate Christ’s birth at the end of December. More likely, Jesus was born sometime in the spring, but the goal was to trump the pagan holiday marking the winter solstice. And really, what better symbolism could you find to mark the arrival of the Light of the World than to set aside the darkest day of the year, knowing that each day after that point will be filled with more and more light?

 

Yes, there may be a hole in the living room where my Christmas tree should be, but I do have a four-candled reminder of the Light who made his entrance that first Christmas.

 

He’s the Light that bursts through my darkness.

 

He’s the Light that grows stronger and brighter with each passing day.

 

He’s the Light that shines not only in Bethlehem, but in my heart.

 

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What Christmas decoration is a must for you to put up each year?

 

 

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.

 

 

Blue Christmas December 11, 2012

Filed under: Romans — Stephanie Rische @ 8:15 am
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This holiday season, amid the refrains of joy and decking the halls, I keep hearing echoes of loss and separation. I’m sure it’s always been there; maybe I’m just more aware this year.

 

A friend is spending her first Christmas without her mom following a long battle with cancer. The hole she left behind still gapes, and somehow the Christmas music blaring over store loudspeakers sounds tinny and hollow this season. Another friend is figuring out to get into the holiday spirit now that she’s separated from her husband by an ocean and a nine-month assignment in a place where IEDs are as common as inflatable lawn ornaments. And I think of my friend Ruth, who is separated from her husband by the chasm of Alzheimer’s disease. This is the 61st Christmas they’ve spent together, but the first one when Bob doesn’t know her.

 

Maybe it’s the twinkle of lights or yet another chorus of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” but for whatever reason, the sting of separation seems even more poignant now than it is the other 11 months.

 

Until this year, I’d never thought of Romans 8 as a particularly Christmasy passage. But when you come down to it, Christmas is God’s answer to our longing for a love that will always stay with us. A love that will never be separated by oceans or war or distance or betrayal or disease or death.

 

When God sent Jesus to our world, it was his way of saying, “This is my gift to you: my love in human form.” Love that is unconditional, inseparable, unchanging, never-to-be-lost.

 

I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

—Romans 8:38-39

 

This Christmas, whether you find yourself with the ones you love or feeling far away for any number of reasons, know that nothing can ever separate you from God’s love. Nothing.

 

You may even want to take a moment under the twinkling lights to fill in this verse with the things that threaten to color your Christmas in shades of blue. As you do, I pray you will be filled with the assurance that none of these things are a match for God’s love.

 

I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither _____ nor _____, neither _____ nor _____, neither our fears about  _____ nor our worries about _____—not even the powers of _____ can separate us from God’s love. No power in heaven or in hell—indeed, nothing in all _____ will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

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 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.

 

Double Blessings Day December 7, 2012

Filed under: Romans — Stephanie Rische @ 8:12 am
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In the movie The Odd Life of Timothy Green, a young couple longs for a baby but remains unable to conceive. They dream up their ideal child, writing down descriptions of him and then burying the slips of paper in their backyard. They wake up to find a 10-year-old boy claiming to be their son, who by the looks of the leaves sprouting out of him, has grown straight out of the ground. It seemed to me a rather ludicrous premise for a movie…that is, until Double Blessings Day.

 

My friends Heather and Rick have been wishing and hoping and praying for a baby for six long years. After several miscarriages, failed infertility treatments, and adoptions that fell through (you can read more about their story here), they finally got the phone call they’d been waiting for. I’ll never forget walking into their house for a party one evening to find Heather with an irrepressible grin on her face. After leaving me in suspense for a while, she said, “Come here—I have something to show you.” She pulled out her phone, and there on the screen was a picture of a tiny baby boy wrapped in a blue blanket.

 

On cue, my eyes welled up. “Is this really…?” I could barely get the words out. After so much heartbreak, it hardly seemed possible. “Is he…yours?”

 

Heather nodded and grinned wider, but before letting me squeal and give her a hug, she said, “Wait, there’s more.” She flipped to the next picture, and suddenly I had no air left to project my squeal. There on her phone was another tiny bundle. This one wrapped in pink.

 

“Twins!” Heather’s smile broadened into a full-fledged beam. “The adoption papers won’t be final for a few months, but we can take them home from the hospital as soon as they gain a couple pounds.”

 

In that moment I had the surreal sense that even if these babies hadn’t grown out of the ground, maybe they’d been somehow been prayed into existence.

 

***

 

It’s been several months since the babies came home to Heather and Rick, and on the day they all went to the courthouse to sign the papers to make the adoption official, they threw a party for everyone who had prayed and hoped alongside them for the past several years. They called it Double Blessings Day. The day their son and daughter officially took their name and legally became theirs, although they’d loved these little bundles even before they’d met them.

 

As I held Claire and Alex on the evening of the blessings party, I thought about the significance of the names Heather and Rick had chosen for them. Claire: bright and clear. Alex: helper of mankind; defender of the people. Indeed, I saw a bright future ahead for both these little ones. I envisioned how the extravagant love of their parents would lead them on a path of serving and defending others as well. And now they officially had Heather and Rick’s last name—including a signed piece of paper that proved they belonged to them; they were their forever family.

 

It’s no wonder Paul used the metaphor of adoptive parents to paint the picture of God’s love for us:

You received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.”

—Romans 8:15-16

 

When we are adopted in God’s family, he gives us a new name: Son. Daughter. Beloved child. Redeemed one. But it hadn’t occurred to me before that once our adoption is finalized, he gets a new name too. Abba. Daddy. This fierce, magnificent God, unapproachable in his holiness, humbles himself, taking on the role of our Daddy. He loosens his tie, changes out of his work clothes, and gets down on his knees to play with us.

 

That’s what kind of Daddy we have. One who not only does the work of making our adoption official and bestowing on us his name, but who also throws a party to show the world how happy he is to have us in the family. One who loves us as his very own sons and daughters.

 

Thanks, Daddy.

 

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.