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Tribute to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – A Personal Anecdote

I’ve been watching Nelson Mandela’s memorial service today. Very moving. Almost 100 heads of state and dignitaries – some say the largest funeral in history! And it’s been pouring with rain since early morning. It’s still raining now at the end of the service – as if nature itself has been gently weeping, mirroring our mourning of Madiba, the father (‘Tata’) of our new democratic nation, South Africa. But in African (and Biblical) culture, rain is a sign of blessing, a promise of new life. May it be!

Tata Mandela will be sorely missed. We, this nation, and this world, will miss his reconciling presence, stately leadership and moral authority. God, in his sovereign design in our time of greatest historical need, raised up Madiba to bring about liberating reconciliation and justice – a shining light to all people and nations on planet earth. Extraordinary people like Mandela only come along once in a couple of centuries. Not that he was a saint; he himself freely admitted to his flaws and failures! (We must be careful of Mandela-worship as time passes) He’s known for saying “I’m a sinner. I’ve made many mistakes. I only pretend to be a saint when I’m among people!” As a South African, I feel so honoured and privileged to have lived in his life-time, to have lived through the miraculous change that we have experienced.

I never met Madiba – only saw him from a distance in a meeting – but there’s a story that lives with me, that has inspired me for years.

I was a young Assembly of God pastor in Cape Town in 1978. At one of our monthly pastor’s meeting one of our ministers had returned from visiting political prisoners on Robben Island. He was a chaplain to the prisoners from Pentecostal denominations. I will never forget what he told us. On passing by Nelson Mandela’s cell to give communion to some prisoners (the Methodist chaplain gave communion to Mandela), he peered into his cell. There he saw Mandela doing sit-ups. He asked him why he was exercising so vigorously. Mandela replied, “one day I may be president of this nation, so I must keep my body fit.”

I vaguely knew of Nelson Mandela – in those days he was largely an unknown entity in white circles due to Apartheid censorship. But through the haze of my white prejudice and political conditioning, I thought, “What foresight! What vision! What purpose and discipline!”

During the months and years that followed I experienced certain events that opened my eyes to the cruel oppression of Apartheid. I began a journey of repentance and reconciliation in regard to my own racism, seeking to work for justice and freedom in our nation. And the story of Mandela’s sit ups, a reflection of his enduring hope, of his clear vision and consequent discipline, came back to me again and again – especially in 1994 when I watched him being sworn into office as our first democratically elected President (and yes, he looked fit… lean and mean… in a good way!) We have now witnessed his death and his funeral – 95 years of worthy living!

This Mandela story continually reminds me of Frederick Nietzsche’s profound words: “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is… that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living” (in his book Beyond Good and Evil).

May we uphold Mandela’s legacy in his long walk to freedom, emulating his humility, human dignity, visionary leadership and reconciling morality. And there is no better way to do this than to follow Jesus in his long obedience in the same direction, by taking on the spiritual disciplines needed to live his vision of a restored humanity under God’s rule and reign of love – the kind of society and world God originally intended… and will become a full reality when Jesus returns.

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