God always answers prayer, just not always how you expect…
Grace loved this time of year. Maybe it was her imagination, but it just seemed to her that at Christmas time, the atmosphere was a little warmer, people were a little friendlier and everything was a little brighter.
She had come in for the milk she’d promised her mother she’d pick up on her way home from work. As she rounded the aisle in the store that passed the bakery, she breathed in the aroma of fresh baked goods and found herself drawn in by the festive array of goodies on display.
“Fresh baked sugar cookies.” Offered the smiling baker behind the counter. “Try a sample?”
“Of course!” Grace replied. Her local grocery had the best bakery for miles.
“Take two.” She said, holding out a sample tray.
“Thank you.” She obliged, biting into the first as she walked away to check out.
A brisk breeze blew in as she exited, careful to watch her step in the wet parking lot. The brush of cold and wet on her face told her it had begun to snow. She stood still and lifted her face to the sky. For a moment she closed her eyes, basking in the serenity she always felt when out in lightly falling snow.
She didn’t want to be late, with her parents expecting her for dinner, so she didn’t hesitate long. Making for her car, she noticed the man shuffling through the parking lot and frowned.
His clothes threadbare, his general appearance unwashed and unkempt, it was clear to see he suffered hard times at best, homeless at worst. Clearly, he wasn’t a threat or up to no good. It looked as if he might be searching for cans or loose change on the ground.
“Excuse me!” Grace called. “Sir!”
He turned toward her. “I ain’t doin’ nothin;”
“No. Of course not.” She replied quickly, moving toward him. “I only meant to tell you that my church offers a hot meal on Tuesday nights and overnight shelter if you need it.”
He eyed her suspiciously.
She put on her warmest smile. “It’s New Hope Fellowship, on the corner of Main and 3rd Avenue. You know the place?”
He nodded. “I’ve heard they’re all right.”
Grace was glad it was Tuesday. She glanced at her watch. “They’ll be serving soon. Would you like me to take you there?”
Shaking his head, he started away from her as he mumbled. “No, thanks.”
Closing the distance, she put a hand on his arm. “Here,” she reached into her purse and pulled out some money. “Get yourself something to eat.”
Staring at the bill in his hand, he appeared dumbstruck as he looked from it to her and back.
“Oh,” she had begun to turn away but faced him again. Putting the unbitten cookie in his hand, she said. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you, young lady. Bless you.”
Her tender heart heavy, she got into her car and before she even started it, leaned her forehead against the steering wheel and clutched it with her hands. “Lord, this can be such a difficult time for people. I’m asking you to get someone across that man’s path to share your love with him that he can receive from. Comfort those depressed and in despair this season. And most of all, Lord, show me someone I can be a real blessing to this Christmas. Someone whose life I can really touch for you.”
Confident that her prayers would be answered, she started the car and turned her attention to more uplifting things. It promised to be one of the best Christmases in recent years for her family. Blessed with parents who loved each other, and three older brothers, one of whom had just gotten engaged and would be bringing his new fiancée home to meet the family for the first time, all of whomloved each other and would be together for the first time in several years. She was a blessed woman. “And don’t let me ever forget it, Lord, or take it for granted.”
As she parked her car next to another in the driveway, she looked it over and puzzled. It wasn’t one she recognized but had in-state plates. She shivered in the chill air and rushed to get inside.
Coming in through the kitchen, she slipped the bottle of milk in the refrigerator and wiggled out of her coat. “Hey, Mom!”
“In here, honey.” Came the reply.
Grace moved toward it, peeping into the office, and then crossing the hallway to the large living room.
The fireplace crackled with a comforting blaze. In front, assorted boxes were scattered around and her mother stood next to the tree they’d had since she was a little girl, set up and spruced.
“I thought we were going to pull these out together. How in the world did you…?”
Her mother turned with a glowing expression and a grin. “I had a little help.
“I saw the car in the driveway. Whose is it?”
A head popped into the doorway at the other side of the room, complete with elf cap and goofy grin. “Is that my pip-squeak little sister Grace I hear?”
Grace’s face lit up and she rushed to hug him. “Oh my gosh, Patrick! I thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow!”
He swept her off the ground easily and spun around. “Hey, kid! Our boss let us off a day early, so I thought I’d surprise you all.”
“Awesome!” Her oldest brother lived on the other side of the state. “New car?”
“Yup. I’ve been saving for it and my Christmas bonus made up the rest.”
“Wow. That’s so cool.” A brief cloud passed over her face.
