Christmas Greetings – December 2013

Nairobi, Kenya

Nelson Mandela

On December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died. You have been reading about the tributes to his life all week. Lord willing, our children will be reading about him in their history books. Many of you may wonder, was his life really worth all the celebration? In my opinion, it was, especially for Christians.

This month we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, even though historians say he was probably born in March or April, but the Christians under the pagan Roman Empire celebrated his birth in December when the pagans celebrated their gods, so that the Christian parties wouldn’t create persecution.

Well, I’ve now mentioned the 2 topics most of us should avoid during all the family gatherings during the holidays, politics and religion. Nelson Mandela was nobody’s savior, only Jesus is. But Mandela lived a life that will, as long as we study history, stand out as someone who not only said he forgave his enemies; he lived and acted like he did.

Do you struggle with forgiveness? I do. There is a time for righteous indignation and godly anger, but I often take that verse out of context to justify unforgiving attitudes and actions. One of the most sobering verses in the Bible is the “as you forgive, you will also be forgiven”. Even in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us of our sins, or trespasses, as we forgive those who sin against us”! That’s not what I want to pray. I want to be forgiven better than I forgive, don’t you?

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, put there by a so-called, “Christian government”. Unfortunately the architects of apartheid were not only politicians but professors at the University of Stellenbosch, seminary professors and pastors in the Dutch Reformed Church. That is why our work in South Africa, with African pastors was so difficult. Why would a black or mixed race South African want to become a Christian if the Christian government would not allow them to vote, own property, or move freely around the country? We did work with South African pastors and still have over 600 in our training programs, but we soon shifted our work focus to minister to the youth, after Mandela was elected president, to win their hearts to Christ before they were hardened.

You’ve heard many quotes from Nelson Mandela in the press. The most important one for me is that he told the press, the day he was released from prison, that he had forgiven those who put him there for 27 years. He said he not only forgave them because he was a Christian and it is the right thing to do, but he forgave them for himself, so that he would not be imprisoned by the past. Wow!

Unforgiving attitudes are like drinking poison and hoping it will hurt those who hurt you. It only hurts us, keeps us from obeying the apostle Paul who said, “forgetting the past, I strain forward reaching out to grab hold of that for which Christ Jesus grabbed hold of me. He who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it.” He will never let go, so we can cast our cares on Him, and reach forward, live and love in the present, without grudges or mentally rehearsing how others have sinned against us.

We met Mandela because he was also a man who kept his promises. While we were living in Cape Town, one of the pastors in our class in Mitchell’s Plains, a colored or mixed race area, also worked part-time as a prison chaplain to Nelson Mandela. Mandela regularly attended his Bible Studies and told him that he became a Christian as a child in a missionary school in the rural area where his father was a tribal leader among the Xhosa people. Nelson said he rarely spoke about his faith because his calling as a Christian was for political freedom. He said, “He was not an evangelist but like Jesus, came to set the captives free. Political freedom, is a justice issue and we serve a God of justice.”

One of the most difficult adjustments for Mary and I when we moved to South Africa as missionaries, in 1993, the year before Mandela was elected, was that we weren’t accepted by the blacks, because we were white, and we weren’t accepted by the whites because we were Americans. The US Government had political and economic sanctions on South Africa so we were accused of ruining their economy. That first year I went to a pastor’s conference for over 500 Zulu church leaders, the tribe most responsive to the Gospel. I was asked to sleep in a room with 5 white African farmers, strong Christians, who were actually paying for the conference. As you might guess, we spent our evenings talking about religion and politics.

They asked me why my government put economic pressure on them to give rights to the indigenous people. Maybe they should just kill them, like the US government did to the Native Americans. “History is important. Just because our founding fathers sinned doesn’t mean we should condone that in others”, I responded. It was an interesting week. The white South Africans generally told me our sanctions only caused more suffering for the blacks they hoped to help. White South African businessmen affected by sanctions simply fired their black employees. Overall, white South Africans showed Mary and I some of the greatest hospitality we have ever experienced. Last month we spent time with many of our friends there, we’ve known for over 20 years.

If you want to read fascinating history of South Africa, read Michener’s book The Covenant. Better yet read the true story of how the Lord made possible a peaceful election through the back room negotiations between a Kenyan peace maker and the Zulu King Buthelezi in Michael Cassidy’s book, A Witness Forever.


Mandela not only embraced his white captors but lead the country, not ignoring the injustices, but by instituting the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”. Every night for 3 years we saw reports of South Africans of all races confessing their “political crimes” and being granted amnesty. In the years following, many who did not confess were prosecuted and imprisoned. Reconciliation requires not only repentance and forgiveness, but restitution and just punishment.

We must individually forgive, confess our own sins and make restitution with those we have wronged. I could write a long time about Nelson Mandela, because he modeled forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s what Jesus offers us.

Nelson also modeled honesty, keeping your word. Our family met Mandela because he told the chaplain we trained, ” If I ever get out of prison, I want to come to your church”, and the first year he was released, he did. The chaplain’s teacher, Alan Knowles called me on a Sunday night and said, “Mandela is coming to the church where our class meets tomorrow to see the chaplain, want to come?” Of course we did, Mary, Eddy and Paul and I listened to him talk about reconciliation, hope for the future and being people like we want to meet. I’ve met my most favorite heroes Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, but I’m not much like them yet……….He is still working on me.

This week is Jamhuri week in Kenya. They are celebrating 50 years of freedom from the colonialists. There are celebrations all over the country, most schools and businesses are closed. People want freedom from oppression, political, economic and spiritual. Only Jesus can set our hearts free from the guilt and death penalty of sin and restore our relationship with Him through the life and death of his Son. I wouldn’t give the life of any of my four sons for someone else, especially an enemy, but our Heavenly Father did!

Praise the Lord for the political freedom in South Africa and Kenya. Celebrate the freedom of the anniversary of the only Savior, and tell someone the reason for your peace that passes all understanding. You serve the Prince of Peace!

Nelson Mandela loved music. Last night on the news coverage of his memorial service there was a special segment on the music that was being played around the world while he was in prison. Music that ignited the cause of freedom. Nelson said that he moved to the rhythm of change and that music is the communication tool that inspires freedom or imprisonment based on the values of the song. We’ve started a new division of Leadership International called “StorySong“. It is a web-based community sharing stories of Gospel transformation in the lives of people around the world, and songs that celebrate that transformation and inspire us to keep setting the captives free. I’m sending the new StorySong compilation album to our donors and any of you can order it on their new website next month. We are selling it for only $10, the price of the school fees we pay for an orphan in Africa who has been taken in by a Christian family in a church where we trained their pastor.

Sing and tell the Gospel Story.

Merry Christmas,