Elijah asks about New Year’s

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Elijah asks Grandpa about New Year’s and murder

Grandpa, what’s “murder”?

Oh, my, Elijah, why are you asking about murder on New Year’s Eve? What brought that up?

Marissa, my baby-sitter did. Okay, Grandpa, forget that. What’s a year?

Well, a year is 12 months.

So I’ll be a year older tomorrow?

No. You’re only seven-and-a-half months old.

But tomorrow’s a new year, so I’ll be a year older, right?

No. You can’t be a year older when you’re not yet one year old. You’ll be one year-old on your birthday in four-and-a-half months. Then, a year from your first birthday, you’ll be able to say you’re a year older.

Sometimes you’re really confusing Grandpa! I ask two simple questions and I’m more confused than before I asked you. So the New Year is only for old folks?

new-years-eve-2900120_1280No, it’s for everyone. It just doesn’t have anything to do with being a year older unless you’re already a year old and were born on January 1. But New Year’s isn’t about your birthday. You were born in May.

Okay. So what’s a “new year”? And what’s an old year? Is it like you and me?

It’s not like us, Elijah. It’s different. New Year’s is about hope. It happens every January first, the first day of the new year on the calendar, another 12 months, another 365 days like we’ve never known before. New Year’s is a fresh start! The old year is finished.

No it’s not, Grandpa. What about murder?

This is sounding like a circular argument, Elijah. Somehow you’ve brought us full circle to murder?

Yeah, ‘cause everything got murdered in 2017!

No it didn’t Elijah! You were born in 2017! That’s the opposite of murder. That’s new birth. That’s hope and joy. You’ve brought me joy and hope this last eight months and I hope we have lots of years to talk like this before Grandpa buys the farm.

You’re buying a farm? We already have a cabin. When are you buying the farm?

It’s just an expression, Elijah. “Buying the farm” is a way of talking about death. When you’ve bought the farm, you’re dead.

What’s dead, Grandpa?

It’s like all the stuff that got murdered in 2017 — things like truth — and there’ll be a lot more murders in 2018. But hope springs eternal.

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Yeah! I hope you and truth don’t buy a farm in 2018! Happy New Year, Grandpa!

  • Grandpa Gordon, Chaska, MN, December 31, 2017 (the year of murder)

Bible a key to murder case

A friend called to tell me about the murder of his friend Earl Olander soon after it happened. Hollis knew the victim, 90 year-old Earl Olander, mercilessly beaten in his Carver County farm house.

Why would anyone would do this [i.e., tie him up, beat him with a shotgun, ransack his farm house, leave him half-dead] to a sweet-spirited old man like Earl?

A new use for the Bible appeared as the lead headline on the front page of this morning’s StarTribune:

“Stolen Bible leads police to suspects in death of 90 year-old Carver County man: After 90 year-old man was beaten to death, his stolen Bible led police to two suspects.” – StarTribune

Though a suspect is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, charges have been brought against the two suspects based, in part, on the discovery of the victim’s large European Bible containing two savings bonds a cleaning agent found in a vacated apartment in Saint Paul, MN.

The Bible has many uses. It speaks of grace, of sin, of homicide, of betrayal, brutality, denial, mercy, and more. Now, in the murder of 90 year-old Earl Olander that defies explanation, it serves as the primary piece of evidence in a court of law.

“Before the attackers fled,” says the StarTribune, “they ransacked Olander’s home and stole the Bible, as well as coins, old silverware, and two-dollar bills.

“[A neighbor of Olander] said he found it ‘quite ironic that it was the Bible’ that helped investigators make the arrests. ‘Think about that.'” [Star Tribune story]

“The book to read is not the book that thinks of you, but the one that makes you think.  No book in the world equals the Bible for that. – Harper Lee, author, To Kill a Mockingbird

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 14, 2015.

Into the Cocoon of Sorrow

The return of the prodigal son - Rembrandt drawing

The return of the prodigal son – Rembrandt drawing

During seven years as Executive Director of the Legal Rights Center, Inc. a nonprofit public defense corporation founded in 1970 by American Indian and African-American civil rights leaders, there were sacred moments when the lawyers would call me in to meet a suicidal client in a jail cell. Sometimes the person in the cell was guilty of murder or manslaughter. They were beside themselves. All I could do was be there with them as a kind of quiet presence of hope and the possibility of forgiveness and new life.

