“I am not a saint …”

Nelson Mandela
1918 – 2013

There are those moments in one’s life which can instantly and precisely be recalled. For my grandparents the top of the list was the 1929 stock market crash. I am told my father’s father lost everything. For my father and mother it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For me, for a long time and until now, there were two: Hurricane Hugo and September 11, 2001. Now I must add another. I had just put my gym bag down readying for a workout when a television sports station was talking about Nelson Mandela. It seemed out of place. “Has he died?” I asked. “Yes,” came the reply.

I got dressed and headed toward the workout room, but as I moved into an area by a pool and no one was around I found that all I could do was stop, find a bench and let the weeping I didn’t even know I was holding back overwhelm me. During my remaining workout time, people seemed to keep asking how my day was going. I could not even push the word “sad” out of my mouth.

Probably the first act of a truly political nature I engaged in, apart from the act of voting, was to cut my Shell Oil gasoline card in two and send it back to them with a letter. (I also did that to Exxon after the Valdez incident.) I recall the Episcopal Church’s General Convention action directing the TEC, and encouraging others, to divest of Shell Oil stock.

Mostly, I remember a man, who at times had had a hand in violent acts, emerging from a brutality in Robbens Prison that could have so easily and expectedly cemented a commitment to bitterness, hatred, violence and revenge, emerge different. His mission when he left prison was, as he shared it in Long Walk to Freedom, “to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.” You do not need me to rehearse the details of the journey that followed. You either already know large parts of it (I hope!), or you will hear it, if you choose to listen, over the next several days.

Nelson Mandela’s clear-focused understanding and commitment was to forgiveness and reconciliation. He saw that it was obtainable, and that it was obtainable only when all cultures meet on equal terms. Further he never allowed one of those convictions to be separated from the other. I shall never forget that at his inauguration as the democratically elected president of South Africa, he insisted that his jailer be seated with his family. As he lead the new government, he insisted that workers from the former government remain. He understood that fear casts out forgiveness, so he endeavored to cast out fear. His wisdom with respect to the essentials of forgiveness and reconciliation overwhelm me, amaze me, and inspire me, all at the same time.

If it were left to me, Nelson Mandela would be added to the calendar of saints and worthies of the Church this very day. But he said of similar things … “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying”

If it were possible, somehow, I think even the precincts of heaven would find themselves more reconciled tonight. Now may I, may we, keep on trying because there is still much fear to cast out, much forgiveness to be given, and much reconciliation to be accomplished.

God’s peace,