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There is the idea of "No man or woman is an island.” The philosophy of Ubuntu lifted up by South African culture to promote balance of relationships within community, says we are not complete when left solitary. “South Africa's first black president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95. Mr. Mandela led South Africa's transition from white-minority rule in the 1990s, after 27 years in prison for his political activities.”(BBCNews Article) In honor of Nelson Mandela’s life and his death this week – it’s timely to ponder the importance and meaning of “Ubuntu”. President Mandela was a man that risked everything in order to stand up against the injustice of Apartheid. This challenge was not one without fear, but fear did not keep him from stepping into the fray - for the restoration of justice for others.
"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear." Nelson Mandela
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The South African word Ubuntu was a primary focus of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu in their efforts to end Apartheid – a system of discrimination based on race in South Africa. However, Ubuntu remains to be an overarching philosophy not only in South Africa but is a community foundation of many global communities.
Ubuntu means: humanity, connections, partnership, and relationship. Ubuntu is not only a philosophy that is helpful in a social – relational context, but in a spiritual one as well. Ubuntu is a way of life not only for South Africa but can be here, today, in my life as well as yours.
John the Baptist was a unique fellow. Some might have called him eccentric. He lived in wilderness, ate locusts and honey, and when he ventured a little closer to humanity, he challenged them to repent, to turn away from living for themselves, but to turn towards God in humility through the act of baptism. Before baptism, people tend to live as an island unto themselves. After baptism – people begin living out “Ubuntu” with God and others. Through baptism, we realize that we are no longer on our own and for our own interests. Through baptism we are embraced in God’s amazing, challenging, beautiful, confusing, imperfect, and diverse family. Through baptism, we are forgiven and adopted in the family of God.
The act of baptism is one that reminds each of us of our need for God. We need God’s forgiveness from sin, but we also need his presence in our daily lives. Some of us may remember our baptism – and others may not; but the power of this sacrament remains with us all the days of our life. Through baptism we are forgiven and no longer are just for ourselves - we are God’s.
In Krista Tippet’s book “Speaking of Faith", the concept of Ubuntu defines humanity in this way: "I am through you and you are through me. To the extent that I'm estranged from another person, I am less than human." (Tippet pg. 182).
Baptism allows us to experience forgiveness and an adoption into God’s family. Our estrangement and separation from God has been mended. We are still human, but God’s restoration has been made complete. Through baptism, we experience Ubuntu with God and are called to extend it to others.
My understanding of Ubuntu is a great reminder that in life we all need each other. In my hurry to get a job done, sometimes I’ll plow through on my own in order to reach my goal. In the perspective of Ubuntu, flying solo won't cut it. We may sometimes feel that life and work may go working in a team, but we all are more fully “human” when we work together.
St. John's Bible - John the Baptist
I get the impression from reading about John the Baptist, that he might have been a loner. He lives differently, eats differently, dresses differently and interacts with people differently than most people in his day. But even in his ‘differentness’, God calls him to direct everyone to prepare for Jesus.
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:1-12 condensed)
The message that John preaches to the people was not gentle or easy to hear, just like the message of equality that Nelson Mandela spent his life proclaiming – but it needed and needs to be spoken.
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[...] A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.” ― Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness
Through God’s call, John became more connected to humanity. He taught disciples, spoke to, touched and baptized thousands. This wilderness rabbi was a loner, but God called him into humanity in order to help prepare humanity for Jesus. John became a part of humanity and the concept of Ubuntu, even though he never specifically heard that word. John was made a part of God’s team through and with Jesus and impacted millions that he never would see with his own eyes. John the loner’s part may look small in contrast to Jesus, but without eccentric John – people may have never paid attention to Jesus.
Bishop Desmond Tutu says, “Ubuntu [...] speaks of the very essence of being human. [We] say [...] "Hey, so-and-so has Ubuntu." Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, "My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours." We belong in a bundle of life. We say, "A person is a person through other persons."
God called John into humanity in order to prepare humanity for Jesus message. John and Jesus and you and I: “belong in a bundle of life – a person is a person through other persons.” We as brothers and sisters in Christ are called to live and work together. We are not loners, we are family. We are connected, cared for and make true community through actions of Ubuntu: respect, humanity, connections, partnership, and relationship.
We are through baptism adopted into God’s family and share in Jesus message of forgiveness and grace - both only made possible through the help and power of the Holy Spirit. What an amazing team. In this bundle of community and connection with God – we are no longer an island unto ourselves.
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Who’s on you bus?
A few years ago, my friend and mentor Pastor Becky Heart challenged me to answer this question. “Who is on your bus?” What she wanted to know was, “who were the people that like John the Baptist, called me to pay attention to Jesus and shared love and compassion with me.” Who were to people of faith that challenged me to grow, that redirected me when I was on the wrong road, and that prayed and supported me in my daily life.
Since she asked me that question, I've been more intentional in asking people to be on my “bus”, being thankful for them, and letting them know it. We all need to have people of faith on our buses. Just like children need help getting ready for school, we need help on our journeys each day too. So who do we need on our bus?
1. First and foremost, we need God the father, Jesus the son and the Holy Spirit on our bus – and thankfully that forgiveness and grace has already been extended to us.
2. We also need “John the Baptists” on our buses. People that remind us that we are going the wrong way down a one way road. We need voices like Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu that call for us to speak up against discrimination and invite us to engage in our God-given bundles of humanity.
3. We need parents, teachers, authors, friends and family on our buses – those that occur by blood relation and those God places as surrogates exactly where we have a need.
So as my bus-mate Becky asked me, I now ask you: “Who is on your bus?” Who calls you to prepare the way for Jesus? Who calls you back to God’s grace and forgiveness? Who calls you into the team of humanity that is Ubuntu.
Who is on your bus?
We all need people on our bus. Sometimes the bus is full and other times there are some empty seats. If there are more seats that need filling, take a look around. There are people that would love to help and fill a seat on your bus.
With God’s help we will be amazed with where this journey of life may take us – in our buses filled with our bundles of humanity and the spirit of Ubuntu.
Heavenly Father - Help us to fill our buses with people that call us closer to you. Help us to hear the call to prepare the way for Jesus not only for our life, but for the lives of all humanity.