Monday, November 29, 2010

Free Indeed

Shon Hopwood was not a particularly sophisticated bank robber. His bank-robbing strategy was not well planned. Listen to the strategy of someone assuming one of the most difficult tasks to get away with in this country: “We would walk into a bank with firearms, tell people to get down, take the money and run.”

Brilliant, right? Wrong. Shon pulled off 5 robberies in rural Nebraska in 1997 and 1998 that only brought in $200,000 in cash and resulted in over a decade-long vacation in federal prison. Yep. He got caught and went to prison.

No one was hurt in Mr. Hopwood’s bank robberies, but, according to the judge who sentenced Shon to prison in 1999, he and his accomplices “scared the (inserting Baptifanity* replacement word) heck out of the poor bank tellers.”

The judge was skeptical about Mr. Hopwood’s vow that he would change. He had heard it over and over again from those caught and convicted of crimes. After Shon's pledge to change, the judge said, “We’ll know in about 13 years if you mean what you say.”

Getting caught has a way of changing us. The honesty of it all is this: We get caught every time. There is never a time, never a crime, never a sin, never a slight of hand or eye that is not both seen and recorded. God sees. God knows. When I miss the mark, He doesn’t miss noticing that I missed the mark.

Ironically, getting caught is sometimes the door to true freedom. You’ll find that out about Shon Hopwood in a few minutes. You can see it in a nameless criminal in the gospel of Luke 23, beginning at verse 32 right now.

"There were also two others, criminals, led with Him (Jesus) to be put to death" (Luke 23:32). Criminals. The King James Version calls them "malefactors." The word in Luke is a combination of two words: "evil" and "work." Luke called them evildoers. Matthew and Mark were more specific and called them robbers. Luke wasn’t concerned with the flavor, just the poison. Sin is sin regardless of the label.

Matthew says that both men joined in the sneering and mocking of Jesus at first. But somewhere between verses 37 and 39 of Luke’s account, one of the criminals began to have a change of heart. After the other criminal screamed at Jesus to save Himself and them if He truly was the Messiah, the other criminal rebuked his partner in crime. He confessed that, of the three hanging on a cross that day, only one didn't deserve to be there. Then he turned to Jesus and said, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom" (v. 42).

How is getting caught the door to true freedom? To receive the forgiveness of God, you have to first admit you failed. Our conscience is supposed to weigh on us. And it usually does, but not always. When we continue on and push past our conscience, a hardness begins to set in. If left to harden and callous, we can become our very own hardened criminal. Sometimes, the only hope we have left is to get caught.

Had this criminal not been caught and punished on that very day, he may have never looked within himself nor to the Man on the Middle Cross who died to pay the price for his own evil work. But he did get caught. He did hang on a cross to pay humanity for his evil work. Yet simultaneously, the Man next to him hung on the cross to pay the debt owed to God by that evil worker…and this one.

One word made the difference… “Lord.” Jesus, by His own reply to that man in verse 43, opened a door no one ever thought could be opened for such a man. “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise."

No one would have ever picked that cross-hanging criminal to be the Valedictorian of Redemption. If he'd had a high school yearbook, the only thing written in it would have been, "You'll never amount to anything." Had we interviewed the old men from his neighborhood, they would have spoken of him in disgust, "That boy has been trouble since the day he was born."

But that boy was escorted by Jesus to the kingdom of heaven as the first trophy of God's amazing, redeeming grace.

Shon committed the crime and was forced to do the time. Once behind bars, Mr. Hopwood quickly began soul-searching. Prison has a way of getting a person’s attention. Shon said, “I didn’t want prison to be my destiny. When your life gets tipped over and spilled out, you have to make some changes.”

I would like to say that Shon turned to the Lord. He didn’t. Instead, he spent much of his time in the prison law library, and it turned out he was better at understanding the law than breaking it. He achieved something rare at the top levels of the American bar, and unheard of for someone behind bars: Shon Hopwood became an accomplished Supreme Court practitioner.

