Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

6 Gifts You Need This Christmas December 20, 2013

Filed under: Christmas — Stephanie Rische @ 8:07 am
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The words of the great prophecy came not in a time of triumph, trumpeted from the rooftop of a palace or on a victorious battleground. Instead, they were whispered in the dark, underneath the rumblings of an enemy invasion and a sweeping defeat. They trickled underground, slow and quiet, to a people huddled in the cold—a people whose hopes had been crushed, whose candle had all but been extinguished.


The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.

—Isaiah 9:2



Today Christmas meets us wherever we are, too, whether in a patch of light and joy, or stumbling along without a lantern, trying to fend off the encroaching darkness. And so this Christmas, here are the six gifts all of us need—the six gifts I wish for you, no matter how dark the night may be.


For those times when life is a gerbil wheel and you find yourself going through the motions day after day, wondering where the joy went . . . may you know Him as WONDERFUL.


For the times when you’re seeking clarity, but all the paths before you are overgrown with weeds . . . may you know Him as COUNSELOR.


For the times when you feel powerless, trampled down by the very ones who were supposed to protect you . . . may you know Him as MIGHTY GOD.


For the times when you have to say good-bye too soon . . . may you know Him as EVERLASTING.


For the times when you are lonely and scared and longing for someone who will love you unconditionally . . . may you know Him as FATHER.


For the times when your world is spinning faster than you can keep up, with your soul close behind . . . may you know Him as the PRINCE OF PEACE.


For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder.

and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

—Isaiah 9:6




Christmas through the Eyes of a Carpenter December 17, 2013

Filed under: Christmas — Stephanie Rische @ 8:10 am
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My family has a unanimously agreed-upon no-Christmas-gifts policy, and my dad hasn’t set foot in a mall since circa 1986, so I was surprised when he told me he had something for me in the basement—something I needed to open before Christmas.


Intrigued, I made my way downstairs to find a large lump sitting on the Ping-Pong table, draped unceremoniously with a black garbage bag. I raised an eyebrow at Dad before pulling back the plastic to unveil the mystery item.


When I realized what it was, I’m pretty sure I squealed louder than I did the Christmas I was eight and awoke to find my pink-and-purple banana-seat bike under the tree. “It’s a stable!” I exclaimed. “For my nativity set!”


Ever since I’d gotten a nativity set, I’d been looking for a stable big enough to fit the figures, but I’d had no success. And since I didn’t want Mary and Joseph and the rest of the crew to look freakishly disproportionate in their Bethlehem abode, thus far the crèche figurines had been without shelter. Until now. Dad, being the handyman he is, had come up with a solution to my dilemma: he’d built a custom-sized stable himself.


My dad, Joseph, the carpenter.


He pointed out all the details of the stable: the ladder that led to the loft, the perch where a bird could sit, the spotlight that would shine on Baby Jesus, the place where he’d had to cover the blood after cutting his finger. His voice grew animated as he told me that the whole thing was made of found materials—scrap wood, paint-stirring sticks, twigs he and Mom had found in the backyard, sawdust shavings from the basement floor.




On my way home that night, glancing at the work of art in the seat beside me, I couldn’t help but think of another Joseph, another carpenter, another father. Why did God pick Joseph as Jesus’ adoptive father? I wondered. Mary features prominently in the Christmas story, but we don’t hear much about Joseph, and I guess I’d always pictured him as her silent sidekick. But surely God had a reason to write him into the story too.


As I thought about my dad pounding and sawing for months leading up to December, it struck me that at a carpenter’s very heart is the ability to believe in a crazy, far-fetched dream. A carpenter is someone who can embrace a vision before it’s a reality, someone who can take ordinary scraps and see them not as they are but as they could be one day. A carpenter is someone who believes the impossible . . . and then gets to work building it.


Thousands of years ago, when Joseph heard his fiancée was pregnant, an angel appeared to him in a dream:


“Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

—Matthew 1:20-21


Joseph was given a dream that day—a dream made of ordinary-looking scraps: A pregnant girl. A common laborer. A family without clout or fortune or political connections. A community skeptical of his fiancée’s claims. But somehow Joseph was able to take those found pieces and believe that the God-given vision was true: that this baby really would be the Messiah, the promised one, the one who would save the people from their sins.


When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife.

—Matthew 1:24


In the face of the impossible, Joseph rolled up his sleeves and got to work, doing his part to hammer a miraculous dream into reality.


So every time I see that stable on my mantel, I’ll think of two Josephs. Like those dreamers, I want to see in the scraps around me the visions God is building in my life. The pieces themselves might not be much to look at on their own. But in the deft hands of the Carpenter, they just might become something beautiful.


God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning



God with Us December 10, 2013

Filed under: Christmas — Stephanie Rische @ 8:15 am
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On the last day my three-year-old nephew was in town for a visit, his grandma and I asked him if there was anything else he wanted to do before he went back home. Without hesitation, he and his big sister replied, “We want to go to BOUNCE TOWN!”


For the uninitiated (as I was prior to aunthood), Bounce Town is one of those places with giant inflatable slides and tunnels, moon walks, inflatable castles, and air trampolines. In other words, a dream-come-true for anyone under three feet tall.



From the moment we walked in the door, Tyler had my hand gripped in his own chubby fingers. He wanted to go everywhere with “Aunt Eppie,” as he calls me.


“Aunt Eppie go with me!” he exclaimed, racing toward the slide as I tried to keep pace.


After squirming my way through tunnels made me for people one-third my size and maneuvering around pint-sized torpedoes zipping down the slide, I asked Tyler what he wanted to do next. “Go on the Batman,” he said. “With Eppie!”



And so I followed him to the Batman-themed inflatable, again contorting my body through various child-sized portals.


Next up was the trampoline. Tyler squealed with delight: “Eppie make me bounce in the air!”


By the time our hour had expired, I was sporting two rug burns, several sore muscles, and one headache. But you know what? It was worth every bruise, every bit of pain.


Because here’s the thing: Tyler can’t enter my world of work and e-mail and adult conversation and grown-up things. So I entered his world. It wasn’t comfortable—Bounce Town isn’t made for giants like me. But I scrunched my body through the tunnels and small spaces—all so I could be close to this boy I love, all so I could hold his hand, all so we could breathe the same air.


On the way home, tired but happy, it hit me that traipsing around Bounce Town in my stocking feet is a pretty good picture of Christmas. God wanted to be with us, but he realized how vast the gap was between us and him. So he entered into the awkward space of a human womb, squeezing himself through a narrow birth canal, experiencing unaccountable pain and discomfort throughout his three decades on earth—all so he could be with us, all so he could enter our world.


Immanuel. God with us.


Even in the tight, uncomfortable spaces of our earthly Bounce Town.


“This is the God of the gospel of grace. A God who, out of love for us, sent the only Son He ever had wrapped in our skin. He learned how to walk, stumbled and fell, cried for His milk, sweated blood in the night, was lashed with a whip and showered with spit, was fixed to a cross, and died whispering forgiveness on us all.”
—Brennan Manning




God’s Stocking Stuffers January 8, 2013

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




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.




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.




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!”


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.



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.



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.




 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.