Christian Heroes: The Man Who Saw the Statue

December 11, 1994


The Man Who Saw The Statue

We come this morning to the last in our mini-series on heroes of the faith, and it will be no surprise to most of you that I would conclude with Dr. Albert Schweitzer; I like to save the best for last! When I was younger I used to see pictures of this man with the wild, unruly white hair, and confuse him with Albert Einstein….something about the name Albert must mean you end up with more bad hair days than other people! But I understood this man had done something unusual, something gloriously irrational, and by and by I found out what it was: he was a Christian.
I say that with some trepidation, of course, because G. Gordon Liddy and Jerry Falwell and Fred Phelps also claim to be Christian, which means that what people call themselves may not matter much, while what they actually do to and for others is the ultimate test….and by that test, Albert Schweitzer is the most likely person I know to be remembered as the 20th century’s greatest Christian. Millions of my fundamental-ist Christian friends would disagree, because Schweitzer was anything but orthodox. He did not believe in the virgin birth, in miraculous suspensions of natural law, in the bodily resurrection, in the doctrine of blood atonement, or in a literal second coming of Christ. He was a theological liberal of the first magnitude, who did more to follow Jesus than almost anyone who has ever professed to be a believer. He could not be accepted into membership in most churches, and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition would consider him a false teacher, unsaved, unacceptable, unable — without repen-tance — to qualify for the heaven they believe in. Schweitzer insisted a Christian was one who actually demonstrated the spirit of Christ in his own life, and not merely someone who professed the right set of creeds or doctrines.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I want you to meet this man, and that means we need to go on a journey together. Our journeys are rhetorical, of course: no videotapes. We do it with words and ears and imagination, but we can get there if you listen carefully and engage your hearts. One of my grandson’s favorite TV shows is Quantum Leap, and it involves the time travel I’m asking you to do right now: snap the finger of your mind, blink twice, and open your eyes in equatorial Africa. It’s hot and sticky, and you’re in a small hut made of corrugated tin, perched on the banks of a jungle river filled with crocodiles, wallowing hippos, and a few piranha fish in case you are tempted to get careless. Inside the hut, an operation for a strangulated hernia has just ended, and the doctor sits waiting for the patient to wake up. In the moment when he regains consciousness, the patient begins to shout: (I described it for you in a recent Newsletter) “I have no more pain! I have no more pain!.” Ecstatic as a happy child, he reaches out to hold the hand of the doctor who has performed this miracle….the only white man the patient and his African family have ever known. They think he is a god, but he tells them he isn’t, and as for his pale skin, he explains that he just has different amounts of melanin, a chemical that makes their skin darker, and that they are both children of the same God. He goes on to say that he has come from a place called Germany, and that lots of people who also lack for melanin, on a continent called Europe, gave him the money to come. When they ask why he came, he tries to tell them of a special someone who lived like God a long time ago.
That evening he takes up a pen and writes, “The African sun is shining through the coffee bushes into the dark shed, but we, black and white, sit side by side, and feel that we know by experience the meaning of the word: ‘And all of you are brothers.'” After the day is done, he washes his primitive surgical tools, turns out the light in his makeshift clinic, and goes into his hut built on stilts and begins to play a Bach organ fugue on a special instrument provided for him by the Paris Bach Society. While his patients sleep, and the sounds of the hunters and the hunted fill the jungle night, he decides to take the works of Bach, Mendelssohn, Franck and Reger, one by one, and learn them by heart, even if it means spending months on a single piece.
Who is this man? Is he a surgeon or is he a musician? After he finishes playing the organ for several hours he moves to a writing desk and begins to compose a book on the philosophy of human culture. Before he turns out the light to sleep, it is well past midnight, and he makes a few notes for another book he is writing on the mysti-cism of St. Paul. An artist and an intellectual, he must be, but there is more: he has the exuberance of a child mixed with the qualities of genius, and in his diary he writes about being “dizzy with joy” when he hears that a boatload of illiterate black men have ridden through a tropical storm and reached their huts without the loss of a single life. This is a man, it turns out, who has taken so seriously the warning that one can have the whole world and still lose his soul, that he has literally walked away from the whole world — a life most of us could only dream of having — in order to give his life away.
