Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

A Wasted Feast July 24, 2012

Filed under: Isaiah — Stephanie Rische @ 1:16 pm
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For an assignment during my freshman year of college, I was required to watch a film called Babette’s Feast. I wasn’t happy about it—partly because it was a foreign film with subtitles (with nary a Leonardo DiCaprio to be found) and partly because I had to watch it in the library (which meant popcorn was out).

But somewhere before the final credits starting rolling, I got sucked into the story. There were no flashy special effects, and the plot was minimal. But I couldn’t help but get swept up by its undercurrent of grace—shocking, wasteful grace.

The movie is set on a remote island in Denmark, and the cast of characters consists of aging adherents of a strict religious sect. Their lives are sparse: they eat simple meals of fish and broth, and their days are marked by pious activities like caring for the poor and meeting to sing hymns and pray. There is no drinking, no dancing, no dating. No fun.

Babette is the loyal servant of two of the sisters who live on the island. No one knows much about her past, except that she misses her beloved homeland of France. Babette watches silently as the community begins to fracture, succumbing to petty squabbling and in-fighting. On an otherwise ordinary day she receives a letter from home and discovers she has won the lottery. Ten thousand francs—enough for her to go back to France and retire comfortably.

As the community prepares for a celebration honoring their founder, Babette makes one request: she’d like to prepare a feast for the celebration. The people are horrified—they never share meals at their gatherings. Much less French meals! What if the feast turns out to be of the devil and leads them into sin? But since it’s the only thing Babette has asked for in all her years there and they know she’ll be leaving soon, the members concede. Privately, however, they promise they won’t say a word about the meal.

The day of the celebration arrives, and Babette serves a five-course meal that would be beyond extravagant by any standards, let alone for sheltered island people whose diets formerly consisted of nothing but fish and broth. They have no idea what to make of the likes of gourmet turtle soup, caviar, Cornish hens, amaretto cake, fine French wine, and champagne.

True to their word, however, they say nothing about the food, even as their eyes widen in surprise and veiled delight. But something interesting happens as the evening progresses. As their mouths fill with bite after bite of each exquisite dish, old wounds start to dissipate. Bickering is gradually replaced with kind words and warmth.

When the meal is over, Babette splashes water on her face, exhausted but satisfied, seemingly oblivious to the lack of praise she received for her feast. The sisters address Babette sadly, knowing that now that the celebration is over, she’ll be heading back to her homeland.

“Oh, no,” Babette says. “I won’t be going back. I don’t have any money.”

The sisters look at each other, utterly baffled. Didn’t Babette just cash in the check for the 10,000 francs?

Gradually realization dawns. Babette spent all the money—every last penny—on the celebration feast. Ten thousand francs, wasted on people who didn’t know they were getting the finest meal by the finest chef Paris had ever boasted. Ten thousand francs, wasted on people who never even said thank-you.

It’s interesting to note that one of the common pictures God paints when depicting his goodness and favor is a feast. In the midst of the prophet Isaiah’s talk about God’s judgment, he describes this scene of a shared meal:

In Jerusalem, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
will spread a wonderful feast
for all the people of the world.
It will be a delicious banquet
with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat.
There he will remove the cloud of gloom,
the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.
He will swallow up death forever!
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears.
—Isaiah 25:6-8

I am not, after all, so different from the guests at Babette’s feast. By human standards, grace is wasted on the likes of me. My palate is so accustomed to blandness that I can’t grasp the extravagant gift I’ve been given—a gift that cost the giver everything. And even I could somehow comprehend the sacrifice, I certainly wouldn’t be able to express adequate appreciation.

But in the beautiful mystery of grace, God invites me to his feast anyway. No doubt it will be a delicious banquet. But even better than the menu will be the one who has prepared it with such love—and with the ultimate sacrifice.

 

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.

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Counterintuitive Washing March 13, 2012

Filed under: Leviticus — Stephanie Rische @ 4:51 pm
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One of my pet peeves about winter in the Midwest is the salty cars. Specifically, my salty car. (Yes, I know it’s currently 70 degrees outside, but I haven’t quite made it to the carwash yet.) At any rate, it isn’t uncommon for me, about halfway through the workday, to look down and realize my black pants have inadvertently brushed against my dirty car.

As someone who grew up with all the glories and messes of the four seasons, it isn’t hard for me to relate to a certain aspect of the regulations about sacrifices described in Leviticus: the idea that once something clean touches something unclean, the once clean object or person is now defiled (Leviticus 5:2-3).

I’ve been around long enough to know that when a mud-splattered puppy bolts through the living room, it’s not the freshly vacuumed carpet that rubs off on the dog; rather, the rug takes on the dirt and grime. When a kid falls onto the grass in his brand-new pants, it’s the pants that get the stain, not the other way around. And it’s not that different with sin, I suppose. If sin so much as sneezes in my direction (whether I’m seeking it out or not), I know I’ll get its tainting effects on me.

So as I read God’s instructions to the priests about the impure making the pure dirty, it made sense to me. That’s just the way our world works. But I stopped in my tracks when I got to this part: “Anyone or anything that touches these offerings will become holy” (Leviticus 6:18).  Now this doesn’t jive with my understanding of the world. How could touching something pure cleanse something that was dirty?

That is, I suppose, the counterintuitive nature of grace.

Thankfully, we no longer live under the system of animal sacrifices. But it is much the same for us today. When I come into contact with Jesus, the pure and perfect Sacrifice, he isn’t tainted by my uncleanness, my sin. Instead, I am made clean and whole by touching him. It’s only then that I can stand confidently before a holy God.

