The Day I Collared a Thief

The Day I Collared a Thief

Sometimes I wonder if God, in his unfathomable wisdom, did not place me for a time in the ministry because he knew I hated to choose different clothes to wear every day. It was an act of grace—comical grace, but grace nonetheless. To pick out a matching shirt, pants, tie, shoes, socks, and belt every day is a direct result of the fall into sin. Thanks to Adam and Eve, not only did I lose the right to strut about naked. I’m also forced to have a closet, and society expects me to know how to use it.

When I was a pastor, and later a professor, I flaunted the freedom to wear basically the same thing every day: black shoes, black socks, black pants, black shirt, white collar. Doctors and nurses have their scrubs, police officers their uniforms, priests their dalmatian duds. I wore them to my study, to my classroom, to church. And one day I wore them to Office Depot.

I was on the hunt for printer cartridges, as I recall, as well as a few other geeky odds and ends I needed around my office. I was there for half an hour or so, in no hurry, meandering up and own the aisles, attracting the occasional knowing stare from a predestined Protestant, or the looking-away-glance from the Catholic who hadn’t been to Mass since her fourth marriage. After a while, those who wear the garb rarely notice anyone noticing them. Rarely, but there are exceptions.

When I rounded the corner, he was kneeling in front of a shelf stocked with various forms of computer software. Time suddenly, and inexplicably, shifted into low gear, and I saw everything happen in slow motion. His left hand held the software he’d just removed from the shelf. His right hand took his jacket in hand and opened it in the front. His left hand moved to place the item inside a pocket, inside his coat, a few inches from his heart. When that item was halfway in his coat and still halfway out, his head pivoted toward me. Our eyes locked. And this poor, unlucky thief, open-mouthed, frozen, appeared, for all accounts, to have witnessed the epiphany of the Lord God Jehovah. Office Depot had become Mount Sinai.

I didn’t move. I didn’t speak. I just stood there and looked at him, looking at me. And suddenly, but now very explicably, time shifted into reverse. The left hand pulled the item from his pocket. The right hand released the coat. The left replaced the item into its proper position on the shelf. Our eyes unlocked, he stood up, turned his back to me, and walked away.

To my knowledge, that was the only time my priestly garb protected a sinner from breaking the 7th commandment. More often than not, it kept me from breaking some other commandments, lest I be caught red-handed while white-collared. The clothes make the man, as the saying goes, but sometimes the clothes save the man, and even other men, from making mistakes they have to live with.

For there’s more than one way to collar a thief.