Circus of Grace
Rule No. 1 for law enforcement chaplains is to never interfere with an arrest. But one time I did. It was before I knew better, predating my volunteer ministry as a chaplain.
The year was 1983. While visiting my mother in Maryland, I took my kids — ages 5 and 6 at the time — to a pharmacy. A police car straddled the curb outside the store, lights flashing. As we walked inside, there was a man being arrested.
“Daddy! Is he going to jail?”
“It seems like he will.”
Now the kids really got excited. “What did he do?”
“I guess they caught him stealing something.”
Normally I’m a proponent of “reap what you sow, learn from your choices.” But something about this guy touched my heart. Maybe his slumping shoulders. Seized with unexpected boldness, I ventured over and initiated undeserved intercession.
“I’m really sorry you have to arrest this man.”
The officer turned to me and stared. “Yeah, we’re sorry too.”
Pointing to the suspect, I suggested, “I think this man also is sorry. He looks that way to me.”
The officer frowned.
Naively ignoring that warning, I addressed the thief: “Aren’t you sorry you stole that stuff?”
“I sure am, man.”
“See, he’s sorry,” I pled hopefully. “I’ll bet he’ll never shoplift anything again.”
“He’s right! I’ll never steal anything again as long as I live!” exclaimed the thief.
Yeah, right, the store manager frowned sarcastically.
“Look,” ordered the officer, regaining control of the situation and righteously resisting the audacity of grace. “You’re obstructing justice here.”
I apologized. His voice softened. “I’m sure you mean well, sir, but I’ve got a job to do for this man,” he said, nodding toward the manager. “He’s the one pressing charges.”
I saw my opportunity. “Say, would you drop charges if I take responsibility for what this guy did? Let me pay for whatever he stole.”
The manager scowled, a swirl of irritation, consternation and amazement. “This store has a systemwide policy of arresting all shoplifters,” he replied. Then he paused and shrugged. “But … I guess we can make an exception, if you’re willing to pay for the merchandise.”
I pulled out my wallet. “So how much do I owe you?”
He thought for a moment. “Let’s make it $7.”
I handed over a five and two ones, and the manager took custody of the ransom.
“Can he go now?” I petitioned the officer.
“Well, if the manager is dropping charges, I’ve got no grounds to arrest him.”
Case closed. The handcuffs came off, and I triumphantly headed for the exit, trailed by my kids and our new friend. As our circus of grace paraded past onlooking customers and employees, some seemed amused, others amazed.
Outside, the pardoned shoplifter stopped and turned toward me. “Hey, man! I can’t believe what you did in there.”
I told him God had done the same thing for me and for him with our sins recorded in heaven — a much more serious situation than any charges here on Earth.
He didn’t seem captivated by the grace that set him free. He just wanted to evacuate his crime zone. With a grateful grin and final wave, he dashed around the corner into a trash-strewn alley. Watching in wonder, the policeman ducked into his cruiser, calmed his flashing lights and thoughtfully rolled out of the parking lot.
Maybe the whole thing was for him.
Alone again with my kids, I walked them over to our Mazda and opened the door.
“Wow, Daddy,” they exclaimed. “Why did you help that man? Didn’t he deserve to go to jail?”
“He sure did. I guess I felt sorry for him. And I wanted to show you what we were talking about in worship the other day — how Jesus intercedes for us in heaven as our high priest.”
It was an expensive illustration. Seven dollars is a stretch for a struggling young family, particularly in 1983 dollars. But I could have paid a lot more for interfering with the arrest process — with my own arrest, actually. Only 15 years later as a chaplain did I realize the outrageousness of my breech of protocol. Police risk their lives when arresting a suspect who might be armed and have criminal comrades lurking nearby.
But I was just a foolish young dad, so the officer spared me. And maybe he had other reasons too.
I don’t know whether the criminal beneficiary of my intercession turned his life around. Probably not, judging by how he dismissed my spiritual explanation of his release. Yet we seldom know this side of heaven the positive results of radical grace.
Come to think of it, we are all recipients of this amazing grace. How have we responded? How have we paid this gift forward to others in our midst?