"You ever heard the expression, 'three strikes and you're out', Billy?"
"Yeah - from my little league coach," Billy sneered.
"Well, this aint little league, it's the big leagues. The real thing. And this is strike number two. One more and you won't just be out, you'll be sittin' the bench for a long time. A wooden bench in a jail cell. Now go on. Next time I call the cops."
There were a lot of "strike three's" but Mr. Jenkins never called the cops. He always let Billy go with a stern warning, reminding him he don't offer no five-finger discounts. I can't blame Mr. Jenkins for being too easy on him. Mr Jenkins knew that Billy didn't have a daddy and his mama was drunk most of the time, leaving him to care for his four younger brothers and sisters. He'd busted Billy for stealing food, clothes, toilet paper, and even caught him trying to stick a pair of winter boots down his pants for his little brother, Kenny, during a blizzard one year. Kenny only had a pair of worn out tennis shoes with holes in 'em. "His toes will freeze off, Mr. Jenkins!" Billy said.
Billy's excuse for his stealin' was that he wouldn't have to if his mama could heave herself up off that couch and hold down a job. Mr. Jenkins didn't say it out loud, but I knew he whole-heartedly agreed. That's why he let Billy get away with taking the stuff he needed, once in a while "catching" him, just to scare him a little, let him know what he was doing, though noble, wasn't right. He'd quote the Bible to Billy, verses about stealin' bein' a sin and all. But then he'd tell Billy how much God loved him, even though he was doin' things that were no good. Billy used to laugh about it afterwards, mockin' Mr. Jenkins about bein' so righteous, a Bible-thumpin' lunatic, is what he called him. I even remember him laughin' the day Mr. Jenkins died of a heart attack on the floor of his general store. Billy made some joke that night about how he wouldn't have to listen to any more Bible verses ever again.
Well, Billy got older and graduated to stealing bigger things, like stereos, television sets, and eventually cars, which is what finally landed him in a jail cell. It seemed Billy was in deep, looking at some heavy-duty prison time. When I went to visit him, His face was haggard, hair unkempt, eyes empty and sad. I had pretty much forgotten about Mr. Jenkins until Billy asked me a question that day.
"Do you think if Mr. Jenkin's woulda called the cops all them years ago…you think I'd be here now?"
How could I answer? What could I say? I sat silent for a minute and thought about his question, mullin' it over in my mind. On the one hand, if Mr. Jenkins had called the cops, Billy mighta learned there were consequences for his actions at an early age. It coulda stopped his other stealin' altogether. Maybe today Billy would be a loving husband, daddy to some kids, workin' a real job…it didn't seem likely, but you never know.
On the other hand, if Mr. Jenkins had called the cops, maybe Billy woulda ended up even worse off. Maybe it woulda made Billy mad and made him do even worse things than steal. Maybe Billy'd be servin' a life sentence by now, or worse, maybe he'd be…
I looked at Billy, who was waitin' for an answer. I knew he wanted me to say the right thing, somethin' to make him feel better, maybe, about what he did. But what could I say?
I took out my Bible and laid it on the table. I took my time thumbing through 'til I found the verse I was lookin' for. It seemed Billy was getting' impatient, his fingers tappin' on the table between us. But he didn't throw a fit when he saw The Good Book; in fact, he seemed anxious for me to read from it.
"Ah, here it is," I said. "But before I read it to you, let me just say that I have no idea what woulda happened if Mr. Jenkins had called the cops. It aint worth it to look back. And that leads me to this…in Philippians three verse thirteen - 'No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusin' all my energies on this one thing: Forgettin' the past and lookin' forward to what lies ahead.'"
I closed the book and looked up at Billy. Tears were streamin' down his face. "That's the one," he whispered. "That's the one Mr. Jenkins quoted the day he died. That mornin' he said to me, 'Billy, there's plenty of reason for me not to like you. You done some things to me that aint been very nice. But you know what I'm gonna do, Billy? I'm gonna do what Paul tells us to do in his letter to the Philippians. I'm gonna forget what's behind and look forward to what's ahead. Cause I have faith in you, Billy. I know you'll end up on the right side of the tracks someday.' I've thought about that so many times. I just wanna thank him for believin' in me, ya know? But I guess I'm glad he can't see me now. I let him down." Billy swiped at his eyes and rubbed his nose on his sleeve.
It was then that I knew how to answer Billy's question.
"You asked me if I thought you'd be here now if Mr. Jenkins had called the cops all them years ago. And my answer is no. I don't know where you'd be but I don't think it'd be here. I'm glad you are here though. Mr. Jenkins set the stage for you. Now you just have to act. And it seems to me you're ready to do just that."
I led Billy in the prayer of salvation that day. He's still dealin' with the consequences of his stealin' but he's doin' it with a new heart. And me? I'm takin' care of mama, who's been sober for one whole year now. I'm an honest guy, earnin' honest pay. I even have enough money now to buy my own boots.
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