After 10 days of global attention and national mourning of the death of the 95 year old anti-apartheid revolutionary and first Black President of South Africa, I am still in awe of this royal champion, this Lion-King of a man with mythic dimensions, magical powers, mystical depths of spirit, and feet of clay. I remember how his prophetic witness raised my global consciousness growing up in the 1970’s, and how supporting his call for divestment in the 1980’s added to the controversial issues that got me in trouble with my denomination.  I remember where I was and who I was cheering with on February 11, 1990, when he was finally released from prison after 27 years (it was the same day I decided to leave the church of my birth and become a United Methodist).  I want to remember and give thanks for Nelson Mandela and honor the Source of his Fire and Flame at Christmas time.

Mandela’s coffin covered with lion skin for home-coming

Today, December 15, 2014,the South African military handed over his
remains totribal leadersand family
members for burial inhisancestral village of
Qunu in the East Cape.The national flag that
had covered his coffin at the State funeral was replaced with a lion
, a traditional symbol of the Xhosa people (Mandela’s tribe),symbolizing the return of one of their own.  One of Mandela’s grandsons (a new tribal
chief), otherfamily and friends, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, British royals
including the Prince of Wales, and religious leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson,
Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu and Methodist Bishop DonDabula (identified by CNN as the Mandela family chaplain), honored the body,
soul and eternal spirit of this Lion King of Qunu named Madiba Rolihlahla Nelson
as he was laid to rest.

Noble Birth

Before he was born on July 18,
1918, to Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, a spark
of divinity was planted in his soul. (This happens to all babies born to human
parents, which is why we all are sacred flames from the One Source, royal
offspring of Almighty God, beloved children of the Most High, formed in the
image and likeness of our Creator). 

He was
born into the Madiba clan in Mvezo,
Transkei (South Cape rural province) to parents who served as principal
advisors to the Acting King of the Thembu
people.  All members of this clan can be
called Madiba—the name of their tribal
chief in the 19th century
—as a name of respect and honorable birth. (South Africans with deep
affection often call Mr. Mandela “Madiba” as a way of honoring his tribal


Rolihlahla was the name his father gave
him,a Xhosa name
which means, “pulling the branch of a tree.” And it also means “trouble-maker” (prophetic
for sure).  After the death of his father,
when Mandela was12 years old,
the boy became a ward of the King at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni. (Like Moses as a child in Pharaoh’s palace, he may
have grown up with a sense of royal destiny.) 

Christian Baptism

In the news media we hear more about Mandela’s tribal roots and social
values than we do about his Christian roots and spiritual values.  However, the Christian Church can rightfully
claim one of our own, so I will proudly say it: Nelson Mandela was a
baptized Christian from a life-long Methodist family!
As the presider at his funeral announced today, “the Methodist Church was
the spiritual home of Nelson Mandela.”

The Madiba boy bornto be akingbecame a Christianat his mother’s
urgings.   Hewas
baptized at their Methodist Churchin Qunuat the age of seven.His primary school teacher,Miss Mdingane, gave him the name Nelson in accordance with the custom to give all school children
“Christian” names in baptism. 
The name “Nelson” means “son of Nell.“ 
Nell is of Greek
and English origin and it means”light.” Nelson means Son of Light.

From age 7 through college,
Nelson attended Methodist boarding schools in his Provence, and gained a better
education than he would have had by attending Banta Schools–the public schools assigned to native Blacks in segregated
South Africa. Certainly the British Methodist mission schools mixed true Christian faith
with colonial religion (as any church institution in the early 20th
century would), but there was enough light from the divine spark in Nelson’s
soul at birth, and enough grace in the sacrament of baptism at age 7 to fan the
flame and last a lifetime! 

