December

A Different Kind of Present

Charlie asked the same question that was on my mind, "Is God like Santa Claus handing out gifts to everyone?"

Joshua had just remarked to House Group in a slightly cheesy but memorable way that "the Presence of God also brings presents." I had no idea what he was talking about. "Charlie, who do you think came first? God or Santa Claus?"

We all chuckled. Joshua explained further, "God is around us all the time, but I think we can all remember times when we actually felt his presence around us or in us. When we feel connected like that to God, we become aware of the spiritual gifts that God has given us. Everybody gets something that helps others. Some people have a spiritual gift of teaching: they know how to explain things in a way that makes it easy for others to understand God's truth. Some people are good at caring for people. Some are skilled at helping others. Some people develop a strong sense of what God is saying about people and situations." Joshua then showed us several lists in the Bible of what these spiritual gifts look like.

What gift do I get, God? What have you given me? I thought about the dream that I'd had about the wall of water. As God's Spirit filled me, I got so full that the water had to spill out. If the water is a visual picture of your presence, where does the extra water go?

Joshua had an idea by the time we got to breaking into small groups. "We're going to try a new listening exercise. Instead of trying to hear God for yourself, let's take the next few minutes and try to listen for how God might want to encourage the person to your left. Ask God how he sees them. Ask how he wants to encourage them tonight. Then we'll share out loud what we thought we heard. Remember, no pressure. This is just practice."

I happened to be sitting to the right of Joshua, so he was the person for whom I was listening. When I closed my eyes, I got this picture come to my mind of a shepherd wandering the hills, using a large wooden staff to direct the sheep. The staff was elaborately carved with words and symbols: it seemed to tell a story. Joshua was the shepherd, and then I noticed that he had two staffs instead of one. To my amusement, he began to beat the two staffs together in a drumming rhythm and then I saw him hand one of the staffs to another person.

As we opened our eyes, and began to share what we'd heard-or in my case-saw, I used a pencil to quickly sketch out the scene on a blank page from my notebook. When it was my turn, I gave Joshua the picture I'd drawn and tried to explain what I'd seen. "I think that the sheep are God's people, and that you are the shepherd, the person who takes care of God's people. You have this staff to help you guide the sheep. The staff is carved with your God story - what he sees in you and who he sees that you'll become."

"Why are there two staffs?" Joshua asked.

"I think that one of the staffs is for you, and one is for you to give away. Part of your spiritual gifting is helping others find their own leadership," I responded.

Joshua was really moved. I could see that he was having a hard time saying anything, so I directed us to the next person in our circle to give him time to recover. It was strange. The words had just come to me, without me knowing what would come next out of my mouth, but I knew they'd be meaningful to Joshua as soon as I heard myself say them. After all, his last name was Shepherd. Coincidence? Or was Sneaky Jehovah up to his surprises again?

Charlie led our worship time that night. She started with a song we all knew and then Charlie moved into an instrumental rendition, taking elements from the original song but adding new dimensions with her fingers on the keys. I didn't even notice at first that no one was singing, I was so lost in the music and the wonder of God.

Then Charlie began to sing a new song. Or chorus, I guess, because it wasn't a full song. "Release your gifts among us, reveal yourself among us." After a few times of hearing her sweet voice sing the simple chorus, we all joined her. The song was like a prayer, starting small and then swelling until it filled the room. It took what we'd just read and made it the cry of our hearts.

And I don't think there was a dry eye in the room by the time we stopped singing.

What about Me?

What is my spiritual gift? I'd been wondering ever since House Group. I could take some guesses about my friends. Joshua was a teacher, and a leader, a caretaker. Chase was passionate about talking to strangers about Jesus. I'm sure there's a fancy Biblical name for that. Charlie was able to use her voice and musical talent to bring the presence of God into the room. What about me?