My soul’s own carwash. Spot free.

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 Grace of Passing Over February 28, 2012

Filed under: Exodus — Stephanie Rische @ 8:03 am
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My friend Liz is Jewish—“real Jewish,” she’d tell you, meaning she grew up in Israel. She and her mom moved to the United States when Liz was in high school, in large part so Liz wouldn’t have to serve in the Israeli army—something of an automatic draft for all 18-year-olds, male or female, in her country.

I met Liz shortly after she moved here, near Passover time. Since most of the people I knew of who celebrated Passover were long-dead guys like Moses, I was intrigued to hear how she and her family marked the holiday.

The thing that usually struck me when I read the account of the first Passover was the rather somber tone of the event. Honestly, it didn’t sound like my idea of a holiday to be packed up and ready to flee, eating “with urgency” (Exodus 12:11). Not quite a relaxing family gathering at Grandma’s house.

On a deeper level, the premise itself seemed less than festive: blood painted around the doorframe of each Israelite home, and with it the dark undercurrent of knowing every household in Egypt would be visited by the angel of death that night.

I asked Liz about Passover, in all my Goyim ignorance. Does it ever seem strange, I wondered, to celebrate a holiday whose main event is a nation-wide slaughter? Liz bit her lip, trying unsuccessfully to hide her smile.

“It’s not about the death,” she said. “It’s about getting passed over.”

Oh, right. Hence the name.

If you don’t know what you’re getting saved from, I suppose the grace, the celebration, doesn’t mean much.

And now, many generations after that first Passover, the same can be true for us—Gentiles and descendants of Moses alike. The blood of the Lamb has covered the doorframes of our hearts. And as a result, the angel of death no longer has power over us.

We, too, will be passed over.

Now that’s a reason to celebrate.

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 Mountain of Obedience January 27, 2012

Filed under: Genesis — Stephanie Rische @ 8:13 am
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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 story of God calling Abraham to sacrifice his long-awaited son, Isaac, is one of the toughest accounts in the whole Bible for me to grapple with. Why would a good God ask his faithful follower to do something that seems so contrary to his nature…so downright cruel? Yes, there’s a graceful finish to the story, but Abraham didn’t know that when he and his beloved son started their hike up the mountain.

Recently, though, I read something in Tim Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods that shed new light onto this story. According to Keller, in the cultural and religious backdrop of Abraham’s day, it was a given that every firstborn son belonged to God. Although these sons were to be bought back through sacrifice (Exodus 22:29; 34:20), they were still viewed as belonging to God—something of a down payment for the family’s sins. So in reality, Keller contends, God wasn’t asking Abraham to commit murder; he was asking him to lay down what was rightfully his.

Still, Abraham was left in a quandary. He believed God was holy, so he must hand over his son. Yet he also believed God was gracious and would keep his promises. How could both be true?

As I think about Abraham and Isaac making their way up the mountain on their sacrificial journey, I marvel at Abraham’s obedience. How was he able to put one foot in front of the other knowing what awaited him at the top? Keller captures Abraham’s faithfulness this way: “If he had not believed that he was in debt to a holy God, he would have been too angry to go. But if he had not also believed that God was a God of grace, he would have been too crushed and hopeless to go” (p. 11).

Keller goes on to point out that the biblical account offers a beautiful foreshadowing of grace: “He told his servants that ‘we will come back to you’ (Genesis 22:5). It is unlikely he had any specific idea of what God would do.” But he clung to the hope that God would somehow stay true to his character.

And he did just that. He provided a substitute—a ram in place of Abraham’s son.

This is, in the end, a beautiful account of eleventh-hour grace. Even so, it pales next to the ultimate story of sacrifice and grace: God’s own Son, laid on the altar by his Father. The substitute for our sin. Once and for all.

 

The Grace of the Tarzan Skirt January 14, 2012

Filed under: Genesis — Stephanie Rische @ 11:18 pm
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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.

Call it shallow, call it being female, but I can’t help but notice as I read Genesis that God was the designer of the very first outfit.

Thanks to those illustrated Bible storybooks I read as a kid, I always picture Eve with a furry Tarzan look—one shoulder covered, the other bare, a tasteful belt around her waist. I just never really thought about where the outfit came from.

But this time as I read the account of Paradise Lost, something new hit my fashion sensibilities. I found it disturbing in that “Lady Gaga is wearing a meat dress” sort of way. The first line of clothing in the brand-new world, it turns out, was preceded by its first bloodshed.

Back when things were perfect, Adam and Eve were on vegetarian diet (Genesis 1:29), which meant no cows or chickens had kicked the bucket for sake of supper. And presumably, since things were perfect, no one—human or animal—had died for any other reason. But once Adam and Eve caved to temptation, God’s promise that death would ensue (Genesis 3:3) went into effect immediately.

When I think about that heart-wrenching scene when God calls the first couple on their sin, I typically think about the curse part of it: enmity with the snake, pain in childbirth, toil in labor, to every generation hence, thankyouverymuch, Eve.

But just after the curse is pronounced, there’s this little grace note I’ve overlooked in the past: “And the Lord God made clothing from animal skins for Adam and his wife” (Genesis 3:21). God gave them clothes, a covering for their nakedness and shame. But before he could do that, there had to be a sacrifice. Blood had to be shed.

And in this AD era, so it is for us. God has provided a permanent covering for our sin. But a sacrifice was necessary; bloodshed was required. And we, the guilty ones, find ourselves clothed.

When God stitches the garment, he threads his needle with grace.