As Nelson learned Bible stories from missionaries in
his Methodist church and classrooms, I imagine that the word of the Lord came
to him as a herds boy tending to his family cows, as it did to an earlier
prophet, Jeremiah, when he was a boy:

4Now the word of the Lord came
to me saying, 5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and
before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the
nations.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a
boy.” 7But the Lordsaid
to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send
you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be
afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched
my mouth; and the Lordsaid
to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10See, today I
appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to
destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah

As Morgan Freeman (the actor who played Mandela in the movie
Invictus) said in a 2009 PBS interview: “He was born to do what he’s doing. I think Providence sat on his
shoulder at an early age, and he was guided…” 

After completing his Junior
Certificate, Nelson went on to Healdtown, a Wesleyan Methodist secondary school
of good repute, and got in to the University College at Fort Hare. He was expelled for joining in a student
protest in college, but managed to completed his BA through the University of
South Africa and then went back to Fort Hare for his official graduation
ceremony in 1943. The following year,
Mandela joined the African National Congress and helped form the ANC Youth
League in 1944. He rose through the
ranks and became a compelling figure and leader.

Revolutionary Leader

As a political revolutionary and outlaw, Mandela’s vision
during the apartheid era in South Africa was for the eradication of the system
of racism and injustice in S.A., and the establishment of a constitutional
democracy in which all citizens, including the native majority, had equal
rights to vote and participate in their government. In this campaign, he was supported by the
Methodist Church: 

leaders were prominent among the prophets who refused to bow to the false god
of apartheid,” he said. “Your ministers also visited us in prison and cared for
our families. Some of you were banned. Your Presiding Bishop himself shared
imprisonment with us for some years on Robben Island. This you did, not as
outsiders to the cause of democracy, but as part of society and eminent
prophets of the teachings of your faith.”[ii]

After the African National Congress was
outlawed, Mandela continued operating secretly. 
Like the Lion King, Aslan, in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, who would come and
go, appear and disappear from the land of Narnia, Nelson Mandela became a
master of disguise, and would appear at anti-apartheid rallies in South Africa,
give a roaring fiery and revolutionary speech, and then suddenly disappear from
the scene to the delight of the crowd and the frustration of police who were
trying to arrest him for treason.  

After two decades of social protest and stirring up popular demonstrations,
and previous arrests and trials for treason, Mandala was put on trial with nine others in 1963 for conspiring to
commit violent revolution and acts of sabotage. 
Found guilty and facing the death penalty, his words to the court at the end of
the trial became immortalized:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have
fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and
free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal
opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if
needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (
‘Speech from the
Dock’ on 20 April 1964)

Like the Lion King Mufasa in Disney’s film, who told his son “Remember
who you are!”, Mandela heard the Voice and remembered who is waswhat he was called to do—to lay down his life
if need be, for truth and justice, and to devote his life, as long as he had breath,
to fight for thefreedom and dignity of his people, and for all people.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. would also say: “If a person hasn’t discovered something that
he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”


Prisoner of Hope

Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. But it only lasted 27 years! According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking
to PBS, prison was a time of suffering and deep spiritual growth for him: 

“…suffering can do one of two things to a person. It can
make you bitter and hard and really resentful of things. Or, as it seems to do
with very many people–it is like fires of adversity that toughen someone. They
make you strong, but paradoxically, they make you compassionate, and gentle. I
think that that is what happened to him.”

The divine spark within that baby boy of the Madiba clan
continued to grow into the fire of the Spirit during his 27 years in prison.
Through what might be called a “baptism of fire” he grew into the very likeness
of the Christ—“a man of sorrows acquainted with grief,” a person of faith
committed to truth and reconciliation, a “prince of peace” and champion of justice
for all people, and a prisoner of hope.

“I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope,”
Mandela writes in his autobiography. ”Whether that comes from nature or
nurture, I cannot say. Part of being [a person of hope] is keeping one’s head
pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments
when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give
myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” (Nelson
, Long Walk to Freedom)

After 27 years in a dark prison
cell, he was transformed by the light.  That
original spark before birth had become a cross and flame. That spiritual seed
planted at his baptism had grown roots and branches, bearing nine beautiful
pieces of spiritual fruit:

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
long-suffering, gentleness, kindness, self-control against which there is no
law.” (Gal 2:20) 

Finally, on February
11, 1990, the Lion King of Qunu was released from prison in recognition of his
international stature, moral courage, and spiritual authority.