He looked at his sister knowingly but didn’t pursue it. There would be time for those conversations later.
After dinner and decorating, they’d been up late as they always were when one of her brothers visited. Grace knew it would be repeated often over the time between now and the end of the season as each of her brothers arrived home. She hoped her brother’s fiancée would be a willing participant. Ben was a good judge of character, but also very trusting and kind-hearted. Headed for a law practice, he would be a very good catch for someone. She sighed. Time would tell, probably with this visit.
Always the first in the office, Grace had run just a little behind schedule this morning. She always made the first pot of coffee, knowing her boss, the second to arrive, would be crankier than normal if it wasn’t ready when he came for it.
Breathing a sigh of relief when she left the break room and saw him approaching, she expected she’d just managed to get in ahead of him. Still, a knot formed in her stomach.
Mr. Fletcher, who most of the staff referred to as Mr. Scrooge behind his back, strode purposely along his eyes forward with an expression that suggested he was pondering something. He didn’t seem to notice her.
With stilted voice she greeted, “Good morning, Mr. Fletcher.”
His reply was an incoherent grunt.
She didn’t know why he intimidated her so much.
He’d never been unkind to her, although his business practices didn’t favor his employees much. It made her wonder briefly why he was so seemingly unhappy and unfeeling. He had so much money, a successful business, and the grudging respect of the community. No one in the office knew much of his history; he never opened up to anyone or interacted with them on a personal level.
If Grace didn’t love her job as the HR department, with its opportunity to help people, she would probably have left long ago. People told her she was crazy to stay. Sometimes she thought so herself, but she’d been at it for several years and couldn’t seem to make herself go.
The day nearly over, Grace’s smile and cheerful attitude had begun to wear thin. She’d been barraged all day with requests for holiday time off, something she granted but knew it would make her boss cranky when so many were out of the office the day before Christmas and the week of New Year’s.
She took a deep breath when she felt someone enter. Her back was turned so she pasted on a smile and turned toward the entrance. The expression turned genuine. “Hey, Keisha. Need a time off request?”
Keisha had been one of her first and best hires. They remained office friends. Shaking her head, she grinned. “No. A few of us are going to the pub around the corner after work. Why don’t you come?”
Grace hesitated. How did she refuse without offending her?
Holding up her hand to ward off what she knew was coming, she added. “We all know you don’t drink, Grace. But it’s the closest thing we get to a Christmas party. We’ll grab some appetizers, maybe do the Christmas trivia thing. Why don’t you come with us, and you know, have a soda or something?”
It wasn’t something she usually did but she’d been on the watch for her opportunity to see the answer to her prayer. Who knew if this might be it? With a decisive nod, she replied. “Okay.”
“Really?” Keisha’s expression and tone were both disbelieving and sincerely pleased.
“Yeah.” Grace answered firmly. “Why don’t you come by here before you leave, and we’ll go together/”
“Perfect. See you then.”
She didn’t have any confirmation or prompting, but what harm could it do? She’d have a soda, maybe some appetizers and she loved trivia. Why not?
They had been in the pub for some time. Drinks had flowed and the appetizers were mostly gone. When the conversation turned to complaints of how awful their boss was, Grace decided it was time to go. I if she hadn’t known better, she would have thought Daryl was trying to provoke her.
Daryl had been at the company longer than she had. He was one of those ridiculously handsome African American men who worked out noticeably and dressed impeccably. Good at his job, all the guys liked him and most of the women wanted to go out with him.
Grace had no problem with him but, though not suspicious by nature, she suspected that for some unknown reason, he disliked her. She couldn’t imagine why; she’d never had any unpleasant interaction with him. About to get up and excuse herself, she was inadvertently blocked by one of their number who had just returned to the table.
“Hey! Trivia’s about to start. Who’s up for it?”
A couple of people responded positively.
Grace waited, thinking it a perfect opportunity to slip out without being noticed.
“Come on, Grace!” He urged. “I know you’ve gotta be good at this.”
She wasn’t so sure. “Well, I don’t know…”
“Oh, come on.” Another girl coaxed. “It’s Christmas trivia. It’ll be fun.”
“Okay.” She agreed.
It was fun. She’d been able to help her team with the names of the reindeer and some Christmas song lyrics. Now people were beginning to get sloppy. Time to go. She started back to the table to get her coat.
Keisha, obviously impaired, sat next to Daryl.
Leaning close, his arm around her, he spoke low so only she could hear. He didn’t seem as much under the influence as she was.