By the time he was 30 he had the security of a government post, life tenure in one of the finest universities in Europe, a doctorate in music, a doctorate in theology, and a doctorate in philosophy. Already a little over-qualified, one might say, for life in the jungle, but because he decided to make music, theology and philosophy sub-ordinate to something else, he went back to school again when he was 10 years older than his colleagues, and became a doctor of medicine. At the time he was one of the world’s leading organists, an authority on organ-building, and the author of a compre-hensive biography of Bach. He had written a book about what the historical Jesus might have been like, as opposed to the Jesus of faith we read about in the highly selective Christian scripture, a book that summed up the greatest debate in our religion. And one day, as autumn leaves fluttered to the ground, he walked away from all this prestige, all that was comfortable and familiar, everything politically and economically sacred, and went to live with and serve the most backward and insignifi-cant people on the planet —”savages,” the Europeans called them. Once, when a rich young man came to Jesus and asked him what he should do to inherit the kingdom, Jesus told him to sell all that he had and follow him, but the man went away sorrowing, for his possessions were great. If anyone ever had the right to walk away from that same counsel, sorrowing over how much he would have to give up, it was Albert Schweitzer….but he had grown up differently from most of us.
As a child he was so sickly that his mother cried when the women of her hus-band’s church could find nothing hopeful to say about her son. And like Toyohiko Kagawa, he began to hate violence even as a child. One day, trying to be like the other boys, he went with them to kill birds, but when the moment came he found it sense-less and cruel. He jumped out ahead of the others, ran ahead to shoo the birds away, and then ran from the boys who wanted to punish him for spoiling their fun. And on another day, later, in the city of Colmar, he saw the great Bartholdi statue of a huge, sorrowing African slave, and although he could not know it then, that image was to haunt his mind and shape his future. It was melted down during a great world war, but you can still see a picture of it in many Schweitzer biographies.
Another image that took hold of his mind and would not let go was that of Laza-rus in the gospels. He pondered the story of the man who had so much, and the man lying at his gate who had so little, and wondered what it was in his own rich life that stood for Lazarus, the beggar. He decided that for him, in his time, it was that African slave, and so on Easter Sunday of 1913, with his wife and 70 cases of supplies, he set sail for Lambarene Mission on the banks of the Ogowe river in one of the most inhos-pitable places on earth. His medical skills, especially his use of anesthesia, baffled the natives. One of them wrote: “Since the doctor came here, we have seen the most won-derful things happen. First of all, he kills the sick people, then he cures them, and after that he wakes them up again.”
There were times when the natives nearly drove him mad. If he did not stay with them, they loafed, and when he paid them they often got drunk. Yet at other times he found them gentle and beautiful people whose behavior had adapted itself perfectly to the often cruel and dangerous world in which they lived. When he tried to explain his own world to them, it was all but impossible. He told them of forest fires, yet they lived in a forest so damp that nothing would burn in it. He told them of men who rowed boats just for the fun of it, and they thought he must be crazy. Who would row a boat for the fun of it? And how could the good doctor be sane when he told them of men who got married without having to pay anything at all for their wives? Some years later, when World War 1 came, he grew despondent and began spending every spare minute searching for a philosophy of life that might save the world from its self-destructive ways. His black patients were puzzled when he told them of the great war. Why would white men, whom they assumed were all like Dr. Schweitzer, believe in a gospel of love and then dig trenches in the ground and try to slaughter one another? Schweitzer confessed he could not explain it to them.
Privately, he kept thinking about it, wondering how it was possible for human beings to kill each other by the millions. One day he was called upriver some 160 miles to attend a missionary’s wife, and as the ship slowly moved upstream he sat on the deck, lost in thought, scrawling words on paper — trying to find a concept that would revitalize western civilization. Near sunset, on the third day, as the boat moved slowly through a herd of hippos, the phrase he had been searching for flashed into his mind. It came from God, the giver of all good and perfect gifts, and he scratched it on the page. At once he knew that he had found the answer. These were the words he wrote: Ehrfurcht von dem leben. In English, “reverence for life” — a conviction that not just human but all life is sacred.