I was still thinking about it when I went to work Saturday afternoon. Joshua had texted me that morning, thanking me for drawing the picture. He said something about it being very meaningful to him and just what he needed to hear on a day when he'd been discouraged. That was kind of cool to hear. I'd been practicing listening for myself, but it made me feel happy to know I could listen for someone else.

Joshua had explained to us a few months ago that encouragement is saying something that gives courage to another person, and that builds them up to feel stronger. Is there a gift of encouragement? Do I have it? That's what kept running through my head in between customers. When a new customer came in, it was the same actions that had comforted me for the last eleven months. Pull the shot. Pour in cup. Steam milk. Pour in cup. Pump the flavor. Top with whip.

My shift at Java JoJo's was over at 7pm, but I decided to stick around and journal in my favorite corner booth. Sunny had sent me an instant camera that was all the rage in Asia. It had a bright grape-colored case. When you took a picture, a credit card sized photo came out and developed in just a few minutes.

JoJo came over when I was reading through the instructions. "What's this?" she asked.

I explained Sunny's gift. "JoJo, do you mind if I take your picture so I can make sure I understand how it works?"

She agreed and smoothed her black corkscrew curls in place. I snapped her photo and while we waited for it to develop, JoJo wandered off to talk to a customer. I put the instruction manual away, and then got out a pencil and a fresh journal page. I looked down at the partially developed photo of JoJo, and as I did, an idea formed in my mind.

What does God see when he looks at JoJo? Soon, a few words and pictures came to me. I put JoJo's picture in the middle of the blank page, and started sketching around it. I was pretty confident that JoJo was a Christian because of a few things she had said in the past, so I figured I was not going to freak her out too much if I mentioned God had given me the idea.

When JoJo came back to check on my progress, I first showed her my sketch of a boxing glove next to her picture. "JoJo, I think God is giving you this boxing glove so that you can punch through your problems. It is a God kind of power that is not dependent on your strength."

JoJo hand went up to her chest and I saw tears well up in her eyes. I moved on to the second sketch of a person sleeping. Okay, I am not the most skilled sketch artist, so it was more like a stick figure on a rectangle, but hopefully she would get the idea. I had written some words that I felt like God wanted her to hear next to it: "I had dreams for you before you ever had dreams for you-and I haven't forgotten mine."

Now JoJo was really overcome. "Thank you," she whispered. "This is very timely for me to hear. I have some things going on in my marriage, and, well, it means a lot to me." She didn't go into any more explanation, but I could feel that it was meaningful to her. There it was-in black and white-how God felt about her. How cool was that for God to use little old me to give someone courage and hope! Is this where the extra water goes?

There was a college student sitting at the table next to me and when JoJo walked away, the girl turned to me with an unspoken question in her eyes. "Ahhh," I stumbled on my words. "I'm doing this little art project thing. Would you like me to make one for you? Basically, I'll take your picture with my instant camera, and while the photo is developing, I will draw some words or pictures that will…" I was searching for words that weren't churchy sounding, and continued, "...hopefully make your day."

I admit, while the photo was developing, I was trying not to panic. What if I went blank? What if I somehow offended this girl? Or said something really stupid?

But then I took a deep breath, and let all those fears fall away. Instead, I trusted that I had grown in listening for God's voice. I was willing to take a risk. Who knew how much this girl needed some encouragement from God today?

By the time I had finished sketching around her photo, which I had taped in the middle of my paper, I had written around three sides and left the top section blank so I could write her name there. "I forgot to ask, what is your name?" I said with a laugh. She told me that her name was Allison. I proceeded to show Allison a rough sketch of a sun. "I think you are the kind of person that is warm and inviting to be around, like the sun."

"Oh!" She said, "My mom actually named me Allison because it has the word 'sun' in it!"

"Cool," I responded, and then pointed to the next sketch. It was a circle with cracks like it was breaking apart, and a dark tilted line drawn across, like signage uses on "No smoking" signs. "I felt like you are friendly but not fragile. That even when you feel like you're going to break, you're not going to break." She nodded.