Grace knew Keisha had a crush on him but as far as she could tell, he’d never given her a second glance. It made her uncomfortable to watch, suspecting his intentions but she didn’t know how to intervene. She didn’t usually get involved in other people’s business unless asked.
“Let me go to the bathroom first.” Keisha said, wobbling slightly as she rose.
When Grace saw the satisfied look on Daryl’s face, she couldn’t stand by. She followed Keisha to the ladies’ room.
“Oh, hey.” Keisha greeted when she saw her in the mirror. “Where’ve you been?”
Oh, boy. Grace thought. This could be worse than she thought. “Trivia, remember?”
“Oh, yeah.” Clearly disoriented, she leaned on the sink. “Guess what?”
“What?” She replied patiently.
“Daryl wants to hook up — with me! Can you believe it?”
“Yeah? Are you going with him?”
“Well, duh!” Keisha frowned. “I’d have to be an idiot to turn him down.”
“I didn’t even know you guys were a thing.”
“We aren’t… yet.”
“Look, Grace.” She said sternly. “You don’t know how it is with us. I mean, things are different in your little white bread world. How could you possibly understand?”
She knew it was the alcohol talking so she paid no attention to the inference. “You’re right, Keisha. I have no idea what it’s like where you come from, but I do know this: wanting to be loved and valued for who we are is a human desire, no matter where you come from. Do you think that’s what Daryl wants with you?”
“Don’t you?” She looked stricken. “Or don’t you think he could be serious with a girl like me?”
“He’s the one who’s an idiot if he turns you down. But we’ve both seen how quickly he changes girlfriends. I don’t think he wants to settle down, even temporarily, with anyone.”
Keisha appeared uncomfortable. Then she steeled herself and stook a little taller. “What if all I want is to know what it’s like to be with somebody as hot as Daryl? “
“Is it? Because if it is, I’ll get out of your way.” She turned toward the door. She genuinely cared about Keisha, but she’d never interfered or even offered advice on her personal life. “But remember, you work with him. You know how he likes to share his conquests with the other guys, and you might not like what’s on the other side of this.”
She only hesitated a minute. “He’s expecting me to go with him. How do I get out of it?”
Grace smiled. “I’ll handle it. Let me drive you home.”
Shaking her head petulantly, she answered. “I don’t want you to drive me home.”
“You can’t drive yourself. How about if I call you an Uber?”
“Come on.” Grace found a waiter on their way out. Indicating the table where Daryl still sat, she offered him a tip and asked. “I need to get my friend home safely. Will you tell everyone Keisha had to go?”
After she put Keisha in the car, she turned toward the restaurant. Through the window, it appeared that Daryl had already moved on. Shaking her head, she decided not to go back in and started down the sidewalk to get her own car. Relieved for her friend, she checked inside. This still wasn’t the chance she had prayed for.
In her office the next morning, the unpleasant parts of the previous evening forgotten, she felt distracted by the anticipation that sometime today or tonight, both her other brothers and her brother’s fiancée would arrive. It promised to be a very good time.
Lost in thought, she was startled when someone trudged in. With the time off requests likely finished and so close to the holidays, things in her office were generally quiet until after New Year’s. She smiled, surprised to see Keisha, looking much the worse for wear, but she refrained from even acknowledging the cause. Instead, she greeted. “Hey. What’s up?”
Keisha cocked her head in disbelief. “Seriously?”
“Well, I didn’t want to assume. Need to go home?”
“No.” She shook her head for emphasis. “Some ibuprofen and a lot of coffee should get me through.”
Grace smiled sincerely. “Cool. So, what can I do for you?”
“You know, I don’t know what happened. I never drink that much.”
It gave her pause but she dismissed the idea and didn’t respond.
“Anyway, I just wanted to thank you.”
“Thank me? For what?”
Keisha pursed her lips. “Come on, Grace. You talked me out of making a huge mistake.”
“And you did it without being judgmental or preachy.”
“The situation didn’t call for preachy.” She replied.
“You really believe all that, don’t you?”
Grace feigned ignorance. “Believe all that?”
She waved her arm toward the ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’ desk plaque, surrounded by other Christian décor. “The whole Jesus… do unto others and all that.”
“I do, Keisha.” She thought a moment. “You know, when we’re secure in His love, we don’t have to search for love and value from other people. It’s a solid foundation we can build our lives on.”
“My grandma always says that. She’s real religious too.”
“It’s not about religion, Keisha. It’s about relationship. The one that really matters.”
“Hmm.” She appeared to be thinking. “Well, after today, I’m off until after the holiday.”