It seemed naive, and when the world learned that Schweitzer would step aside to keep from smashing an earthworm that was harming no one, the world made silly jokes about it. But the great old doctor was no fool. He would swat a mosquito that might be carrying malaria, or the tsetse fly that posed so hideous a danger to higher forms of life. All he really asked was that nothing be killed without compelling reason and even then with regret that a sacred principle had to be compromised. It must have annoyed him to have the world so misunderstand, but he had a sense of humor and could joke about it. When a reporter held him away from a banquet with persis-tent questions about what “reverence for life” meant, Schweitzer finally said, “Rever-ence for life means all life. I am life. I am hungry. You should respect my right to eat now.” And he excused himself.
He and his wife were ordered back to Europe to become prisoners of war in 1917. Both were physically sick and mentally distraught as they thought of the hospi-tal slowly turning back to jungle. Years later Schweitzer would not discuss those days. “They were part of the madness of the world,” he said. “They must be forgotten.” When the war was over, a great Swedish archbishop asked him to speak on reverence for life, and to play organ recitals, and suddenly funds wree available for going back to the jungle to rebuild the hospital. Doctors and nurses came, the patient load doubled and tripled, and as Schweitzer moved back and forth between Lambarene and Europe, he began to be hailed as one of the greatest of all living men.
We romanticize great men and foolishly think they must have no faults, but all men do and this great man was no exception. He was passionate, and so he could lose his temper; he had a world of things to do, and he could be impatient. He was no plaster saint, and he never allowed the world to convince him that he really deserved all the praise. Once, when a publisher put a band around the dusk jacket of one of his new books, describing it as written by “the greatest man in the world,” Schweizer was furious. He called the American publishing office and said, “Take it off. Destroy every one. I will not stand for it!”
And there was the day when an emissary from Stockholm arrived at the hospital while Schweitzer was at work on his new clinic for leprosy, and the man tried a little small talk first about the weather, but the doctor kept hammering away until the man finally said, “I have come from Stockholm, sir, on a matter of some importance.” “That’s fine,” Schweitzer said, “but would you mind holding up that end of the roof for me while I nail it?” So the man stood there for a bit, in his suit, and held up the roof while Schweitzer drove nails, and then finally, when there was a moment to rest, he said, “I have been sent to ask you if you will accept the Nobel Peace Prize and the $33,000 that goes with it.” Schweitzer said he would, and that the hospital could use the money. Then he picked up the hammer and went on with his job.
He was lured to this country only once, and did not really want to come. But in 1949 a group promised that if he came to Aspen, Colorado and did a couple of speeches in honor of the German philosopher Goethe, they would give $6,000 to the hospital. So he came. By this time he was without question a world figure, and re-porters who wre used to interviewing presidents and movie stars tgreated him with a respect that bordered on awe. He was asked whether he regretted the sacrifice of his life to the natives of Africa, and he said, “There was no sacrifice. I am one of the great privileged.”
Ehrfurcht von dem leben, he wrote….reverence for life. I wondered all last week what he would make of our shootings and stabbings, what he would make of an honored military general who fought to save oil who said of our our national interest in Haiti that “There is nothing in Haiti worth dying for.” Poor country, no oil, only people….even I thought it an odd thing to say. What would Albert Schweitzer have thought? At the end of his remarkable book on the historical Jesus, Schweitzer wrote one of the most quoted paragraphs in all of religious literature, about the mystery, not of worshipping Christ, which is popular and easy, but of following Jesus. Listen:
“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me’ and sets us to the task which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience, Who he is.”
All right, time to come back now, back from the clinic in Lambarene, to our own time, our own city and its trials, our neighborhoods, our children, with each of us left to answer, in our own way, the question: “How do I show reverence for life?” When Schweitzer went to Africa he gave one reason: “I decided I would make my life my argument.” It’s the single argument no one can dispute or deny, better than all words….and ultimately, the only response that counts.

Help each of us, gracious God, to know the work we are meant to do, so that in surrender to it we also may make the great discovery….in His name. Amen.