Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

Thin Places August 13, 2013

Filed under: Prayer — Stephanie Rische @ 4:01 pm
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There are some moments when the curtain between heaven and earth flutters open slightly and we are able to get a peek into the other side. Such was the case for me on a Saturday I won’t soon forget.

 

My mom and I went to visit my childhood pastor and his wife, who have also become family friends over the years. They moved into a retirement facility last year, and not long after they settled into their new place, Pastor Bob’s Alzheimer’s progressed to the point that Ruth could no longer take care of him. He now lives in a separate wing in the same facility, where he gets round-the-clock care from nurses, not to mention daily visits from Ruth, who feeds him, does his laundry, holds his hand, and talks to him, even though he no longer knows her name and can’t form coherent words in response.

 

Ruth and Bob celebrated their anniversary the week before our visit. “Sixty-four years,” she says, her eyes sparkling. Her face becomes animated as she recounts the story of their whirlwind engagement. They’d been dating for a number of years, but in those years just after the Second World War, housing was nearly impossible to find. Then one day Bob’s dad saw a farm he just had to have and bought it on the spot. He asked Bob if he would farm it. Would he!

 

Bob wasted no time rushing to Ruth’s apartment, taking the stairs three at a time.

 

Excitedly he announced, “We can get married!”

 

Ruth stared at him in amazement. “When?”

 

“Two weeks should work.”

 

“Two weeks?” Her mouth fell open. “Impossible!”

 

They compromised. Three weeks.

 

“My poor mother!” Ruth says with a laugh. “Only three weeks to plan a wedding—and just before Christmas, at that!”

 

Then a shadow comes over Ruth’s countenance. “I married a man,” she says. “And now I have a little boy.”

* * *

pastor bob2

Sitting around Ruth’s dining room table, eating spice cookies off gold dishes and sipping sparkling pomegranate juice, we hear the update on Bob—how he no longer seems to recognize his children, how this man who had once made a living communicating is now essentially nonverbal. He can make sounds, but everything comes out in gibberish. Ruth isn’t sure if he always recognizes her, but often when she enters the room, he reaches out his arms, like a child who wants to be picked up and loved.

 

“It’s difficult,” Ruth says, “what with his apparent loss of memory about his life and his walk with the Lord.” Other than a rare whisper of “Thank you, Jesus” or “Praise the Lord,” or the time he hummed the entire tune of “Children of the Heavenly Father,” the faithful man she once knew is now mostly locked inside.

 

As I reach over and grab her hand, I think about how fine that line is separating heaven and earth. And I cling to the hope that in this fuzzy in-between place, where human bodies crumble and memories fail, God never forgets us: “I, the Lord, made you, and I will not forget you” (Isaiah 44:21).

 

* * *

After lunch we go down to the Alzheimer’s wing to visit Pastor Bob. I thought I knew what to expect, but there’s no real way to prepare for finding someone so drastically changed. This once articulate man, so full of energy, always ready with a joke or a story or a theological conundrum, can’t even say hello.

pastor bob1

 

Mom and I share fond memories with Pastor Bob, mostly for Ruth’s benefit. As we sit there, a flood of memories washes over me—Pastor Bob praying over me at my confirmation, the way he led our congregation in prayer before church potlucks, the way he always remembered to pray for the sick and the shut-ins. And I wondered, Who is praying for him now that he’s the one who’s sick?

 

Without thinking, I say, “Pastor Bob, can I pray for you?”

 

And for the first time that visit, his entire face beams. His eyes connect directly with mine, and he offers me his widest grin.

 

I don’t even know what comes out of my mouth in that prayer—I’m sure my own words are little more than gibberish. But it doesn’t matter. God understands what both our hearts are saying.

 

The early Celtic Christians had a name for the times when the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted. Thin places, they called them. According to one Celtic saying, heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places, that gap narrows and we are given a peek into God’s glory.

 

Later that afternoon, when Mom and I get in the car to head home, we stare at each other, trying to take in all we were witness to that day.

 

“I feel kind of shaky,” Mom tells me, and I agree.

 

A thin place indeed. Who wouldn’t feel shaky when you’re standing at such a small gap between heaven and earth?

 

***

Epilogue: Between the time of the writing and the posting of this piece, Pastor Bob passed through that thin place. He is now face-to-face with his Savior, with no veil between him and his Savior.

 

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

—Søren Kierkegaard

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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