Chapter One Excerpt
I was in a hurry. I had quit my job, moved my family to the big city, and was beginning the dream. My dream—of working in a bookstore, reading books, recommending books to others, and somehow doing something that mattered. I had worked in corporate America long enough to know that doing something that mattered was not normally on the agenda at weekly business meetings. Making profits, taking care of customers, and earning a comfortable living had been the daily agenda for my colleagues and me. Now don’t get me wrong. That might be plenty of motivation for most people, especially the “earning a comfortable living” part, and it had been for me too—for a while. Then the gnawing questions started in the middle of the night: “Is this really what you want to do for the rest of your life?”
I had a sneaking suspicion that if I kept on the same trajectory, I would actually succeed in accomplishing my career aspirations. But was that what God wanted for my life? My wife and I attended a local church and were actively involved. We both read the Bible, prayed, and tithed regularly. For goodness’ sake, we even helped run the nursery and served on the missions committee. What more could God want? But as God revealed His will to us through His Word, it became clear that He wanted us to surrender our careers, our future, and all our plans to Him. This seemed crazy. Still, one thing I knew for sure: I would never be fully content until my gifts and God’s will intersected.
The gnawing questions had led to a full-blown life crisis that landed me in the bookstore in Philly. I was finally here, but I did not have a clue what I was doing. Every day seemed to prove my ignorance and inability to be of real help to those coming through the door. Ironically, that did not dishearten me in the least. I was a sponge, soaking up what I could learn from a woman who had been assigned to train me and who loved books. Nothing my mentor said, however, prepared me for that Tuesday. Nothing ever could have.
I was standing at the counter, eager to help anyone who came in, when I saw her for the first time. An elderly African American woman walked in, looked around, and seemed a little bit lost. At first she did not seem to want help, and then she motioned me over. I greeted her in my cheeriest voice, convinced that for once I would be able to make the right book recommendation on the first try. Then she told me her story.
She had just come from burying her son who had been murdered, and she did not know what to do with the grief. I was a twenty-something white guy listening to an older black woman pour her heart out, and it was clear that I was in deep. Nothing in my life to that moment had prepared me for her question. No one in my family had ever been murdered. In fact, no one I knew at all had ever been murdered.
Not knowing what to do, I did what Clara had trained me to do in moment like this. I began to pray for wisdom, for some idea as to what to say, and for some way to be a comfort to this woman. I had totally forgotten about recommending a book or that we were even in a bookstore. Somehow we had been transported to a sacred space where she could ask this question of a complete stranger and hope to get an answer for her pain. Just at that moment, a voice piped up, “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.” I thought for a moment that my worst nightmare was about to take place. Some know-it-all woman had been eavesdropping and would now want to share her “wisdom,” and this grieving woman would be in even more pain.
Without skipping a beat, the gracious woman I had been talking to listened to what the other woman had to say. Instead of coming up with some pithy statement of encouragement, the second woman simply said, “My son was murdered too.” Looking up, she pointed to a book in our grief and consolation section and said, “That book really helped me come to terms with it, but it still hurts.” With tears in her eyes, the woman I was supposed to be helping grabbed the book and started reading.
At this point, I thought I was having some kind of out-of body experience. How likely was it that when someone needed a book recommendation because her son had been murdered that another woman who had experienced the same thing would be standing nearby listening to her conversation? This was no coincidence, and this store was no ordinary place. This was a store that mattered.
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