Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

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




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.



The Pages In Between October 9, 2012

Filed under: Joel,John — Stephanie Rische @ 5:04 pm
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I was surprised to turn the page of my Bible the other day and discover that I’d jumped straight from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Since I’m reading the Chronological Bible, I didn’t have the usual clues like divider pages or those handy-dandy little thumb tabs to alert me.


According to canonical order, Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament, but scholars think Joel was actually the last of the prophets to give a message before the arrival of the Messiah. If that’s the case, then these are the final words God spoke to his people before the new covenant was ushered in. They are words full of hope and promise, grace and truth:


Judah will be filled with people forever,
and Jerusalem will endure through all generations.
I will pardon my people’s crimes,
which I have not yet pardoned;
and I, the Lord, will make my home
in Jerusalem with my people.
—Joel 3:20-21


With a simple turn of the page, I was amazed to see that promise directly fulfilled in the person of Christ:


The Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.
—John 1:14


God’s last words in the old covenant consisted of the promise to make his home with his people. And sure enough, in the book of John, Jesus is revealed as God in human form, moving into our neighborhood.


But things weren’t so clear cut for the people living in those years between Joel’s final prophesy and the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ arrival. They couldn’t just turn to the next chapter to see the fulfillment—they had to wait. And wait. And wait.


They waited for some 400 years, in fact. Think about it—for us that would be like getting a promise in the 1600s, in the days of Galileo or Shakespeare, and not seeing the results until now. With each passing generation, it must have gotten harder for the Israelites to hold on to this promise of Immanuel, harder to feel the truth of it, harder to believe it would actually happen one day.


It had to be hard to live in those blank pages between the two testaments.


And although today we have both the BC and the AD parts of the story, we often find ourselves in a similar spot, wondering and waiting on our own blank pages between the promise and the fulfillment. We have God’s words in broad strokes—that he will save and redeem and make all things new again—but there are so many things we don’t know while we wait. What, exactly, will it look like when the promise is fulfilled? Why do we have to wait? And perhaps most of all, for how long?


I don’t want to grow weary as I wait. I don’t want to forget the promise. I don’t want my belief to fade into little more than a distant memory. I want to wait well.


Come, Lord Jesus. Make your home among us. And in the meantime, let us wait with patience and hope whenever we find ourselves on the blank pages in between.

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.


Bridging the Gap August 24, 2012

Filed under: Zephaniah — Stephanie Rische @ 8:14 am
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On a recent Wednesday evening I drove to a building that was just a few towns away, but the moment I stepped in the door, I felt like I’d walked into another world.

My husband, Daniel, was the “visiting artist” for mentally ill adults who live at various group homes in the area, and I was going along as his assistant. (For the record, I can’t even draw stick figures, but I figured at the very least I was qualified to wash out the paintbrushes.)

Having had limited exposure to individuals with mental illness of this severity, I was a little nervous, unsure what to expect. Daniel told me all I needed to do was be there, that showing up would be enough. But still I worried.

As the participants finished dinner, I joined them around the table and tried desperately to come up with conversation topics we could connect on. What common ground would I be able to find with people whose lives looked so different from mine—many of whom had been dealt the harsh blows of homelessness, unemployment, and addiction, some of whom had been abandoned by family members and shunned by society at large?

Fortunately for my tongue-tied self, Daniel is a master at breaking the ice. “What do you like to do for fun?” he asked the group, making eye contact with each person who would meet his gaze. And with that simple question, the table launched from awkward silence into animated conversation.

I found out that Jim is a diehard darts player, that Steven has a passion for his motorized kayak (who knew such a thing existed?), that Betty Ann loves anything yellow, and that Gene could cite every statistic about the Chicago Bears from 1986 on.

Before I knew it, it was time to start the art project, so I distributed the scissors, glue, and paint. As the participants got to work, I realized that we had not only creative talent but also some quick wit represented in the group.

Before we began, Chris had told me that using scissors wasn’t his forte. But once we got going, I noticed he was doing a meticulous job, and I told him as much.

“Hey, you’re good at cutting,” I said.

Without missing a beat, he responded, “I’m good at cutting the cheese, maybe!”

And when I saw Jon mixing the paint colors to create beautiful shades of chartreuse and burnt orange, I told him I was impressed with how artistic he was.

With a wry grin and a self-deprecating chuckle, Jon shot back, “Wait…did you say artistic or autistic?”

As the evening progressed and our hands gradually became kaleidoscopes of tempera paint, I had a sudden realization: I was having fun. And I had a lot more in common with these new friends than I thought I would. Daniel was right: there was power in simply showing up.

Somehow the chasm that had once loomed so large in my mind was shrinking once it was removed from the realm of the theoretical. Now that we were sitting at the same table, face to face, our differences didn’t seem so unbroachable.

It got me to thinking about the Incarnation—how God himself showed up in our world in human form. How he narrowed the huge gap between us and him—a gap infinitely more yawning than any perceived gap between me and another equally valuable human being.

Zephaniah prophesied about the Incarnation, when God would span that divine gap and make his dwelling with the likes of us:


The Lord your God is living among you.

He is a mighty savior.

He will take delight in you with gladness.

With his love, he will calm all your fears.

He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.

—Zephaniah 3:17

No doubt there are profound aspects to the Incarnation, theological conundrums that scholars could devote a lifetime to. But as I sat there with my hands covered in paint, I was struck by a rawer side of the Incarnation. A God who showed up. A God who didn’t grit his teeth to make small talk with us but instead delighted in us. A God whose Incarnation was birthed out of gladness and love.

Jesus showed up. He bridged the gap. And he did so with delight.

May I never think I’m above doing the same.

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.