September 1, 2005
A Saint for Labor Day
-- John Rollefson
Ninety-nine years ago a brilliant young theologian published his four-hundred-page study of how scholars of the preceding century and a half had variously attempted to understand Jesus. More often than not, he found, they had discovered in their research into the "real Jesus" a mirror image of themselves and their own ideals. The young scholar concluded his study with these memorable words: "As one unknown and nameless He comes to us, just as on the shores of the lake he approached those men who knew not who he was. His words are the same: 'Follow me!' and He puts us to the tasks which He has to carry out in our age."
This thirty-one-year-old professor and principal of the theological seminary in Strasbourg, an ordained Lutheran pastor in the Evangelical Church in Alsace, already the holder of degrees in the fields of theology and philosophy, had just the previous year published in his spare time a well-received study in French of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Moreover, he was himself a celebrated organist and recitalist, as well as an expert on organ building.
The previous fall, this philosopher, theologian, pastor, musicologist, and musician had begun medical studies leading to yet a third doctorate. Nearly a decade earlier, at his home in his father's parsonage in a little Alsatian village during the summer vacation of his twenty-first year, he had suddenly been struck by the thought of how incomprehensible it was that he should be allowed to lead such a happy, carefree student's life while around him so many people were contending with care and suffering.
One brilliant summer morning, he later wrote in his autobiography, "there came to me as I awoke, the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it .... While the birds were singing outside, I settled with myself before I got up, that I would consider myself justified in living till I was thirty for science and art, in order to devote myself from that time forward to the direct service of humanity." He concluded: "Now the answer was found. In addition to the outward, I now had inward happiness."
And so, at age thirty, the young double doctor resolved to become a doctor of medicine, as he explained it, in order "that I might be able to work without having to talk. For years I had been giving myself out in words and it was with joy that I had followed the calling of theological teacher and of preacher. But this new form of activity I could not represent to myself as being talking about the religion of love, but only as an actual putting it into practice."
Albert Schweitzer long has served for me as a supreme exemplar of Christian vocation, and I've often invoked him as a saint of the church peculiarly appropriate to remember on the Sunday of our secular Labor Day holiday, when our nation pauses to honor the work we do as a part of our life's calling. Coincidentally, Schweitzer's death day commemoration falls on September 4, which is usually the Sunday closest to Labor Day, and this year happens to fall on the fortieth anniversary of his death in 1965.
Coming as it does on the heels of the recent Live 8 concerts held to raise the consciousness of the world's population and its leaders regarding aid to Africa, Schweitzer's call and commitment to Africa as his special vocation deserves to be remembered and celebrated. He was, some claimed, patriarchal and autocratic, and even a bit primitive in the medical practice he personally conducted among the Gabonese people for the last two-thirds of his ninety-one years of life. His theology and reverence-for-life ethic were too spacious for some, especially many of his fellow Lutherans.
But for his work for humanity and indeed all of life, Schweitzer was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize more than a decade before his death. He deserves to be remembered as an exemplar of the vocation of service to others for our day.
John Rollefson is Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Master in west Los Angeles, near UCLA.