Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

The Wind in My Sails August 21, 2013

Filed under: Grace,Unexpected Lessons — Stephanie Rische @ 8:17 am
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“Wanna know what this bucket is for?” the seasoned sailor asked, throwing a pointed glance in my direction.

 

He was taking us out in his sailboat on Lake Michigan, and I was the only one in the group who had never been sailing before. Apparently he was afraid I’d be green in more ways than one.

sailboat3

 

I did my best to laugh, desperately hoping I wouldn’t need the bucket.

 

Then it was the sailor’s turn to laugh. “Oh, this bucket isn’t for you—it’s to clean up the deck afterward!”

 

On the way to the boat, we were regaled with sailing stories—about the time his boat flipped over in gale-force winds, the time the fog was so dense he couldn’t find his way back to the dock, the time he was several miles from land in the middle of a lightning storm. I was feeling queasy already, and we hadn’t even set foot onboard.

 

I tried to prep myself for every possible scenario. But when we finally got out onto the water, we encountered the one situation I hadn’t envisioned: everything was utterly still. I held my face up to the sky but couldn’t detect so much as a hint of a breeze.

 

There we were, sitting in the middle of the huge lake—normally filled with cresting whitecaps but on that day looking as smooth as glass. The sails hung limp and lifeless above us.

 

The sailboat boasted every possible gadget you could imagine—a GPS that told you exactly where you were in relation to your destination, a gauge that read the temperate both in the air and in the water, a sensory device that detected the depth of the water and how many fish were camping out beneath the surface. But none of it mattered if we couldn’t leave the shoreline. We had no manmade gadget that could perform the function of the wind. (Although my husband, funny guy that he is, tired his best to fill his lungs and blow on the sails in an attempt to create some action.)

sailboat1

 

It turned out to be a lovely, if anticlimactic, afternoon on the water. But as we basked in the sun and ate a picnic lunch on the idle boat, it got me to thinking about the Holy Spirit, of all things.

 

The Bible often uses wind as a metaphor to describe the way God works. Like the wind, a tiny puff of his breath has power to set us in motion, to move us forward, to change our course. We may not be able to see him, but there’s no denying it when we’re in the wake of what he’s doing.

 

Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind . . . so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things.

—Ecclesiastes 11:5

 

Our boat outing revealed a nautical and spiritual truth: if God’s Spirit isn’t breathing power into a venture, no amount of huffing and puffing on my part will make it move.

 

The breath of God isn’t something we can control. But we can be ready for it—we can embrace it when it comes. His breath is a gift of movement, a gift of direction, a gift of power. Ultimately, it is the breath of grace.

 

sailboat2

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On Grace and Ketchup August 9, 2013

Filed under: Grace — Stephanie Rische @ 10:12 am
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Forgive me for being sacrilegious, but every time I sing “Jesus Paid It All,” I can’t help but think about ketchup.

 

My husband played his bass at church last week, and we sang the lines of that old classic spiritual:

 

Jesus paid it all

All to him I owe

Sin had left a crimson stain

He washed it white as snow

 

While other people were no doubt musing about spiritual things like substitutionary atonement, I was instantly transported to the teenage version of myself. On a big yellow school bus, no less.

 

I was sixteen, and just a few months prior, I’d made the first major clothing purchase of my life: a beautiful brown suede leather jacket. I’d had my eye on it for a long time, and after saving up my heard-earned babysitting money, I finally made the purchase.

leathercoat

 

I felt pretty cool wearing it to high school (even if I was mortified to still be riding the bus). One morning I was minding my own business, doing some finishing touches on my homework on the way to school, when all of a sudden I heard a sickening splat. I looked down at the arm of my precious caramel-colored jacket. It was smeared with ketchup, the casualty of crossfire between two punky boys who were apparently having a post-breakfast food fight.

 

I was, in all the drama of teenagerdom, devastated.

 

Later Mom and I took the coat to the dry cleaner’s. The lady matter-of-factly told me they’d be able to get the ketchup out but the coat would never be the same. I was crushed. But I also knew I wouldn’t be able to stand smelling vaguely like McDonald’s for any length of time, so I handed over the jacket.

 

They were right. The coat was never the same again. It lost its velvety finish, and the discolored spot where the ketchup hit its mark never went away.

 

When I think about the stain of my sin, I have the same fear—that the stain will never come out. And that even if does, I’ll never be the same again. So I hold back from going to the only one who can make me clean again. I try in vain to mask the ketchupy stench that trails me wherever I go.