"This last one is a bird, to show that you can fly above your problems."

"Thank you," she said sincerely. "This was just what I needed to hear today."

I felt like I had to be honest with her, "Well, I don't mean to sound like a crazy person, but I believe in Jesus, and I just prayed and asked him what he thinks about you, and these are the things I felt like I heard."

She didn't freak out or run out of the room screaming. She didn't call me crazy. Instead, she reacted as though I had actually made her day even if it was a little weird. Huh! What are you up to, Sneaky Jehovah?

We made our goodbyes, and I started packing up my art supplies and camera to head home. I felt pumped with adrenaline. Is this how Chase feels when he talks to a stranger about Jesus?

A New Perspective

I kept thinking about what had happened as I walked home from the coffee shop through the brisk cold. When I'd drawn that picture for Joshua, when I made those picture collages for JoJo and Allison, I felt connected to God in a way that I never had before. It was like...his love was so big that I couldn't contain it for myself. I had to share it. His love leaked out of me in words.

His love leaked out of me in words! It was like I was seeing in black and white how God felt about each of them. It was a different kind of news than the journalism major that I'd planned for myself.

God has his own breaking news. God has dreams for us. God has hopes for us. God knows what is inside of us, the destinies we don't even know are ours. That's the real news. The good news. Hey you, this is what you need to hear most!

All of a sudden, I knew I didn't want to be a journalism major anymore. Telling a God story was way more fun. I didn't know if "Storyteller" was an official spiritual gift or not, but that felt like the closest word to what I'd experienced.

When I walked into our warm kitchen, I could hear my mom in the adjoining laundry room. I took a deep breath. If I wanted God to use to me to tell others how he felt about them, shouldn't I do that for my own mom? But wasn't I going to have to forgive her first?

"Mom?" She turned around, her fading brown hair a bit frizzy, and her purple bathrobe frayed around the collar.

"Mom, I'm sorry for being so resentful and angry. I know Dad losing his job was hard on all of us. It wasn't fair for me to expect you to handle it perfectly."

"Oh, Piper," she sighed and then hugged me hard. "I'm sorry I was so angry at Dad and took it out on you. I'm sorry I was so distant your senior year. You were right. I was so consumed with my own emotions that I wasn't a very good mom. Will you forgive me?"

I whispered, "Yes," as I hugged her again, the tears flowing down my face. As I let go, I prayed a quick request that God would help me to give my mom some good news. Something she needed to hear in the moment.

"Mom, can I tell you something encouraging that I think God wants you to know?"

She was a bit hesitant, but then nodded.

"Do you remember when you had your abdominal surgery and the bottom part of the incision didn't heal properly? I feel like your incision is a picture of your heart this last year. I think God wants you to know that he doesn't hold it against you that your heart isn't healed properly yet. Even if the journey takes longer than it needs to, God's heart is for you. He doesn't condemn you for your fear. His love for you is deep. Even though the cut in your heart was deep, God's love for you goes through all the layers."

Mom was crying. I was crying. And even though God's words that I'd spoken had been about Mom's heart, it could have easily described the separation that had occurred between me and Mom this past year too. God was bringing us back together. God was mending what had been separated. And if I let him, he would repair all the damage that had been done to my relationship with my mom.

The Unedited Version

Surely it had to be obvious on the outside? I was going to see Sunny for the first time since she'd moved to New York, and I couldn't help but wonder whether she would notice how much I'd changed.

As I walked toward her small, but lovely brick house, set back from the street and surrounded by blue pines, I stopped in the yard to look at her father's latest sculpture project. Sunny's father was a arts professor at Riverglen University specializing in sculpture. He had a small studio in the carriage house behind their home. Her family used to live in New York and her father was well known there as a sculptor, but when Sunny was eight years old, her family decided that they were ready to leave the big city life and he moved them to Riverglen. Now Sunny was full grown, and she'd gone back to New York City where she could indulge in her love for fabrics and fashion.