Grace nodded. “I’ll see you when you get back.”
She started out the door and then turned, grinning. “Merry Christmas, Grace.”
“Merry Christmas, Keisha.” Pleased and gratified that she’d chosen to step in, she knew it still wasn’t the answer.
The festivities were well under way by the time she arrived home. Her brothers, Ben and Shane, along with Ben’s fiancée, Emery had arrived some time that afternoon. Boisterous conversation, snacks and beverages flowed freely.
All except, Grace noticed, Ben’s fiancée. She’d been cordial enough when introduced to his baby sister, as he called her, but seemed content to sit by and watch. She didn’t eat much and sipped her drink. Even after her parents had retired and the games came out, she played along but didn’t say much.
Grace hoped it wasn’t a sign of things to come or that they’d made her uncomfortable somehow. She knew her brother well enough to know that a reserved, aloof girl wouldn’t be right for him; much less one that might be haughty. It bothered her.
“So, Grace.” Shane said, as the gaming began to wind down. “Skating starts at the Civic Center tomorrow. We’re all going. Can we count you in?”
“It opens at noon, I think, but we’re gonna go around three when the kids are pretty much gone.”
“I can’t. I have to work all day tomorrow.”
“But it’s Christmas Eve!” Ben announced.
“I know, but…”
“I don’t know how you can stand working for that old grinch.” Shane shook his head. “With your experience, you could get something better.”
Grace just smiled with a shrug. Sometimes she didn’t know either, but she was still there, unable to make herself go.
“You’re gonna make the candlelight service tomorrow night, right?” Patrick asked.
“Of course. I’m only working until five.”
“Scrooge won’t even let you off early on Christmas Eve?” Shane kept on. “Do you have to work Christmas Day too?”
She gave him a sarcastic half-smile.
“Just checkin’. But for real, Grace…”
“On that note, I think I’ll turn in.” She declared.
When she’d finished washing up, she decided to knock on the guest room door. She wasn’t sure about her brother’s chosen bride and though she would never interfere, wanted desperately to set her mind at ease.
“Come in.” Came the reply.
Grace opened the door just wide enough to peek her head inside. “I just wanted to check on you. See if you were settling in okay or if you needed anything.”
Emery shook her head. “Everything’s great.”
She went to back out.
“Come in and talk for a minute?” Emery asked, hesitantly.
“Sure.” She closed the door behind her. “I know we can be a bit overwhelming when we all get together.”
‘Oh, no.” Emery assured. “I love it. I’ve never had that kind of family but always wished I had.” She grinned hesitantly and added. “It’s what first attracted me to Ben.”
“The way he talked about his family. I figured anybody who would admit to adoring his family – in front of a group of law students in a study group – had to be someone special.” She colored a little. “Turns out I was right.”
Reassured, Grace felt comfortable to ask. “What about your family?”
“It’s just my parents and me. My parents are very success oriented, driven people. I never doubted their love for me, but there wasn’t a lot of warm and fuzzy growing up, even less so now.” She was quick to add. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re lovely people and I adore them. But I dreamed of nights like tonight as a kid. Family gathered around, talking, laughing. Just enjoying each other.”
“We certainly do that.”
“It might take me a little time to get used to it, but I want to. Really.”
Lightening her tone, Grace said. “Well, I’ll sure be glad to have another girl in the family! I always wanted a sister.”
“Me too.” Emery said, her voice betraying emotion.
Grace hugged her. “Welcome to the family, Emery.”
“Thank you, Grace. I can’t tell you what that means to me.”
Not many people were in the office on Christmas Eve. Grace had been told when she was hired that she would be expected to be available when people needed her; that included business hours around the holidays. No one ever seemed to need her the day before a holiday but that didn’t seem to matter. As she sat at her desk, doing her best not to be anxious for the day to be over, she was startled by someone clearing their throat.
Daryl stood on the other side of her desk.
She wouldn’t allow the apprehension at his expression to affect her demeanor. Instead, she looked up with her servant’s grin and asked. “Something I can do for you, Daryl?”
He glared as he tossed a card and candy cane on her desk. “People shouldn’t try to force their beliefs on everyone else.”
Grace had left an anonymous card and candy can on everyone’s desk. She purposely chose an item and cards she thought would be acceptable to everyone. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t be cute, Grace.” He sneered. “Everyone knows it was you. You should stay out of other people’s business.”
She wondered if he meant what had happened with Keisha. “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
He huffed and started out the door.