 

At the risk of stating the obvious, Jesus’ cleansing abilities are infinitely more effective than the dry cleaner’s. Sin has indeed left its crimson mark on us, but it’s no match for his forgiveness. He washes us white as snow, and leaves us better than he found us.

“Come now, let’s settle this,”

says the Lord.

“Though your sins are like scarlet,

I will make them as white as snow.

Though they are red like crimson,

I will make them as white as wool.”

—Isaiah 1:18

 

Whatever marred spot you are trying to hide, it’s time to come and settle this. There is no sin too great, no stain too deep, that he cannot wipe it out.

 

But even so, if you ever find yourself on the school bus with punky kids, I’d advise you to leave the leather jacket at home.

 

white as snow

 

Where Is God? July 23, 2013

Filed under: Grace — Stephanie Rische @ 12:58 pm
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This summer our small group is taking a break from our usual routine of studying and discussing and making our way through a book together. In an attempt to go deeper with each other, we decided that at each gathering we’d have two people share about what God has done in their lives.

 

All the stories are different—some of us grew up knowing about God; some of us didn’t meet him until later in life. Some of us went down such dark paths we probably shouldn’t be here to tell about it; some of us were more subtle in our sins of choice. But there’s one thing we all have in common: we’re all broken and in desperate need of grace.

 

As we started sharing our stories, we noticed a pattern woven throughout each one. As we looked back, the places we could see God at work most clearly were the lowest points in our lives—our most grievous sins, our darkest seasons of failure, our struggles through grief and loss and loneliness.

 

After one person finished her testimony, there was a moment of sacred silence. Finally Daniel broke in: “Isn’t it amazing to think how we’re hemmed in and held, even when make the wrong choice . . . even when we don’t do the right thing?”

 

I thought of the three men in the Old Testament who were thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3)—how if I’d been in their shoes, I’d no doubt have asked God to take me out of the fire. But as it turned out, God was right there in the midst of those flames.

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And I thought of Peter walking on the water to Jesus as the storm raged around him (Matthew 14). Scaredy-cat that I am, I surely would have asked God to calm the storm. But Jesus surprised Peter with something even more profound: he was right there in the midst of the waves.

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So what about my own life? I beg for the fire to be quenched, for the storm to be stilled. Sometimes he does just that. But other times Jesus is right there with me—in the midst of the flames, in the midst of the waves.

 

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me. . . .
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
—Psalm 139:1, 5

 

Even in the storms and the fire—maybe especially in the storms and the fire—we see the face of Jesus. It’s then that we are hemmed in, held.

 

God is here.

 

The Floodwaters Are Up to My Neck April 26, 2013

Filed under: Grace — Stephanie Rische @ 12:18 pm
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A state of emergency was declared for my area last week after what can only be described as biblical levels of flooding. The wise among us sought higher ground; the wiser stayed home to bail out basements; the wisest started constructing an ark.

 

And me? I went to work.

 

You’d think I would have turned back when I saw all the cars stalled on the side of the road or when I encountered puddles the size of Lake Michigan. But no, I was determined to get to the office, even if it meant I’d have to swim there.

 flood1

 

When I finally arrived, after countless detours and some heroic efforts on the part of my little car, I was dismayed to find the parking lot impassable. That would have been another prime opportunity to turn back, but I doggedly pressed on. After parking on an elevated side street, I grabbed my coffee and umbrella and traipsed through the wet slop in my heels.

 

Everything was going swimmingly, so to speak, until I got to the raging river I had to cross to make it to the entrance. I did my best to calculate the jump but failed to take into account the fact that the ground was roughly the consistency of maple syrup. As soon as I hit the other side, I heard it before I felt it: slurp! Sure enough, my entire foot, heel and all, had been sucked underground. I tried to steady myself, and slurp!—the other foot surrendered to the mud.

 

I finally got inside, tights dripping and shoes full of sludge. How was I going to make it through the day with sopping feet? That’s when my stroke of genius hit: The hand dryer! After twenty minutes of standing in the restroom on alternating feet, my shoes finally stopped making gurgling noises each time I took a step.

 

Then, just as I exited the restroom, I heard the announcement: “Our office will be closed today. Please leave now to ensure you will be able to get your car out.”

 

And so it was time to turn around and cross the temporary creek again.

 

I found the whole escapade entertaining since the damage for me was limited to my pride and a pair of tights. But as I started getting calls from friends and family and hearing news reports about the wreckage people had sustained, the gravity of the situation began to sink in.

flood2

 

And so it is with the personal floods we face—the loss of a job, the severing of a relationship, the chokehold of grief, the dailyness of life. The floodwaters creep higher and higher, and we feel certain they’re going to pull us under. And even worse, God seems to stand far off in the distance, sending no rescue boat our way.

