Archive | December, 2013

Nelson Mandela and Me

(Back in June, when Nelson Mandela was in poor health, I posted this, and it seems fitting to post it again.  Mandela died today at the age of 95.)

South Africa 2012 057

With Nelson Mandela, the former of President of South Africa, in failing health and with his family asking for prayers, I find myself remembering an afternoon last November when I took a ferry boat ride to Robben Island and saw where Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he spent in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the government.

It was an afternoon I won’t forget.

I was in South Africa for a little sight-seeing and some mission work.  I thought that meant seeing a few lions and elephants before visiting the church where we had dug a fresh-water well.  The visit to Robben Island had not been on the itinerary, but when the opportunity came up I took it.  And I’m glad I did.

Robben Island is 6.9 kilometers west of Cape Town and is visible from Table Mountain.  It’s close enough to the mainland to be seen, but too far away for anyone to escape in the cold and treacherous waters that separate the island from the mainland.  It was used as a maximum-security prison until 1991, and then as a medium-security prison until 1996 when it was closed for good.  Today it’s a destination for tourists like me.

Our guide inside the prison was, like Mandela, a former inmate.  In fact, all of the guides are former inmates.  They and their families live on the island, which is quite beautiful for a place that’s always been used to isolate and torment political prisoners.

Since most of the inmates were sentenced to hard labor, we were driven to the mines where they worked.  We learned that their work consisted of moving large piles of rocks from one point to another, and then moving them all back again, over and over.  The work was designed to break their spirits.

But, miraculously, it didn’t.

Instead the men began to dream of a new South Africa.  We were shown a large hole in the side of the mine and were told that at lunchtime the men sat in there to escape the sun.  It was there that they wrote the first draft of the new constitution.

As we walked around, it was clear that we were on holy ground.  The African National Congress, the party that Mandela led, has come to see Robben Island much as Americans see and experience Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  Their national history now runs through that island.

Pictured above is the cell where Mandela spent most of those 18 years he was on the island.  The group I was with – made up mostly of South Africans – stood for a long time outside looking in.  Many of them had tears in their eyes.  I hesitated to snap a picture, much as I would inside a church, for fear of offending them.  But they understood, and they seemed to be grateful that I wanted to know what happened here.

South Africa is far from perfect.  It has many problems.  But what has happened in the last 20 years is astonishing, and Mandela was responsible for much of it.  His death will be a loss for that country and for all of us.

(For more blog posts about historical figures and me, see George Washington and Me, Florence Nightengale and Me , and Picasso and Me.)

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Pope Francis and Me (part two)

Jorge Bergoglio
“What do you think about your pal, the Pope, now?” I was asked yesterday by someone I consider to be a friend – not the Facebook kind, but the more robust kind Jesus had in mind (John 15:15).

“So, now the pope’s ‘my pal,’” I thought.

A little history here. After the election of Pope Francis I, I wrote a blog post about asking my congregation to pray for the new pope – not something a Protestant clergyman typically does, I admitted, but perhaps understandable, even expected, in the current post-denominational landscape.

The new pope had a daunting task, I wrote, and he needs the prayers of the whole church. I argued – or tried to – that, theological differences aside, we are in this together. Catholics and Protestants need each other. People who do not embrace Christian faith tend not to make the fine doctrinal distinctions between believers that we do among ourselves.

What the pope has been up to

Since that post, I think you’ll agree that the pope has said and done some remarkable things.

In March, for example, he washed the feet of a young Muslim woman, a rite typically reserved for Catholics, not Muslims (and for men, not women). Catholic traditionalists, we were told, were very, very concerned.

Then, reports surfaced about the pope’s cold calls to struggling Catholics in Italy, even promising in one call to baptize the infant son of an unmarried woman, if her own priest wasn’t available. This time it was Vatican staff who expressed concern over the new pope’s behavior. Phone calls to hurting church members? Very concerning!

Most recently, we learned that the pope sometimes ventures out of the Vatican at night, dressed as an ordinary priest, to minister to the homeless. So far, I haven’t heard any concern about this habit, except perhaps for the pope’s personal safety.

What to make of it?

What are we to make of this decidedly unexpected papal behavior?

Well, I for one have been surprised and pleased. What better way to unite a broken church – and win the hearts of disaffected Catholics – than by demonstrating a pastor’s heart, by reaching out in personal and tangible ways? A member of my last church liked the idea of cold calling church members so much that she gave me the names of two members who, she said, would be thrilled to hear from me. (I followed through, and they were.)

Not everyone is as pleased, as turns out. Rush Limbaugh said last week on his radio program that the pope was going “overboard on the common-man touch.” Being compassionate and concerned for the poor is all well and good, in this view, but mostly as a public relations strategy. You wouldn’t want to see too much of that.

Or would you?

Here’s my take

I think the pope’s direct challenge to the church has been to demonstrate a great deal more of the – please pardon the expression – “common-man touch.”

“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,” wrote the pope in his latest exhortation. “I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”

I suspect that Limbaugh’s misunderstanding of what it means to have a pastor’s heart and to live with the “joy of the gospel” has also led him to misunderstand what the pope wrote in the papal exhortation about economics. Limbaugh labelled the pope’s comments “pure Marxism.”

The pope is smart, and he certainly knows as much about economic theory as Limbaugh, but my reading of the exhortation is that it expresses less in the way of economics than it does this “joy of the gospel.”

I think that what the pope is saying is this: “If it sounds like Marxism to you, so be it. I’m declaring what I know to be true about encountering Jesus and about the way hearts and lives are changed as a result of that.”

I’m still praying for this new pope. I don’t know if he’s my pal. But I do know that he’s my brother in Christ. And I want more than anything for him to succeed with the work God has called him to do.

(Photo: That’s the new pope in his clerical collar, not his papal vestments.)

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A Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent

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The season for me has finally arrived.

It comes not with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, but with the first Sunday of Advent, the first candle lit, the first singing of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

But it comes even before those things, as much as I like them, as much as I look forward to them each year. Advent comes for me in these moments before dawn.

All alone in the dark, the first Advent prayer I found this morning was by Fr. Henri J. Nouwen who over the years has taught me a great deal about the spiritual life:

Lord Jesus,

Master of both the light and the darkness,

send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.


We who have so much to do

seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.


We who are anxious over many things

look forward to your coming among us.


We who are blessed in so many ways

long for the complete joy of your kingdom.


We whose hearts are heavy

seek the joy of your presence.


We are your people,

walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.

To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!”


In these moments before dawn, in the quiet of this house, in the chill of the morning air in Michigan, I think I know – a little – of what it means to wait, to live with anticipation, to enter fully into this Advent season.

In these moments before dawn I know the season has arrived.

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