On the evening of September 29 in Dover, Ohio, a man walked into the public library and strolled out with a large community Christmas Jar containing an estimated $1,000 meant for a local needy family. Surveillance cameras captured it all and soon social media did its wildfire thing.
The suspect, clearly identifiable in the footage, returned a portion of the money in the night drop box with an apology note, but the damage was done and before long, he was in custody and stories were emerging about his past, his present and his uncertain future.
I'm the author of the book, “Christmas Jars” which became a surprise national bestseller 10 years ago and launched a tradition that grows by the day.
I heard about the theft the very next morning and within hours, my team and I launched a GoFundMe campaign to replenish the jar and ensure that the needy family in Dover wouldn’t go without. Friends and fans (what’s the difference, really?) stepped up and we easily cleared our goal.
With the digital jar filling, I decided to reach out by phone to the accused thief’s family. I spoke several times and at length with his wonderful grandmother. Through persistent tears, she painted a picture of her grandson’s troubled life and history of colorful decision-making. She also revealed that his girlfriend was pregnant, fed-up and embarrassed beyond belief.
One morning, pondering the spirit of the Christmas Jar movement and the countless stories we’ve received through the years, I received a spiritual answer to a question I hadn’t even asked yet.
Faster than it takes for a quarter to hit the bottom of a freshly scrubbed Mason jar, I realized I was heading to Ohio.
Maybe I'd get a Hollywood ending?
Or, at the very least, I wanted to sit with him for a few minutes and explain the origin of the tradition, share some of the inspiring miracles of the last decade, and help him understand when you steal a jar, you’re not stealing money.
You’re stealing hope.
Sadly, it didn’t happen. Yes, I went to Dover but the accused thief refused to meet with me. Twice.
I stayed in town for fifty hours but the ending I had envisioned, hoped for, would have liked, never happened.
If I could sit in a cold steel chair across from the man accused of stealing that jar, I would tell him that forgiveness on the part of both the Dover and Christmas Jars communities isn’t optional. It’s required.
I would tell him that regrets are healthy, but only if they lead to change. And I would tell him that although I’ve never spent a night in jail, I’ve made my share of mistakes.
With clumsy words and clunky phrases, I would have explained that this life, down to every single minute of every single day, presents a second chance. Why let yesterday define tomorrow?
It’s a new sunrise, a new set of hours and a new menu of choices.
Neighbors, wardens and strangers on the street don’t get to determine his destiny. That right is divinely his, mine and yours.
As I said goodbye, I would look him in the eye, and knowing my DNA, I would fight tears as I told him just how much I believe his life can have another verse. There isn’t much I know, but I do know that.
The message for him - and the rest of us - is that there’s always time and there's always hope. Between now and Christmas, there's plenty of time for a return trip to Ohio.
And I'll go without the Hollywood ending.
This holiday season, as our Christmas Jars fill, may we remember that it’s not just about the change on the inside.
It’s about the prayers, hope, love, forgiveness and second chances that grow inside.
And for me? It’s about a man I haven’t met.
And the man I still need to become.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times bestselling author, columnist and speaker. His newest book “A Letter to Mary: The Savior's Loving Letter to His Mother” is now available for preorder on Amazon. Subscribe to his weekly columns, join him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.