On the Mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Sep 22, 2023

This past week, while reading a reflection on Nelson Mandela by the late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I found myself stopped in my tracks by this claim about Mandela’s time in prison:

People say, look at what he achieved in his years in government – what a waste those 27 years in prison were. I maintain his prison term was necessary because when he went to jail, he was angry. He was relatively young and had experienced a miscarriage of justice; he wasn’t a statesperson, ready to be forgiving: he was commander-in-chief of the armed wing of the party, which was quite prepared to use violence.

The time in jail was quite crucial. Of course, suffering embitters some people, but it ennobles others. Prison became a crucible that burned away the dross. People could never say to him: “You talk glibly of forgiveness. You haven’t suffered. What do you know?” Twenty-seven years gave him the authority to say, let us try to forgive.

I’ll be honest with you. I’m one of those people who have looked at those twenty-seven years and wondered about the waste. At least, I’ve thought: “Couldn’t it have been twenty-six years? I bet that twenty-seventh year still felt pretty long…”

And if I’m really honest with you, I’ve wondered about the waste, because I’ve wondered about the same seasons of “waste” in my own life–the times when I felt like I trapped in a liminal space, held in between things, seemingly incapable of moving forward–unable to accomplish the goals I feel called to, or fulfill the purposes for which I believe I was made.

I wonder if you’ve ever felt that way? Stuck in between? Living life on the run? On the treadmill of one step forward, two steps back? Incapable of finding the rest, or the purpose, or the home you’ve always longed for?

I shared these feelings with my Spiritual Director recently, and he reminded me of something important. Mandela wasn’t alone in being stuck “in prison” before being able to live into his calling. Nearly every person who shaped the Biblical story had similar seasons in their lives. Sarah and Abraham had to wait twenty-five years between the promise of a child and the birth of Isaac. Moses spent forty years in Midian before God met him in the burning bush. Joseph spent thirteen years in slavery and in prison before he was set free and made head over all of Egypt. It was fifteen years after David was anointed king by Samuel before he was actually made king, most of which was spent on the run and in hiding from Saul. Even Paul spent fourteen years in Syria, after meeting God on the road to Damascus, before he was called to be an apostle.

“These in between seasons,” he said, “are often when God is doing the most important transformational work of our lives.”

I asked him: “Surely, God doesn’t have to do it this way, does he?”

He smiled, and didn’t answer directly. He simply asked: “Are there any other times when we’re paying as close attention? When we have space enough to hear? When we have enough humility to listen?”