Bishop Bickerton Reflects on the Life of Nelson Mandela


Today I have been reflecting on the life and work of Nelson Mandela. My family and I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting and hearing Mandela speak when he made a surprise visit to the Council of Bishops' meeting in Mozambique in 2006. His wife, Graca Machel, really stole the show that night when she shared with us that the reason she and her husband came to the Council meeting was to say thank you. You see, she was born in a United Methodist hospital, taught in a United Methodist school, and was nurtured in a United Methodist Church.

While her words were deeply inspiring, the image and presence of Nelson Mandela was unforgettable. That is especially true when you study the life and work of this special man. In the midst of adversity, loss, and hardship, he led his people with an agenda based on peace and possibility for all of God’s children.  It could be argued that his efforts averted what might have been one of the most horrific civil wars known to humanity.  He did it with intentionality, grace, and a passion for people, no matter their age or stage in life.

In his book, Mandela’s Way: 15 Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage, author Richard Stengel details the concepts out of which Nelson Mandela led and lived.  They were concepts he learned not only in prison, but over the course of his entire life.  As Stengel says, “Mandela’s life is a model not just for our time, but for all time.”  Because of that, the lessons from his life apply not only to the fight against apartheid in South Africa, but also in the quest to be an effective leader wherever you find yourself today.  Here are Nelson Mandela’s lessons on life, love and courage:

  • Courage is not the absence of fear.
  • Be measured.
  • Lead from the Front
  • Lead from the Back
  • Look the Part
  • Have a Core Principle
  • See the Good in Others
  • Know your Enemy
  • Keep your Rivals close.
  • Know when to say No
  • It’s a Long Game
  • Love makes the Difference
  • Quitting is Leading too
  • It’s always Both
  • Find your own Garden

I offer the titles of those 15 chapters to tease you a bit and, as a result, invite you to read the remarkably simple, yet profound, concepts in this book.  They really capture for me the true essence of what leadership is all about.  You and I will probably never be faced with what it means to forge our leadership style while sitting in a prison cell.  What we can do though is learn from someone who did.

Leaders like this don’t come along every day.  They are appropriately mourned when they die and truly missed even after their images fade.  Yet thanks be to God that although leaders like this don’t come along every day, they do come along.  And when they do, may we have the courage to glean from their wisdom in such a way that we can be better leaders ourselves.

Today, as we remember the life of Nelson Mandela, let us glean from some of the words of wisdom that flowed from his heart to ours:
  • “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
  •  “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
  • “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
  • “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
  • “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
  • “Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.”
  • “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
  • “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
  • “You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.”

These are words that are not dependent on a time or a place. They fit just as well in a rural Pennsylvania village or in a sprawling urban city.  They are words that fit anytime or anywhere a leader is called upon to lead.  

On a day like today, with the inspiration of this unique and wonderful child of God, it is with joy and hope that I simply say to you as I always do, . . . 

The Journey Continues, . . .

Thomas J. Bickerton
Resident Bishop