He prepared his first petition for certiorari (sir-she-o-rari) — a request that the Supreme Court hear a case — for a fellow inmate using a prison typewriter in 2002. Since Mr. Hopwood wasn’t a lawyer, the only name on the brief was that of the other prisoner, John Fellers.

That year, the court received 7,209 petitions from prisoners and others too poor to pay the filing fee, and it agreed to hear only 8 of them. One was Fellers v. United States .

Seth Waxman was the United States Solicitor General at the time. He had argued more than 50 cases in the Supreme Court. Of Shon’s petition, Waxman said, “It was probably one of the best cert. petitions I have ever read. It was just terrific.”

Mr. Waxman agreed to take the case on without payment. But he had one condition: “I will represent you,” Mr. Waxman told Mr. Fellers, “If we can get this guy Shon Hopwood involved.” Mr. Fellers agreed and they both felt good that Shon was there to quarterback the effort.

The former solicitor general showed Shon drafts of his legal briefings. The two men consulted about how to frame the arguments, discussed strategy, and tried to anticipate questions from the justices.

In January 2004, Mr. Waxman called Mr. Hopwood at the federal prison in Illinois to tell him they had won a 9-to-0 victory. Mr. Fellers’s sentence was reduced by 4 years.

The law library changed Mr. Hopwood’s life. Mr. Hopwood helped inmates from Indiana , Michigan and Nebraska get sentence reductions. Mr. Hopwood was released from prison in the fall of 2008. Mr. Fellers, the fellow inmate who was first assisted by Shon, was out before Shon, and owned a thriving car dealership in Lincoln, Nebraska .

“Here,” Mr. Fellers said, presenting his jailhouse lawyer with a 1989 Mercedes in pristine condition. “Thank you for getting me back to my daughter.”

Mr. Hopwood now works for a leading printer of Supreme Court briefs, Cockle Printing in Omaha . “What a perfect fit for me,” he said. “I basically get to help attorneys get their cases polished and perfected.”

His boss at Cockle said she had some misgivings about hiring Mr. Hopwood. It was hard to believe his story to start with, and it was really odd to see an aspiring paralegal driving around in a Mercedes.

But she called Mr. Hopwood’s references, including the former solicitor general, and was not only surprised to get right through to Mr. Waxman, but to hear his glowing endorsement of Shon. Did you catch that? Shon got through on the recommendation of a higher authority. So did the man in Luke 23. So do we.

Mr. Hopwood, who is 34, hopes to attend law at the University of Michigan. Mr. Hopwood’s personal life is looking up, too. He is married, and he and his wife had a son on Christmas Day.

A professor at Michigan who had worked with Shon in previous court cases said, “His gratitude for the quality of his life is that of someone who has come back from a near-death experience.”**

I know someone like that. Several someones. The man from Luke 23, the man who wrote what you are reading, and quite possibly the person now reading these words. Ours wasn't a "near-death" experience. It was a "true-death" experience. We were truly dead in our sins and needed the life-giving power of the blood of Jesus to make us alive to God. When you've been brought from death to life, you can't help but be grateful.

Excerpts from my favorite current writer are quite fitting here:

"The past doesn’t have to be your prison. You have a voice in your destiny. You have a say in your life. You have a choice in the path you take."

Remember this. Jesus, from the cross "saw you cast into a river of life you didn't request. He saw you betrayed by those you love. He saw you with a body that gets sick and a heart that grows weak. He saw you in your own garden of gnarled trees and sleeping friends. He saw you staring into the pit of your own failures and the mouth of your own grave. He saw you in your own garden of Gethsemane and he didn't want you to be alone ... He would rather go to hell for you than to heaven without you."***

Free Indeed,
Perry Crisp

*Baptifanity - replacement words used by Baptists instead of cusswords.
**Shon's story was published in the New York Times, February 9, 2010, and was written by Adam Liptak.
***Max Lucado

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Search is On

Abel Madariaga saw his 28-year-old wife, Silvia, being forced into a car by Argentine army officers on January 17, 1977. That was the last time he saw his pregnant wife. Silvia, a victim of evil politics as part of the 1976-1983 "dirty war" against political dissidents, was kidnapped and killed after giving birth. Some Argentinian rights groups believe that about 400 children were stolen at birth during this time from women who endured the same fate as Silvia.

