Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

Surprise Me! October 29, 2013

Filed under: Family — Stephanie Rische @ 8:03 am
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I love going places with my sister where there is ordering of any sort involved. That’s because almost without fail, when she places her order, she drops the line “Surprise me” at some point in the conversation.

 

If she’s getting a cappuccino and the barista asks what flavor she’d like, Meghan will give her trademark dimpled grin and say, “Surprise me!” If she’s ordering a salad and is offered various dressing options, her response is the same: “Surprise me!” If I’m getting her something to drink out of Mom’s fridge, I can almost guarantee her refrain will echo once again: “Surprise me!”

 

I always stare at her, wide eyed. “What if you get something you don’t like?”

 

She just flashes a grin at me and shrugs. “That’s part of the fun of the surprise.”

 

Me, I’m a planner. I like to map it all out, write a script. I cling to the illusion of control. Truth be told, I’d rather do the surprising than the being surprised.

 

But this sister of mine, she lives with her arms wide open. She embraces life, holds out her hands to accept the surprises God has for her, just the way she does with her coffee.

 

So when the time approached for Meghan’s baby to born, I should have expected that this surprise-loving sister of mine would make room for as many surprises as possible.

 

“Girl or boy?” I asked over the phone, breathless, after her ultrasound.

 

“We’re going to be surprised!” she said, and I could hear the smile in her voice.

 

“What names are you thinking about?”

 

“We’re keeping it a surprise!”

 

And of course, the details of the birth itself were a surprise. Two days before her due date, Meghan went to the doctor. “You’re progressing right along,” he said. “It should be any day now.”

 

But the next day nothing happened. And nothing the next day either, or the day after, or the whole week after.

 

And then, ten days past her due date, just when the doctor was ready to speed things along, surprise! The baby decided to make a grand appearance. And the new mom and dad unwrapped their surprise package right there in their hospital room…a little gift of a girl named Addie Mae.

 

addie4

 

And when I first looked into the face of that sweet surprise, I wondered what other surprises God might have up his sleeve. What do I miss out on when I try to make the plan and script it all out myself?

 

This little girl, this eight-pound bundle, she is teaching me already. Her life whispers, as soft as breathing, This is life! This is joy! This is a whole new world of divine surprises.

 

addie1

 

So here I am, God, with my eyes squeezed shut and my arms wide open. Surprise me.

 

addie2

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Shine September 6, 2013

Filed under: Family — Stephanie Rische @ 8:15 am
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{Last weekend we celebrated the upcoming birth of my sister’s baby with a small family gathering, a few gifts, and some raspberry punch. I took advantage of the opportunity to brag a little about my kid sister, and I thought I’d share those thoughts here. She’s going to be a great mom, don’t you think?}

shower1

 

Ever since Meghan was a baby, we could all tell there was something special about her. Yes, she was determined and tough and always on the go, right from the beginning. But there was something else about her too . . . a brightness and a warmth about her that attracted people to her. It was like she’d swallowed sunshine and it couldn’t help but beam out of her. As she grew up, it became clear that she reflected God’s light in a beautiful, unique way.

 

When I think about Meghan, one word that always comes to mind is shine. For as long as I can remember, she has lived out this verse:

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
—Matthew 5:16

 

Let me tell you a story as a case in point. When Meghan was about four years old, she was very serious about her piggy bank. She saved every penny and guarded against conniving older siblings who might try to convince her to trade her measly little dimes for their big nickels (hypothetically speaking, of course). She never spent her money, even if there was a special toy she had her sights set on.

 

But then one day she overheard the rest of the family talking about kids who didn’t have enough money for basic things like food and clothing. She didn’t say anything, and the rest of us didn’t know she’d been following the conversation. But later that night, at bedtime, she went to Mom, eyes wide.

 

“Here, Mom,” she said, handing over her entire piggy bank, with every dime in it.

 

Mom looked her, confused.

 

“It’s for the kids,” Meghan said.

 

Kyle and I stared in wonder. This kid was shining already, at the age of four.

 

As Meghan grew up, her shine factor only grew brighter. She shone at school, on the basketball court, on the tennis court, with her friends, in leadership positions. She didn’t preach much, but she didn’t need to. Her actions were a winsome reflection of the God she served so faithfully and wholeheartedly.

 

One of the clearest snapshots in my mind of this shining sister of mine was before each college track meet. Mom and Dad and I attended almost every meet, and we always arrived early (largely due to Dad’s nerves). It was a fascinating study to observe the athletes in their pre-competition rituals. Each athlete’s routine was different, but there were some common threads: each person was focused and serious, and you could tell by the way they looked at their competitors that they were sizing them up to see if they should be scared of them or if they could squash them like bugs.