 

The psalmist David knew firsthand how lonely that drowning sensation can feel. Here’s the prayer he offered in the midst of his own flood:

 

Save me, O God,

for the floodwaters are up to my neck.

Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire;

I can’t find a foothold.

I am in deep water,

and the floods overwhelm me. . . .

Rescue me from the mud;

don’t let me sink any deeper!

Save me from those who hate me,

and pull me from these deep waters.

Don’t let the floods overwhelm me,

or the deep waters swallow me.

—Psalm 69:1-2, 15

 

flood3

 

Even if our floodwaters recede and the immediate crisis passes, it’s not over. There’s still the muddy aftermath to deal with—bailing out the basement, evaluating the damage, determining if anything can be salvaged, beginning the tedious cleanup process.

Sometimes it just feels like too much.

 

In those post-flood moments, we have a choice.

Will we give up and sink into the mire?

Or will trust that God will rescue us, even when no rescue is in sight?

 

Answer my prayers, O Lord,

for your unfailing love is wonderful.

Take care of me,

for your mercy is so plentiful.

—Psalm 69:16

 

If you find the floodwaters swirling around your neck today, take heart. God will take care of you; he will show you his unfailing love. And when you are stuck in the basement of life, dealing with the flood’s messy aftermath, may you discover his mercy among the ruins.

 

 

God as a Runner March 19, 2013

Filed under: Grace — Stephanie Rische @ 9:00 am
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One of the highlights of my week occurs at 9:02 each Sunday morning. That’s the moment five-year-old Grace gets to church, and before she even gets her coat off, she comes barreling down the aisle to throw her arms around Daniel and me. She squeals with delight the moment she spots us (most likely because she knows Daniel has some antic up his sleeve to make her laugh), and then she’s heading toward us in an all-out sprint, pink dress flying behind her.

 

There is something breathtaking about the love of a child—unchecked, unbridled, unselfconscious as it is. At five, Grace doesn’t know to be jaded or cynical; she’s never had her heart broken; she doesn’t love as a means to an end. She just extends loves with the openhearted generosity of a child.

grace cropped

“You know, I feel bad sometimes that Grace shows us so much love,” Daniel told me one Sunday as we headed home from church.

 

I shot him a sideways glance, utterly befuddled. “What?

 

“Well, it’s just that we haven’t done anything to deserve her love.”

 

My initial thought was to list off all of Daniel’s qualities that endear him to every child he meets—his goofy sense of humor, his knack for asking good questions, his way of making people feel special and dignifying their feelings. But then it hit me: ultimately he’s right. We don’t deserve that kind of love.

 

Eventually a smile crept across my face. “I guess she’s pretty well named, huh?”

 

God’s grace in the form of a sprinting five-year-old.

 

***

The Bible depicts God with a number of metaphors that speak to his reverence and majesty: he is a just judge, a consuming fire, a sovereign King. But what a shock to see the one true God—whose holiness can’t be contained within the walls of even the most extravagant Temple—pictured as a father who loves his wayward child so much he literally runs to him.

 

While [his son] was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.

—Luke 15:20

 

That image of a father running to a prodigal would be stunning enough on its own (see more in this post). But given the cultural context Jesus was speaking into, it’s even more breathtaking. As one Bible commentator puts it, the father’s action “breaks all Middle Eastern protocol; no father would greet a rebellious son this way.” It would have been degrading to his position, a blow to his pride, yet the father “drapes himself on his son’s neck,” as the Greek text is literally rendered. In other words, God is willing to make a fool of himself to show us his love.

 

Allow yourself to picture it now: our God as a runner.

 

He is running toward you, even now.

 

Will you let him throw his arms around you—those everlasting arms of grace?

 

Temptation in the Form of a Giant Cookie March 8, 2013

Filed under: Grace — Stephanie Rische @ 8:32 am
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piratesI learned a valuable lesson about temptation this week…from a four-year-old, no less.

 

My brother and sister-in-law were having a few families over for a party, and Lyla, being the little social planner she is, had a vision for the party décor that afternoon. And it did not involve the pirate ship. You see, Mom and Dad had decided to put the play ship in the basement so all the kids could play in it during the party, but Lyla didn’t think it would quite jibe with the vision she had for the basement. (She’s really four. I kid you not.)

