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One day, at the height of an era of baseball card hysteria, a nine-year-old sat with a few of his friends comparing their card collections. Suddenly, the clear alpha dog declared with authority, “Your collection stinks!”  The other friends muttered their affirmation, both confirming the lack of any cards of great value in this boy’s hands, and the great baseball cardiness of the one who had spoken.  They all laughed because anybody knew that any cool kid would have better cards.

This had not been the first time it had happened.  Somehow, the humiliation overcame the boy, and he hatched a plan.

In the nearby strip-mall parking lot, a defunct gas station had been converted to a baseball card shop.  On the next visit to the mall, the boy asked his mother if he could look around the small store while she shopped.  In truth, he was not a baseball fan and really did not know which player’s cards were worth more than others.  Nor did he care – but this was no longer about his cards, or about baseball – it was about maintaining his self-respect the next time his friends were together. 

He was smart enough to know that the more highly priced cards were likely the best ones, and found that, to his advantage, the long troughs of cards were separated by price.  He sauntered to the more expensive end of one table, and keeping a stealthy eye on the owner, quickly picked a card and slipped it into his pocket when the man was preoccupied.   Though he felt heat of anxiety rise within him, he willed himself to keep casually looking through the boxes, and then leisurely walked out of the store. He did not know who the player was, but if his card was priced at $20, it must be good.

In retrospect, he was not sure what happened, but something about the success of his theft lodged within him.  A day later, at another friend’s house and seeing a few loose dollars on the boy’s dresser, he quickly grabbed the money and stuck it in his pocket.  Emboldened, he began to look for other opportunities.  When with his family in a restaurant, saying he was going to the bathroom, he walked by a vacated table and subtlely picked up the tip that had been left behind.  And so, as the week played out, he increased his spoils from sundry spots.  And then, he made a mistake that blew his cover.

Gathered with his friends to compare decks, with a sly smile, he pulled out his new card.  The other boys stared in awe.  “Where did you get that one!” They asked, each yelling over another.  He hadn’t prepared for that question, and quickly blurted that it came in the pack he had just bought.  The alpha dog was suspicious.  ‘That wouldn’t come in a pack.”  That made no sense to the boy – they all had to have some from packs at one point, so he shrugged his shoulders and simply said, “Well, that’s where I got it.”  

A few days later, the mother of the boy who challenged him came to his house.  Asking to speak to his mother, she said, “I think you would want to know – I believe your son stole a baseball card.”  She related what her son had told her and with some disbelief but with an increasing pit her stomach, the boy’s mother listened.

On the evening of the same day, the boy’s parents consulted and then sat him down.  “Son, did you steal a baseball card from somewhere?”

“No!” came the answer, that was just a bit too quick and too indignant.

“We heard you had a really great card” his father said.  “Where did you get it?”

“I don’t know!” he protested.

“Can we see it?”

“I traded it,” he replied.

They sat in silence for what seemed like hours, and then the boy, unable to contain his guilt behind a façade, blurted out a confession.  In tears, he told the story, including what had brought him to the brink.

His father was proud of him for telling them the truth, thinking they had just achieved a parental victory.  His mother wasn’t done.

Sensing something, she asked him, “And have you stolen anything else?”

‘What are you doing!’ the father thought.  ‘He just was honest with us.  Don’t break the trust.’  The father was chagrined when the boy answered.

“Yes,” he said quietly. 

“What was it?” she asked.

“Money from my friend.”

“Is there more?” his mother asked.  “How much more?’ his father wondered miserably.

This went on until all five thefts had been identified and the cross-examination was over.

They sat quietly for a while, somewhat overwhelmed that this nearly perfect young man had fallen into this trap.

His father finally took a big breath.  “Well, I am taking the day off tomorrow and you and I are going to drive around and make things right.” 

The following morning, the man and his son began their journey, going from location to location, offering a confession, and having meaningful talks between each stop.  One received the young boy’s apology and restitution with understanding, one even laughed, commenting that boys would be boys, but another said very little, quietly asking the boy and his father to leave after the money had been paid back.

Their next to last stop was the restaurant.  The father asked for the manager, and the very tall, heavy-set man came out.

“My son would like to speak with you,” the father said.

The boy was intimidated, but holding his father’s hand, he said, “The other day I stole a tip off of one of your tables…”

The manager was quiet and then straightened his back to stand taller and moved to within a foot of the boy, looking straight down at him.

“From which table?” he demanded. 

The boy pointed.

“When did you do this?” he demanded again.

The boy told him.

The manager was quiet, and then angrily said, “I don’t know who worked that table that night.  That was a terrible thing for you to do.  These waiters and waitresses work hard at this job, and they depend on that money, and because of you, somebody won’t have been paid enough, and even though you want to pay me, I don’t know who to give it to!”

“Nonetheless,” the father said, trying to stem his own irritation, “He wants to pay it back.”

“How much was it?” the manager scowled at the father.

“He’s not sure, a few dollars at most, so he wanted to give you five dollars to be sure.”

“Well,” the manager snorted.  “It doesn’t make any difference – I don’t know who to give it to.”  With that, he grabbed the money roughly out of the boy’s hand.