I knew then that we were sitting right in the middle of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Gospel of Luke 15:11-32). In Jesus’ parable, the son, who has convinced his generous father into giving him his inheritance before his father’s death, has squandered it all, and, after finding himself in desperation, eating the left-overs in the pig sty of “the far country”, he staggers home to his father. He comes beating his breast with remorse and shame. “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him,” and orders the finest robe for him and a magnificent feast to celebrate his son’s return from “the far country.” When the older brother who has stayed home obediently objects, the father of the two sons declares: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, but is alive, was lost, and is found!”

Only after returning to parish ministry did I discover The Book of Common Prayer’s rite for the reconciliation of a penitent that is constructed on the story of the return of the son to the father. For those in the bowels of despair, remorse, and guilt, there is no word from inside one’s own self that can crack open the cocoon of horror, self-disgust, and condemnation. When I found this rite, it moved me deeply. I adapted parts of it for the Prayer of Confession in morning worship at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.

RITE FOR THE RECONCILIATION OF A PENITENT from The Book of Common Prayer (The Episcopal Church)

The priest and penitent begin as follows

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions only too well,
and my sin is ever before me.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
have mercy upon us.

Penitent: Pray for me, a sinner.

Priest: May God in his love enlighten your heart, that you may remember in truth all your sins and his unfailing mercy. Amen.

The Priest may then say one or more of these or other appropriate verses of Scripture, first saying:: Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.

Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. Matthew 11:28

This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I Timothy 1:13

If any man sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and nor for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. I John 2:1-2

The Priest then continues:

Now, in the presence of Christ, and of me, his minister, confess your sins with a humble and obedient heart to Almighty God, our Creator and our Redeemer.

The Penitent says:

Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and I have wandered far in a land that is waste.

Especially, I confess to you and to the Church . . . . (Here the penitent confesses particular sins)

Therefore, O Lord, from these and all other sins I cannot now remember, I turn to you in sorrow and repentance. Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Priest may then offer words of comfort and counsel.

Priest: Will you turn again to Christ as your Lord?

Penitent: I will.

Priest: Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?

Penitent: I forgive them.

Priest: May Almighty God in mercy receive your confession of sorrow and faith, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

The Priest then lays upon the penitent’s head (or extends a hand over the penitent) saying:: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Priest concludes: Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go (or abide) in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.

Penitent: Thanks be to God.

The Death of Sidney Mahkuk

November 10, 2005

I stood there on the spot where she was found a few hours before.

An 11 year old girl dumped from a car onto the sidewalk…next a funeral home.

There were tokens of love and remembrance – a teddy bear, a Snickers bar, some fresh flowers, a poem, evidence that fear and intimidation could not stop the love of those who dared to reclaim that piece of land.

Sidney Mahkuk did not die of an overdose. She was overdosed. She was murdered. I wondered how it could happen. I wondered, as Sidney’s older sister would ask later at an impromptu memorial service on that same spot,

“Was she lonely?  Was she scared?  Did she know we cared?  Did she know we loved her?”

I never met Sidney. But I felt very close standing alone hours after her death on the spot where someone(s) had dump her body to send a message perhaps to someone else that you’ll end up here – at the funeral home – if you mess with us.

Then it dawned on me why this felt strangely familiar. This violence was not unusual.  It was ghastly, but it was not unusual.  Ask the prisoners who died at Abu Graib. Ask the parents of the Sidneys in Baghdad and Felujiah and Kabul. Ask the mothers and fathers of the young Americans who have lost their lives for what they were told was the noble cause of disarming Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and promoting freedom – American mothers and fathers, Iraqi mothers and fathers whose teddy bears and Snicker bars and poems are ignored…because nobody dares to stand there and say that violence and intimidation are not acceptable.

Sidney’s death is unique. Sidney was unique. One of a kind – a Menominee and Potawatome. Sidney was a stranger on her on own native soil. She was American Indian, one of America’s First People, as the Canadians say. But as a stranger on her own soil she is like many of us who, weeping and bewildered, seek to find our way in this strange and foreign land we call America.

The tears falling on the sidewalk beside the funeral home – and only the falling tears – can wash the blues away and lead again joy.

Sometimes I feel all blue

sad  sorry  blue

all down in minor key

a rhapsody in blue.

Sometimes

when blue begins to play

its melody in me, sometimes

the minor turns to major key –

Blue bursts into purple and,

leaping into joy,

a burst of sun-burst yellow

splashes  the blues away

And I feel all clean

all wet  all whole  up

like a purple-yellow rhapsody,

an Ode to Purple-Yellow Joy.

NOTE: I was Executive Director of the Legal Rights Center when I wrote this piece. The tears still flow. Like too many other cases in Minneapolis’s poorer neighborhoods, Sydney’s case is still “open”.

– Gordon C. Stewart