“Sometimes there is nothing one can do to save something that must die.”

Nelson Mandela will be numbered among the 20th century’s great lights. He spent 28 dark years in a South African prison for opposing the all-white, iron-fisted rule of his country’s apartheid policies.

He learned behind bars the power of peace, forgiveness and justice through nonviolence. And when the winds of the Spirit finally blew down the sin-built walls of oppression, Mandela emerged a man honed for leadership.

Near the end of his prison term, Mandela was given a small piece of earth in which to till a garden.  It was one of his few delights.

In his autobiography, “A Long Walk to Freedom”, he tells of his great pride in one tomato plant that he nurtured from a seedling to a robust bearer of deep red fruit. But then either through some mistake or lack of care, the plant began to wither and die. Nothing he tried could bring it back.

At last he accepted its death. He dug up the plant, gently washed its roots, and buried it in a corner of the garden. “Sometimes,” he concludes, “there is nothing one can do to save something that must die.” He wrote to his wife Winnie that he hoped this would not be true of their relationship. Alas, it was.

There is plenty that any of us can do to save things that must live. Giving up too soon on malignant marriages or truculent teenagers or struggling schools or conflicted churches is like prematurely burying someone still alive. Courage and compassion must stir up a dormant love that may heal.

But sometimes … sometimes death has to be faced with equal courage and compassion. A lively love must accept that the power of life is not in our hands. We have to let go of those people, relationships, institutions and things that are dying and taking us with them.

Tenderly bathing the withering object of our love, and finally pronouncing a prayerful blessing over the dying, allows God the power to do what God alone can do — raise the dead.

In this season when Jews remember Israel’s exodus from Egypt in the Passover haggadah and Christians remember Jesus’ resurrection from the grave in the Easter celebration, we do well to trust God that what often seems fatal to us can be the start of something powerful and new.

Some things must die in order that they may live again.

God often brings healing before death.  But ultimately we will all have to assume the position — flat on our backs six feet under. That’s when God does his best work.

Faith practices for that day.

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