 

And when that girl gets an idea in her head, you can be assured she’ll put up a Captain Hook-worthy battle to try to get her way. Sure enough, she argued with Mom and Dad, landing her promptly in her bedroom to take a rest and think about it.

 

When it was time to get up, she said to my brother, “Daddy, during rest time I told myself, Think, think, think! And then I decided it was a bad choice to talk back about the pirate ship.”

 

After my brother picked his jaw up off the floor, he and Lyla made their way downstairs to find just the right spot for the pirate ship. He was pleasantly surprised that more was sinking in to this strong-willed girl’s heart than he’d realized.

 

But.

 

The thing about four-year-olds is that they remind us, not so gently, of our humanity.

 

Just a few hours after my niece’s epiphanic moment, my brother noticed that the basement was just a little too quiet, so he went downstairs to check on Lyla and her two-year-old brother. He arrived just in time to see the two of them scampering down from the tall chair Lyla had dragged across the basement floor. Then he looked up on the counter and saw the evidence.

 

The giant chocolate chip cookie my sister-in-law had made for the party had two sets of little fingerprints smeared all over it…not to mention some undeniable lick marks. (No doubt they thought they’d get away with it since they hadn’t taken a bite, after all…)

cookie

I couldn’t help but laugh (one of the perks of being the non-parental figure), but it wasn’t long before I started pondering how much Lyla sounded like me when it comes to dealing with temptation. How is it that in one situation I can tell myself, Think, think, think and overcome a bad choice, only to cave on something else just moments later, having apparently forgotten everything I’d just learned? And who do I think I’m fooling anyway, assuming God will never notice my fingerprints smeared all over a spot I had no business being in the first place?

 

If the Bible is any indication, Lyla and I aren’t alone in this. The apostle Paul puts it this way:

 

I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. . . . And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.

—Romans 7:15-19

 

Thankfully there is grace the likes of Paul, who wants to do right but can’t.

 

There is grace for the likes of me, even as I take two steps forward and one step back.

 

And yes, there is grace for the likes of strong-willed toddlers. Even those of the cookie-licking variety.

 

God’s Stocking Stuffers January 8, 2013

Filed under: Grace — Stephanie Rische @ 1:11 pm
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stocking

Almost two years ago, my friend Mary and her husband, John, went to Ukraine to meet their new son and bring him home. Igor had grown up in rather frugal conditions in the orphanage, so he was pretty blown away by his first Christmas in the States last year. Even now, a year later, he’s still trying to wrap his mind around the extravagant traditions in his new home.

 

“We get gifts and stockings?” he kept wondering aloud to his older brothers.

 

I asked Mary if Igor had any special requests for Christmas this year.

 

“Yes,” she told me with a smile. “He was really excited about the idea of getting an apple in his stocking.”

 

An apple.

 

Mary and John were happy to oblige. They’re his parents, after all, and those gifts are just one of many ways they delight in showing their son how much he’s loved.

 

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about God’s gifts to us, despite how undeserving we are. He puts big gifts for us under the tree—or, more aptly, nailed to the tree—things like salvation and forgiveness and reconciliation with him.

 

He could stop there, and the gift would be sufficient for all of eternity. But that’s not the extent of his generosity. He also stuffs our stockings, showering us with bonus gifts that have no purpose other than to show us his delight in us, to reveal his extravagant love.

 *  * *

The other night as I was climbing into bed, I was greeted by Daniel’s stuffed rat on my pillow. Now lest you doubt my husband’s romanticism, I should assure you that where we come from, “Rat” is actually a term of endearment.

 

rat2

 

Daniel and I discovered early on when we were dating that among other startling family similarities (for instance: his dad is one of 13 siblings; my dad is one of 12), both our dads called us “Rat” or “Little Rat” as an affectionate nickname.

 

As we got ready for bed that night, Daniel said with a chuckle, “You know, every time our dads called us Rat growing up, God must have just smiled. Like he was saying, Don’t worry, guys—I’ve got this one.

 

My mind wandered back to all those years when I’d been waiting for Mr. Right (as I mentioned in this post), wondering if God would answer my prayers, when all along he had the perfect person for me. Even down to the weird nickname.

 

I wonder how many other times I doubt God, thinking he doesn’t see my pain, when actually he’s just waiting for the precise moment to reveal the gift he has all planned out. Don’t worry, he must be saying. I’ve got this one.

 

God gives us those little bonus gifts along the way—stocking stuffers, if you will—not because he owes us anything, but to show us how much he loves us. To remind us that he has our lives covered, even if we can’t see the whole picture yet.

 

He does, after all, love his little rats.

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