Last month, a Charleston, South Carolina, reader wrote to tell me that he’d “…learned a great deal about you and your Christian character and how dedicated you are in fulfilling your duties as an Air Force Chaplain.”

I fear he’ll be sorely disappointed when he hears what I did the day after our subdivision’s annual neighborhood garage sale. After watching hundreds of people come into our open garages with open wallets, I went jogging to clear all the hagglers and wheeler-dealers from my head.

Along my route, several street corners were still festooned with fragments of our frenzied sale — street signs were wrapped with deflated balloons and crisscrossed with lopsided cardboard arrows.

But a pair of garage sale signs withstood the day. They were store-bought affairs, standing tall against the wind on their wire legs. The signs were dateless, but in the context of surrounding signs, I assumed them to be expired.

Being a good California recycler, I thought I might recycle them for my post-garage-sale sale next month. So, I disassembled them, placed them under my arm and began my run home.

A few blocks later, I spotted a duplicate sign pointing toward a property with an open garage and tables staged across the lawn. Suddenly I realized that I was not a recycler to be congratulated, but perhaps a thief to be pursued.

Like the Adam of Eden, I hid in the shadows of the trees, feeling naked with guilt.
From behind the tree, I considered my choices.

I’m ashamed to admit my first thought was to drop the signs to make a hot streak home. Not an option — refer back to reader email about chaplain integrity.

My only real option was to make hot streak toward the corner and return the signs. However, just as I stepped from my shameful shade, a woman came walking across the street to “greet” me.

“Excuse me,” she said, but not in a pardoning tone. It was closer to the tone of “Accuse you!”

I dropped the signs, crossing my wrists over my pounding heart. “Oh my, I’m so very sorry. I assumed these signs were yesterday’s leftovers. I’ll put them back.”

Her expression softened with understanding, but then shifted into disappointment. “Oh, but you’ve broken them,” she said noting the legless signs.

“Oh, no, no, no. I’ve only disassembled them, but I can easily reassemble them.”

As quickly as I sensed her understanding, I ran to the intersection where I thoughtfully repositioned the signs for maximum visibility.

The whole thing got me thinking about how we expect people to trust us just because of our title, skills, financial standing, education, age, gender or color.

Yet our actions speak with the loudest volume. If you’re standing in front of someone holding stolen signs, none of those things matters. At that moment, you are a thief.

And at that moment we must all step out of our shameful shadows and seek our creator with a contrite heart. For as the Psalmist said, “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.”

I returned to the woman and reported that I’d reconstructed and resurrected her signs. I also suggested she add the word “Sunday” to the sign just in case there was someone else like me who might make the same “mistake.”

She just looked at me, as if to say, “Someone like you? How is that even possible?”

Luckily, I’d found a forgiving person who was willing to accept a repentant thief with a contrite heart. But even more fortunately I’d found someone who wasn’t pressing charges — at least this time.