“Perhaps,” the father said, now not even trying to disguise his own distaste for the manager’s behavior, “you could give it to someone as a bonus for good work.”

The manager just stared, stuck the five-dollar bill in his pocket, and walked away.  He stopped after several steps, and turned back, saying loudly enough for his customers to hear, “You know, if you don’t fix this, you are going to have a lousy life!”  He then continued to the back of his restaurant.

In the car, the boy hugged his father and cried. 

“That man acted terribly,” the father consoled him.  “However, you still have to confess and make up for your sin, even when people act like that.  You did the right thing.  Whatever he does now is up to him.  I am proud of you.”

One stop remained.  The father had more or less ranked their visits in order of severity, and the final destination would be to the baseball card shop.

The father prayed the man would receive his son well, but he prepared him: “Look, son, no matter how he acts, just do what you have been doing.  And when we are done with this one, we are finished, so let’s go in and take care of it.”

They walked in the small store and in the back by a folding table with a cash register was a young man, pony-tailed, with a ball cap.

“Can I help you?” he called out cheerily as they walked in.

“Yes,” the father said, now having gotten his own part down, “my son would like to speak with you.”

The owner of the shop looked at the boy.  Perhaps because he noticed the boys eyes were red, perhaps because he could see him shake from nervousness, or perhaps because he was one of those special people that tries to sense the needs of those around him and meet them where they need to be met, he pulled up a chair and  sat so he was at eye-level with the young boy.

“What can I do for you?”

With halting breath, the boy said, “I stole a card from your store.” 

The owner quietly looked at him and shook his head.  “I see. Can you tell me which one you stole?”

Since the boy had already traded the card, and could not remember the name of the player, he took the owner over to the bin and found another of the same by looking at the pictures.  “This was the one,” he said quietly.  They walked back, the owner taking his seat and the boy standing in front of him.

“Well, he said, quelling a small smile.  “At least you have good taste.”

The boy looked up through his tears and let a small laugh come out.

Then the owner became serious but spoke softly.  “I mortgaged my house to buy this place.  I have everything I own in it, so when people steal from me, it hurts.  Thank you for coming and telling me.   That must have hard.”

The boy just nodded, and then added, “I want to pay you for it.”

“That would be great,” the owner replied.  But that’s a lot of money, are you sure you have it?

“We’re working out a loan program,” the father chimed in, now through his tears.

The owner looked up and smiled and then looked back at the boy.

“Let me tell you something.  I have had this store for a year now.  I know kids steal cards from me every day.  But you are the first one who ever came in to apologize and pay me back.  I admire you for that.”

The father produced the money and gave it to the shop owner who took it and then said to the boy, still looking him in the eye.  “You know, I probably would have sold it on sale for about $15, so that leaves $5.  Would you like to pick out some cards?”

The boy nodded, but then sheepishly added, “I don’t know what good ones are.”

The owner stood, and with his hand on the boy’s shoulder, said, “Come on, I can pick some great cards for you. 

The father quietly watched, full of gratefulness as the man guided the boy from box to box, picking cards and telling him about each of the players.

“Oh, and by the way, I have some duplicates that aren’t worth anything, but they will put more cards in your collection.”

As he handed the boy another dozen cards, the father said softly.  “That was a lot more than five dollars of cards.”

The owner smiled and said, “Yes, it was.”

Almost unable to speak, the father shook his hand.  “Thank you,” he managed to whisper.

Before the father and son left, the owner got down one more time on his level.  “You know, that took a lot of character.  You are going to grow up to be a great man.”

That kind owner, unaware of the contrast his closing statement made with their prior stop, stood, smiled and waved goodbye.

Many years have passed since that day.  I thought as I heard the story, that when we repent and ask our Father in Heaven to forgive us, he will be much more like the baseball card shop owner than the restaurant manager.  He will communicate with us on our level.  He will want the truth, and he will make us aware of the damage we might have caused.  But he will also affirm us for taking the step to make it right.  And, I believe, if we make restitution to those we hurt, I think he will find ways to make us whole, even if it needs to come in different ways. 

The funny thing is the restaurant owner spoke the truth.  It was a horrible thing to do.  Someone did suffer because of it, and there was no way to make it right.  And, as he said, if the young boy did not resolve his new habit, he would have a difficult life.  The difference, however, was that the restaurant manager’s goal was to make him squirm.  The baseball card shop owner’s goal was to make him better.

When we repent, we need to remember that forgiveness is a gift our Father in Heaven will provide us in return for our sorrow. 

We also may remember that we will get to play the part of the baseball card shop owner in our lives, probably many times.  When someone works through their struggles to come to us to confess a mistake and ask for our forgiveness, will we make them pay a premium of pain, to be sure they have suffered enough, or will we bridge the gulf to receive their repentance with gladness and an increase in love?  We all have a chance to turn a wrong committed against us into a life-changing positive moment for someone else.

In the end, the boy never did steal again and did, in fact, grow up to be a fine man, upstanding in character and patient with those who stumble, just as the baseball card shop owner thought he would. 

And the father?  Well, he had a little repenting of his own to do, feeling a small bit of satisfaction when he heard his son’s friend was annoyed that the young boy now had more than a dozen new cards.

From the author of Jacob T. Marley and the newly released Last Man at the Inn.