Abel made it his life's ambition to find out what happened to his wife and child. When Argentina returned to democratic control, Abel lobbied the government to create a DNA database and dedicate judicial resources to the effort.

Abel's efforts paid off. After years of searching, he was able to find out what happened to his wife, though the details were sketchy and heartbreaking. Abel learned that his wife, Quintela, gave birth to their son in July of 1977 while imprisoned in a notorious torture center in Buenos Aires. The newborn, whom the couple had planned to name Francisco, was taken from his mother the day after he was born. Quintela was never seen again.

Abel's son, with umbilical cord still attached, was taken by a military intelligence officer, Victor Gallo, to his own home and his own wife, Ines. They named him Alejandro Ramiro Gallo and never told him anything about the circumstances of his birth or his adoption. But Francisco knew that something wasn't right. He never felt that he belonged to the Gallo family. He looked nothing like his brother and sister.

The marriage between Victor and Ines didn't last. Victor was a violent man. As the Gallo family fell apart, Francisco found a way out as a professional juggler touring Europe. Meanwhile, Victor Gallo was convicted of murdering a couple and their child during a robbery in 1994 and was sentenced to prison for ten years.

Eventually, Francisco worked up the courage to confront his "adoptive" mother, Ines. She broke down and told him what she knew. She didn't know who his parents were or where Victor got him. But she told the young man she knew and loved as her son, Alejandro, that he had been adopted. The news was a welcome relief to the increasing doubts that had haunted Francisco.

Francisco forgave Ines and the two of them determined together that they would try to find Francisco's family. Finally, some friends encouraged Francisco to get a blood test. On February 3, 2010, over 33 years after his mother was kidnapped, Francisco's blood was sent for DNA testing to a database set up by his own father, Abel Madariaga. A couple of weeks later, the DNA results arrived.

The test results told Francisco that Victor and Ines Gallo were not his parents. Gallo was not his real name. His real name was Madariaga and his father, Abel, was alive and searching for him. On Friday, February 19th, 2010, father and son embraced for the first time.

"When he came through the door that night, we recognized each other totally," said Abel to a large gathering of media cameras and microphones. "The hug that brought us together was spectacular. Hugging him that first time, it was as if I filled a hole in my soul," he said.

At age 59, Abel had never stopped believing that he would one day find his child. For 33 years, he searched the faces in the streets of Argentina, hoping to see his son.

At another news conference, Francisco, who had learned his real name only a few days earlier, said, "For the first time, I know who I was. Who I am."

The only time Francisco stopped smiling during the news conference was when the name Alejandro, given to him by the Gallos, was mentioned. Francisco stopped smiling and said, "Never again will I use that name. To have your identity is the most beautiful thing there is."

My soul identifies with the life story of Francisco Madariaga. Something inside me was missing. I wasn't complete. I wasn't whole. I was filled with holes.

Then I met the Father who never stopped searching for me. The Father who created a means by which I could find the identity He purposed for me. It wasn't through a blood test, but through a blood gift. He and His Son created a plan to help me find my way home. He gave His own Son as a willing sacrifice and substitute to purchase my invitation to come home.

Like Francisco, I now know who I am. I have my identity. I'm a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ, His Son. And I must agree with Francisco -- to have my identity is the most beautiful thing there is.

I must also agree with Abel -- the holes in my soul have been filled.

Home Where I Belong,
Perry Crisp