“Enjoy your days off!” She called after him. It must have been what happened at the pub, she realized. Every year she left something on everyone’s desk. He’d never mentioned it before. After a quick prayer under her breath, she moved on. There was only one thing to do before she left for the day.
Grace was nearly always the last one in the building. Only she and Mr. Fletcher had keys. She did a quick walk through to make sure everyone else had gone before returning to her desk. From the bottom drawer, she pulled a brightly wrapped gift. Smoothing it slightly, she took a deep breath and started down the hall.
As she’d suspected, the office was completely dark but the door open wasn’t. Tentatively, she crept inside. To her surprise, the large leather chair faced the window behind rather than the inner space.
Just as she set the gift on the desk, her eyes went wide as the chair swiveled toward her. Her mouth dropped open.
Mr. Fletcher’s severe scowl fixed itself on her, his hand clutched an old picture in a frame with shattered glass.
Grace stared at it.
“What are you doing in my office?” He demanded harshly, setting it face down on the desk in front of him.
“I just wanted to…” she began weakly, indicating the present in front of him.
His brows rose. “So, you’re the secret benefactor? Cards, candy canes, cookies in the break room?”
“Yes, sir. I hope I haven’t overstepped or…”
He shrugged indifferently and began to turn away.
Grace started out of the office.
“I hate Christmas, you know.”
“I think I knew that sir.” She replied, surprised at his declaration and her response as she’d never really thought about it before. He wasn’t any more taciturn at this time of year than any other. Surprised again at her own boldness, she asked. “Why is that sir?”
Mr. Fletcher turned again to face her. “People call it a season of giving. They feel obligated, spend too much for show and for what?”
Grace frowned. “Well…?”
“Seems to me that life takes more than you can bear whether you want to give it or not.”
It pained her and she wondered if maybe this was the opportunity she’d prayed for.
He continued before she could speak. “My wife died, giving me our son. Then my son, who was all I had left, the one I built this business for, died serving this nation. People act as if his sacrifice meant nothing. People don’t even acknowledge… appreciate…”
Without even thinking, Grace heard words come from her lips, her tone subdued. “Sir, another Father gave His son. That sacrifice paid for the sins of the whole world. That is why we celebrate Christmas. Yet there are people who don’t even acknowledge or appreciate what He did.”
“You’re one of those.” He snuffed.
“One of those?” She asked.
“A religious nut. No wonder you always flit about here like you haven’t a care in the world.’
It made her pause. She had no idea that was how people perceived her, but it pleased her. “Not religious, sir, but I do have a relationship with Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son; that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. His death, burial and resurrection was a sacrifice of epic, eternal proportions for all men for all time.” She took a breath. “Sir, if you’ll put your trust in Him, he can take away that pain you feel and give you hope again.”
“Hmmh, hope. What good is that? What could I possibly hope for?”
“You’ve been blessed, Mr. Fletcher. With the resources and respect you have in this community, there’s much good you could do. The rewards would make your life worth living. And then there’s the promise of Heaven at the end of it all.”
When he looked up at her, his expression had softened. “Maybe. My wife used to talk like that.”
“All the more reason, then. If she’s in Heaven, she’s waiting for you. Make the right choice and you’ll see her again.”
He nodded. “Well, it’s been a long time since anyone talked like that to me.”
“Well then, it’s about time.” She smiled. “It’s Christmas Eve. My church has a candlelight service tonight. Why don’t you come?”
“It’s New Hope Fellowship. Do you know it?”
“I know it.””
“Great. I hope to see you there.” She looked at her watch. “I’ve got to run now, or I’ll be late.”
Mr. Fletcher didn’t speak as she rushed out of the room.
As the family walked en masse into church, Grace scanned the people gathered, hoping to see her boss among them. Vaguely disappointed when she didn’t, she turned her attention to the lighthearted banter around her. She dropped behind her brothers and moved up next to Emery. Looping her arm through the other girl’s. she offered cheerfully. “Why don’t you sit by me?”
Emery’s face brightened noticeably. “I’d love that. Thank you, Grace!”
They sat rapt among the soft ambient glow of the candles, sang heartily along with the music of the choir so beautifully arrayed in white and gold and listened contemplatively to the message of joy and hope the pastor shared.
As the service came to a close, Grace realized something. She’d prayed for an opportunity to bless someone and change their life forever and had watchfully searched for it as she went about her Christmas celebration. Repeatedly, she’d opened her heart of compassion to share with others and speak into their lives. It wasn’t something she had really done much before and she understood: in blessing others, she’d been tremendously blessed.
Her prayer had been answered but the person whose life had been changed forever was her.