Murder by Coffee
Murder by Coffee
The press has been fascinated by the story unfolding in a remote corner of Maine, about a church fellowship hour where the coffee was laced with arsenic. One church member died from the poisoning. Another, one of the suspected perpetrators, put a bullet through his own head. The investigation continues. The authorities assume, for reasons left unexplained, that at least one more co-conspirator remains to be identified.
Drawing upon my experience as the pastor of a Viking church, I can perhaps add a few notes of elucidation to this story of saints sinning in imitation of a "Murder She Wrote" plot:
1. The name of the Lutheran church, Gustaf Adolph, celebrates the Swedish king who welcomed Christianity as the official religion of the frozen chosen on Europe's northern peninsula. There's a college in Minnesota (where else?) that bears the non-Anglicized version of that regal disciple of yore, Gustavus Adolphus, in (appropriately) St. Peter.
2. Why was the poison not detected with the first sip of the coffee? I read on the Internet that arsenic may have a garlic taste. That would surely be anathema to a Swedish palate, unless, of course, it had spent too much time in Italy. But having drunk my share of coffee brewed the Nordic way, I can readily understand why no one noticed the rat poison in the java. Here's the recipe according to Hans Halvorsen, renowned custodian of the former Sunset Park Norwegian Methodist Church, Brooklyn: take a large porcelain-glazed metal coffee pot, fill it two-thirds with water, bring to a boil, add a pound of coffee wrapped in a cotton rag (and, if available, some egg shells), and proceed to boil the coffee until the whole church building is permeated with the aroma of coffee. Pour the coffee into large cups, supply ample quantities of heavy cream, and provide sugar cubes to be placed on the tongue and through which the coffee is sucked. No way arsenic could ever be tasted. But if one has to die by poisoning, this one would be the way to do it. I've never tasted better coffee at Starbucks. Probably the secret is the heavy cream.
3. What under heaven could inspire such murderous bile within a congregation of the faithful? If you don't know, you probably have never had a passing acquaintance with church fellowships. In the holy context, expectations of "saintly" behavior run high. Ordinary relationships are infused with an eternal component. Understandably, therefore, few will be the parties to arguments more volatile than those who, posturing as saints, are convinced of their own righteousness... by God. The issue doesn't have to be momentous. I know of a church that divided over the use of sheet music by the choir. Picking the right hour for Sunday worship had members of a church I served glaring at each other for months. In another place and time, a parishioner appeared in the church's social hall with her hair in rollers, having been shocked from her lavatory patterns by the news that the youth fellowship was dancing in front of a picture of Jesus praying in Gethsemane. What goes on within church fellowships is for some a matter of life and death importance. In New Sweden ME, it was, apparently, my life and your death!
I can confidently predict that a similar episode will not afflict the forty churches I have visited in retirement. The coffee at the fellowship hours we have attended reflects little of Mr Halvorsen's brewing mastery. Mostly the coffee has been tepid, tame, and often tasteless. Arsenic would have been apparent with a single whiff. A more likely instrument of revenge would be pizza: there garlic would be expected. Barbara (I am her husband) and I regularly commiserated about the insipid coffee McDonald's provided in the adolescence of that enterprise. Mr Kroc must have heard us, because the quality of the Columbian brew has greatly increased, if still not the equivalent of Dunkin' Donuts. Which is to say, there is hope for the churches: all that is needed is someone who really likes a good cup of coffee (and knows what it tastes like), a supply of freshly ground coffee, a recently cleaned coffee maker, and plenty of heavy cream. Sugar cubes are optional.
Properly done, a whole congregation could be sent to the threshold of the house with many rooms on the wings of a good cup of coffee. With or without arsenic.