As tens of thousands of people make their way to the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa this morning, I remain at home listening to the radio and then later watching on television as South Africans commemorate the life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, their former President, their struggle hero, the Father of their Nation. I am an outsider today; just an observer.
I want to write something though, through the eyes and ears of one who is observing this world-wide, once-in-a-lifetime, epic commemoration of one man’s life. As I have listened and watched the radio and television news, as I have read Facebook posts and followed Twitter feeds, there is a description that has been repeated; often. Honestly, the phrase has made me bristle. Every.Single.Time.
It centers upon the word ‘ordinary.’
Now, if you look up the word ‘ordinary’ this word is defined as normal, with no special or distinctive features; standard or common. Since Friday, I have heard the word ‘ordinary’ time and time again when South Africans are described on the news and beyond as they make their way to honor their former President. This is the word that I confess is raising the hair on the back of my neck at the moment.
However, there is another word that is used when a dignitary, world leader, pop star or other person with some measure of fame speaks about former President Mandela. They are defined as ‘important.’ What is the definition of ‘important?’ Important as defined in Merriam’s Dictionary means: of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being of another.
The thousands upon thousands of South Africans who have made their way to various memorial sites across the country may not have a title. They may not have a government position. They may not sing before crowds. They may not be famous in any particular way. They may never be powerful. However, they are important, nonetheless.
They are far from ordinary. The South Africans I have the honor of knowing are extraordinary people. South Africa is not a perfect place. However, my adopted homeland is a stunning and beautiful place with stunning and beautiful people. I have the privilege of serving in a small community called Finetown. And it is there that I witness the extraordinary commitment among the principals and teachers of over 30 different crèches to helping preschool children grow and learn. These dedicated women are making a significant contribution to their community and their nation every day of the week at personal cost. In my eyes, they are women of valor.
This morning, millions of South Africans will be focusing their eyes on a single event; the memorial service of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Ninety-one heads of state have come. Former world leaders have made the journey to say farewell to former President Nelson Mandela as well. However, in 24 hours time, the dignitaries, national leaders, and the famous will return to their homelands and return to their lives and responsibilities.
Who will stay?
South Africans. They too, will return to their lives at some point when all of the memorial events come to an end. They, too, will return to their responsibilities because their lives, though not in the foreground of world attention, are critically important to those who depend upon them for their well-being and survival.
And then what?
What happens next?
For a short span of time, South Africans and thousands throughout the world have stopped to remember the life of one man and honor his example of humility, reconciliation, forgiveness, service, and sacrifice. Many wonder if the influence of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela will surpass his lifetime.
I cannot say.
However, for me, as an outsider looking in upon this time in history, looking to one man’s legacy is not enough. Waiting for another leader to arise is not enough. For me, I wait for the return of Jesus Christ and follow His example. He doesn’t categorize people in terms of ordinary and important. In His eyes, we are all children of God.
Jesus once said, “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak.” Luke 12:35-38 NIV
He is looking for those who choose to be servants and followers. Whether a dignitary or not, whether a person with extraordinary influence or not, whether a powerful leader or not…if we are not serving in whatever role or position we have been given, and living our lives in recognition of that service, what does it really mean in the long-term?
Take away the labels of important and ordinary and what do we have? We have human beings who when presented with a choice of how to live their lives can serve.
In my opinion, this is what Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela did with his ordinary life. And for that, the world, like never before in my lifetime, has taken notice. We are offered the same opportunity of service … regardless of who labels us. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela did not concern himself with labels; instead he cast them aside, as he honored everyone by his service, humility and sacrifice.