I followed my fourteen year-old into Second Chance Books and Comics. The twenty-five dollars burning a hole in his pocket trumped any concerns about the seedy strip mall. He’d discovered the comic book store on one of his dad’s weekends, and couldn’t wait to initiate me into the thrill of discovering vintage editions for his superhero collection.
I paused inside the door, momentarily overwhelmed by jumbled displays of 1970’s lunchboxes and Loony Toons cookie jars. My tour guide hastened me down an aisle of action figures, then weaved through life-sized cutouts of cloaked video game assassins. The place was Tardis-like, insignificant outside, football-field deep inside.
Comic books filled half the store. My son scanned the new titles on the wall, then turned to the older comics, filed alphabetically in boxes across several tables. He pried a tightly wedged comic out of a box, studied the cover, then seesawed it back in. He repeated the process at the next box, discoursing with casual expertise on the merits of Marvel vs. DC.
“Um-hum,” I murmured, struggling to keep Batman and Thor in their separate universes.
“Anyway Mom,” he said, “you can go look around. I’m going to be here a while.” He opened a Superman comic on top of a box and forgot about me.
Dismissed, I looked around at the goods on offer. But I don’t need a Chewbacca potholder. I spied a chair beyond a rack of t-shirts and headed for it, wishing I’d brought a book to read. But once I pushed past the t-shirts, I forgot about the chair, because now I could see what had been hidden behind the wall of comics.
Books. Row after row of plank and cinder block shelves, jammed to capacity. Books crammed in vertically and horizontally, books in disordered heaps on the floor between stacks. Why hadn’t I come here sooner?
I hurried to the front of the store, not wanting to miss a single row. Pictures were taped to the end of each aisle, icons denoting the genre.
- Clip art vampires: horror
- Dashing rogue and swooning maiden: historical romance
- Flying saucers: science fiction
- Deerstalker and magnifying glass: mystery
I picked up a worn Agatha Christie and riffled the pages. The smell of newsprint wafted upwards. I replaced the book and turned to see the icon on the next row.
Less fanciful than the others, this was a simple black and white drawing of a cross. There was a scarcity of books here in comparison to the other aisles. No paperback landslides littered the floor. Orderly rows of books lined the shelves, except for a few untidy ends where they toppled over into empty space.
I hesitated at the end cap. Christian fiction wasn’t on my must-read list. I’d laid down my Bible the day my oldest son was killed in an accident, and it had been gathering dust for three years. My Christian heritage prevented me from abandoning my belief in God, but my pain convinced me He didn’t care. I’d stood at my son’s grave and thrown Psalm 91 up at God.
“Nothing bad will happen to you; no disaster will come to your home.
He has put his angels in charge of you to watch over you wherever you go.
They will catch you in their hands so that you will not hit your foot on a rock.”
Liar, my heart chanted as it hardened.
Still, I was curious. Reading was breathing, and mysteries were lifeblood. The unexplored genre of Christian suspense beckoned me.
I stepped into the aisle and picked up a book. Trial by Fire, by Terri Blackstock. I scanned the back cover copy and discovered it was book four in her Newpointe 911 series, chronicling the lives of rescue workers in a small Louisiana town. I found book five also, but the first three in the series were missing.
I still can’t believe I bought them. It’s heresy to read a series out of order. Grudgingly intrigued, I told myself I could trade them in on a return visit. I paid for them after my son purchased a stack of comics.
The first few pages of Trial by Fire revealed a character dealing with the sudden death of his oldest son. The manner of his son’s death, though not identical, was similar to that of my own, My world skidded to a stop.
Really, God? A store with 250,000 books, and this is the one I pick up? The heartless irony nearly buried me.
But I read on. I read about a father who wasn’t sure if God cared about his grief. A father who, though a Christian, found little comfort in the fact that his son was in Heaven. A father who looked for places to cast blame, and who resented people for laughing and talking as if the world hadn’t just ended. I read about a father who questioned God the way I had, who doubted his goodness and love. As the story wrapped up, this father regained his trust in God, if not his understanding of his son’s death.
I could write this off as a coincidence. But then I read book five. About halfway through Line of Duty, a pastor and his wife are sitting in a car, grieving over the death of friends. The wife lashes out.
“And don’t tell me that God’s taking care of everything, because he didn’t. …… Remember the psalm where he said he wouldn’t let us strike our foot on a stone, that if we stumbled he wouldn’t let us hurl headlong? Some of us stumbled the other day, Nick. And some of us were hurled headlong. Explain that to me!”
The same message, if not the same verse in the Psalms, that haunted me. But what resonated with me most was the pastor’s answer. He didn’t have one.
He proclaimed God’s faithfulness, listed ways he’d shown up in the aftermath of tragedy.
He reiterated his trust in God even though he didn’t understand why he’d allowed their friends to die.
That’s when the stone encasing my heart cracked and fell away. When I read about people suffering and questioning as I did, my burden lifted. I still grieved, but I realized that it was okay to be angry, okay to question God. I could feel doubt and anger without shutting God out of my life. I didn’t have to understand why my son died to trust God again.
So I kept the books and ordered the other three. That trip to the comic book store launched me on a journey of discovery. I returned again and again, sometimes without my son, to explore the one aisle of Christian fiction in the used book section. I discovered Robin Carroll, Dee Henderson, Jill Nelson, Brandilyn Collins, Irene Hannon, Colleen Coble, Julie Lessman, and Mary Conneally. I delved into speculative fiction and read Frank Peretti, Erin Healy, Alton Gansky, and Mike Dellosso. Besides just enjoying a good story, I learned something about God from each book.
But the biggest lesson I learned was that while I may have given up on God, he never gave up on me. He knew grief and anger gripped my heart, and I wasn’t going to pick up a Bible. But he also knew I was never without a book, so he led me to a place where he could reach me. God called to me through Terri Blackstock’s characters, in books written years before my tragedy.
I’m here. I never left you. Come home.
I ran from God, but he followed me. When I refused to seek him out, he showed up in the comic book store. He placed in my hands the book that would lead me back to him.
I still grieve for my son. I still have dark days when I cry out why? But I do so secure in the knowledge that God can take it, and when I’m done, his arms will be open.
God sought me out in a second hand comic book store. Have you had an encounter with God in an unexpected place?