“As I walked out the
door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my
bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” 

I noticed this week all the news commentators asking
the same question:  How was Nelson
Mandela able to spend 27 years in prison and come out without hatred and
bitterness toward his oppressors and enemies? 
How did he transform his resentment into a spirit of reconciliation and

The common answer was that he had must have had
righteous anger and justifiable resentment, but he simply choose not to let it
master him by repeating his favorite poem, Invictus
for years in prison: “I am captain my soul; I am master of my fate…” 

I don’t think that is the answer, as powerful as
that poem is when committed to memory.  I
choose to believe that Nelson, through the power of the Spirit, let his heart
grow large enough to include everyone, even his enemies and oppressors, in its
compassionate and forgiving embrace. 

Feet of Clay

“I am not a saint,” Mandela is often quoted as saying,
“unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” 

Mandela, like any human,
had limitations and made a number of personal and political mistakes.  He had moral failures and harmful associations
(including friends like Fidel Castrol and groups leaders in the Community
Party). I faulted him at the time (and still do) for his refusal to renounce
violent force and armed resistance to oppression, as Gandhi and Dr. King did in
favor of active resistance through non-violence. 

And the personal price he paid for the international success
of the movement was very high.  As Morgan
Freeman said about Mandela in an interview: 
“…all of this world renown and glory sits on him, on one side of him.
Over here, he feels like he’s a complete failure because of what
his family had to pay
That priceincluded
two failed marriages and his many children unable to see their father for
decades. As Mandela admitted, “my commitment to my people, to the millions of
South Africans I would never know or meet, was at the expense of the people I
knew best and loved most.”  As one
commentator observed: “When one is father to all, he is less a father to his own.”

 President and Elder

Tatais the Xhosa word for “father” and
a term of endearment that many South Africans use for Nelson Mandela who became
a father figure to millions and the father of the new South Africa.  Overtime, he took on mythical qualities and
mystical dimensions of global significance. 
And in his death, Mandela is almost canonized.

Like Jesus, the Lion of Judah, with a genealogy going back 1000 years to King
David; Mandela now has a bloodlineto the chiefs of the Xhosa tribes.  We noticed that, as Elder Statesman, Mandelahad noble stature, royal air
of native pride, and carried himself with the authority of a man who would be
king.  In one of his inaugural addresses
upon becoming the first Black President of South Africa in 1994, Mandela was
widely reported to have quoted or paraphrased what Marianne Williamson wrote
about remembering who you are: 

“Our deepest fear is not that
we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It
is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…. You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about
shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all
meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God
that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone, and as we let our own light shine, we
unconsciously give others permission to do the same.
As we are liberated
from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”–Marianne Williamson,A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A
Course in Miracles


Let us
take heart from the Lion King of Qunu, and learn what we can from the life experience
ofMadiba Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela.  When we remember who we are, as Nelson did, we cancontinue to build the
beloved community of shalom in the place where we have been sent (Jeremiah

“Fountain of wisdom, a pillar of
strength, and a beacon of hope for all those fighting for a just and equitable
world order. Your long walk to freedom has ended in a physical sense. Our own
journey continues. We have to continue working to build the kind of society you
worked tirelessly to construct.”
  (Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, at
today’s funeral, December 15, 2013)

[i]The Methodist Church, Mandela
often acknowledged with gratitude, supported his witness against apartheid
South Africa: “The
Methodist Church was the only Church to be declared an illegal organization
under apartheid, Mandela reminded church leaders in 1994, “and for ten long years
you were forbidden to operate in the Transkei Bantustan.”  “Address by President
Nelson Mandela to the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church,” Sunday, September 18, 1994)

[ii] “Address by President
Nelson Mandela to the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church,” Sunday, September 18, 1994.

[iii]PBS Interview with
Travis Smiley, 2009.