 

Then there was Meghan. If I ever wondered where she was before a meet, I could be sure to find her at the side of her fiercest competition. But she was neither quaking in her running spikes nor engaging in intimidation strategies. Rather, she was trying to turn her competitor into a friend. Certainly, she was focused and determined and playing to win. But she also knew there are some things that are more important than winning. As proud as I am of her athletic accomplishments, I’m even more proud of the way she shone at those meets, win or lose.

 

shower3

 

Then, to our amazement and delight, Meghan met a fellow track star (pun intended) named Ted, who shone the way she did—on the track, with his teammates and classmates, with his Young Life students.

 

Meghan and Ted continue to shine now—with their coworkers, at their church, in their neighborhood. Everyone who sees them can tell there is something different about them—something that sets them apart. Even if people can’t put their finger on what it is exactly, we know that their shine comes from the way they reflect the light of their heavenly Father.

 

And now, as I think about this baby, I can’t help but think how blessed this kid will be to have parents who shine the way Meghan and Ted do. I don’t know exactly how God’s light will shine in and through this child, but I believe God will use this kid in incredible ways to bring his light into this dark world.

 

So now I’d like to share a “shine blessing” with Meghan and the baby now. These are the words that God told Moses’ brother, Aaron, to say as a blessing over the Israelites, and it’s the same words mom used to say over us at the bus stop before we went to school.

May the Lord bless you
and keep you;
May the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
May the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.
—Numbers 6:24-26

 

So please come meet us soon, Baby. Your auntie can’t wait to see the way you shine.

 

shower2

 

The Summer Day August 27, 2013

Filed under: Prayer — Stephanie Rische @ 12:07 pm
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Last weekend my husband and I escaped to a charming bed and breakfast along the Mississippi River to celebrate our anniversary. The town itself isn’t much to speak of—it has seen better economies, better days, better centuries even. But Ed and Sandy, the owners of the B&B, have created a little sanctuary right there in the heart of the town—a place of respite amid the busyness of life.

 

July August 2013 030

 

After a breakfast of pancakes loaded with plump blueberries, hot coffee with real cream, and fresh sweet strawberries, Daniel and I sat on the huge wrap-around front porch, serenaded by the songbirds and gurgling fountains that grace the property. Butterflies flitted from flower to flower, apparently as enticed by the aroma of the purple phlox as we were.

 

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Then Daniel pulled out his guitar started playing right there on the front porch, and as the morning sun filtered through the trees onto my neck, I wished I could bottle the moment and keep it all year. Summer in a jar.

 

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At one point Daniel looked over at me and noticed that my book was uncharacteristically closed on my lap. I was just sitting there, silent, taking it all in.

 

“What are you thinking about?” he asked, no doubt concerned I’d slipped into a food coma after all those pancakes.

 

I couldn’t quite put it into words. But Mary Oliver captures the moment in her poem “The Summer Day.”

 

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

 

Sometimes prayer is about structure and discipline and articulate words. But sometimes it’s simply learning “how to be idle and blessed.” Sometimes prayer is sitting on the front porch soaking in this wild and wonderful world God has made.

 

Sometimes prayer is just paying attention.

 

So as summer slips into September and kids don backpacks and the days start taking shortcuts toward dusk, I want to take time to seize these final summer days. I don’t want life to slip by as I rush through my busy to-do list.

 

This summer day, this gift from God—what will I do with it? What will I do with this one wild and precious life?

July August 2013 043

 

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.

 

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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.”

* * *

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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.

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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

 

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

 

Alena’s Story July 19, 2013

Filed under: Gospel Stories — Stephanie Rische @ 10:44 am
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Two of my great passions in life are helping other people share their stories and seeing God’s extraordinary grace at work through ordinary people. So when I was given the opportunity to be part of the Gospel Stories project at my church, it felt like a beautiful collision of those passions.

 

Today I’d like to share Alena’s inspiring story with you.

 

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Alena’s Story

When we experience pain—whether the pain is physical or emotional—most of us fall to our knees with the same agonizing question on our lips: Why, Lord?

 

At the age of 16, Alena asked the same question when she found herself in constant physical pain, battling a condition that doctors couldn’t seem to nail down and wondering if she’d ever be able to dance again. Why did she have to go through something like this at such a young age? Where was God in the midst of her suffering?

 

It was only when she surrendered to the Lord that she experienced a life-transforming truth: even if God never changed her pain, he was changing her heart. This is the story of how the gospel met Alena at her point of deepest pain and taught her to dance again.

 

O Lord my God, I called out to you for help, and you healed me. . . . You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
—Psalm 30:2, 11

 

Click here to watch Alena’s story in her own words.