I said hello to her parents and then walked the familiar steps up to her bedroom. Her room seemed strange without her dressmaker's dummy in the corner and fabric swatches on the desk. But all that had moved to New York with her, and now her bedroom seemed empty, even with the real Sunny standing in front of me. Sunny grabbed me for an elegant but sincere hug. "Darling! How are you?"

We updated each other on the latest happenings in our lives. Even though we texted all the time, it was a simple pleasure to have the back and forth interaction that happens in real life conversation. Sunny paused from talking. "You're different," she proclaimed. That's the same thing my mother had said to me last night when my family had gone out for Bacon Burgers and I'd introduced them to Joshua, who was working at the drive-in.

"Yes," I sighed with relief. "I really am, Sunny. I know that you don't believe the same things I do, but Jesus has changed my life." And then I told Sunny the whole story. Unedited. All the things that had happened with Blake and Jimmy that I'd never been brave enough to say. I told her about my dreams of the room Jesus made for me. I told her about the day Joshua baptized me at the river. I described the Four Pillars and the way I felt during worship and the joy I experienced when I was drawing encouragement for JoJo.

Oh Sunny, can I be my new self around you?

Sunny didn't say much as she turned about her room, chiffon fluttering behind her. I could tell she was thinking it through. But then Sunny gave me a quick hug and whispered, "The Jesus thing is not for me, Piper, but I'm happy that you found something that helps you."

The Future

The call came late at night. Izzy and baby make two. By the time I got there, Izzy was resting upright in the white hospital bed with a little bundle of blanket next to her. He was so tiny, this little thing that felt like a feather and slept so peacefully. I stroked his brown hand, no bigger than my thumb. His skin was a softness I'd never felt before and had a smell that was indescribable. It was euphoric, smelling this sweet newborn welcome-to-the-world-baby-boy fragrance.

Izzy gazed at him, this child she had yet to name with a whole future stretched out before him that was yet unwritten. "Maybe...maybe I can change. He's so perfect and new. He makes me want to be my best."

I squeezed her hand and prayed with all my inner being that she would find a better life for herself and her son.

What It Looks Like

Simone had texted me, asking if she could come over. She entered my bedroom with a hastily wrapped awkward package. A birthday present? I was turning nineteen the next day. "What is it?" I asked, leaning the paper covered rectangle against the headboard of my bed.

"I painted something for you," Simone grinned with her brilliant smile, her river-blue eyes lit with an inner joy.

As I ripped the paper, it revealed a canvas painted with two hands upturned to the sky, releasing blue-green Morpho butterflies and flowers into the air. I looked at her with a question in my brown eyes.

She explained, "I've been watching you these last few months as God is helping you get free of your past. I just wanted to put on canvas what your freedom looks like."

I nodded, soaking it in. "Yes, that's what I want." And I hugged her, so grateful for her gift, her friendship, and the fact that her painting could remind me every day that I was becoming a new person.

Birthday Gifts

Simone was throwing a triple birthday party that Saturday. It was funny, but she was turning twenty years old in the same week of Chase's twentieth birthday and my nineteenth birthday. I'd never had a birthday party growing up that included anyone other than my family and Sunny, so I was bursting with anticipation.

Simone's family lived on the outskirts of town near Riverglen Park. She'd told me that they owned ten acres, but it was still a surprise to pull up to their house, a golden sand color with brick-red shutters, surrounded by trees and the nearest neighbor's house peeking through the bareness of the winter wood. I saw several other cars, but when I walked past the swags of Christmas greenery on the railings of the wrap-around porch and knocked on the wreathed side door, I was surprised to see Simone's mother open it, the rooms behind her seemingly empty and quiet.

"You must be Piper." she pronounced with a grin, her graying hair curled around her face. "I'm Simone's mom. Everybody is in the back meadow playing some touch football before we blow out candles on the birthday cake. Just follow the trail through the woods on the left side of the house and you'll find them."

"Thank you," I responded, and turned to go.

"Oh, and Piper, I've heard a lot about you. Simone tells me that you're really growing in your life with Jesus. Just so you know," she lowered her voice to a whisper, "the growing never stops! There's always more to learn and more to discover."

I thanked her again and made my way toward the trail to the meadow. What would it be like to follow Jesus for ten years? Or twenty? Or thirty? So much had happened in the last few months, it was hard to imagine.

Once I reached the nearby meadow, I could see Chase, Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Charlie, Simone, Jeb, and several of the others from House Group playing touch football. As Charlie explained the rules of the game and put me on a team, I noticed that something was different about Chase but I didn't have time to figure out what it was. As far as touch football, I had no idea what I was doing, but that wasn't the point. The point was to run around with my friends and yell a lot. Apparently. The air was cool and the ground was frozen, making it hat and coat weather, but it hadn't snowed yet. When our noses and cheeks were red from the cold, someone finally called the game and we headed back to the house.

I was the first person to enter the house through the side door, which seemed to be used as the main entrance for the family since it was next to several parked cars. Simone's mother was putting out hot chocolate on the dining room table with snacks. I noticed as I was grabbing a mug of the warm, fragrant drink that the center of the table had a beautiful cheesecake.

Then I remembered that Simone and her father ran an online baking business called Sweet Memories. They specialized in baked goods that had childhood memories associated with them. You know - grandma's oatmeal raisin cookies, etc. Apparently, cheesecake was their best known product.

As more of the young adults noisily poured into the house, taking off their coats, and heading toward the hot chocolate, I made room for them by heading to the Christmas tree by the formal front door.

At that moment, the brick-red front door banged open, with Chase rushing into the room with his normal enthusiasm. He saw me and stopped suddenly, shutting the cold air behind him. Chase pulled off his winter scarf wrapped around his lower jaw and then his black wool cap to reveal a haircut. A haircut! And I realized his beard was barely a stubble now, short enough that I could see his dimples and sheepish grin. The look he gave me then… It was a look that held possibilities.

This is what God whispers in my ear: he has his own story to tell me about my life. And it's all new.

Acknowledgements

Although this is a fictional world with fictional characters, this story couldn't have been written without the inspiration of the real Four Pillars: Luke, Wilson, Jennifer, and Amanda. Much appreciation goes to them, the Cincinnati House Groups, and my many young adult friends.

Deepest gratitude is felt for my beta readers, especially Candace Hensley - the very first to read the beginnings of Piper's story and who encouraged me to keep writing it; Maura, for your invaluable comments and revision notes (and for that time you texted me from the coffee shop, imagining that Piper and Chase were sitting behind you!); Mom, for helping with the grammar editing; Lisa, for your support to share this story with my high school Writing Class; Janet, Christine, and my other friends, for the many times you listened to my storytelling process; John, for helping me figure out how to post on FictionPress; and my children, who have been my biggest fans, and have asked me repeatedly over the last two years about Piper's story.

Thanks to those who offered assistance to my research for All Things New: Maria Hunter - for insight on coffee and baristas; Bryan Gautraud - for showing me the type of drum Chase needed to own; the Bakers and their friends, who let me take their photos and experiment with creative art prayer; and Victoria Jones for the tips on how to give dark hair a teal stripe.

Gratefulness to Maria and Becka, I couldn't have gone the distance without your timely prayer with me when I visited House Group.

Last but not least, a big, huge thank you to the students of my high school writing class: Bryan Gautraud, Ethan Gautraud, Ethan Timko, Kelsey Pryor, Shamyim Pfeifer, Theo Barr, and Tyler Plowfield. Thank you for letting me experiment on you and fixing some of my writing issues. Ethan, you wanted to see your name in the acknowledgements, so here it is!

Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by Permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright (c) by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.