At last, a Lutheran Hero

I have finally found a Lutheran hero. Now in retirement from ordained Anglican congregational ministry I am occasionally invited to preach at a local Lutheran Church which I enjoy very much. They have welcomed me as I have shared with them points of common interest and experience between our two denominations.

I was present in August of 2001 when our two Churches entered into a Full Communion relationship. I once thought I might serve as a Lutheran pastor, but that opportunity did not come my way. So now, I bask in ecumenical full communion glory as a retired, ordained volunteer.

I do have one regret however. I usually tell stories of particular people doing particular things in particular places (I would not dare attempt a systematic theology with these folks). I enjoy sharing stories of famous Anglicans, our saints if you will. Two weeks ago I waxed (at some length) if not eloquent, then with enthusiasm about the late Desmond Tutu (The Arch). I admitted in that homily that I was not familiar with Lutheran saints, heroes or famous leaders. Let’s think about this for a minute: There’s Luther himself, Melanchthon, and hmm . . . well Dietrich Bonhoeffer; I had no more suggestions; and despite my request for assistance, no possible candidates  were suggested to me as I departed for home.

Today however, I have my candidate, Ludwig Philipp Albert Schweitzer, 14 January 1875 – 4 September 1965. Wikipedia describes the Doctor as “an Alsatian polymath. He was a theologian, organist, musicologist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician.” I love that word: polymath. It means someone who does pretty well everything pretty well, a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning. A Doctor of Music, Theology and Medicine; a scholar who extensively published in theology, philosophy, musicology and medicine. He was a life-long learner, one who rose to the pinnacle of his art, craft and practice in every respect. And he was a Lutheran (see above). Wikipedia continues:

“A Lutheran, Schweitzer challenged both the secular view of Jesus as depicted by the historical-critical method current at this time, as well as the traditional Christian view.” Our approach to scripture today benefits hugely from Schweitzer’s analysis. The literal words of scripture, especially in and through the Gospel stories of the life of Jesus are nuanced; they are not a precise written record or picture of exactly “what happened.” They are heavily influenced, even dominated by the experiences, prejudice, rhetorical motivations and talents of the Gospel writers themselves. Schweitzer invites us to search for the “historical Jesus” in other ways. Arguably the most famous quote in 20th Century theology comes from Schweitzer:

“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men (sic) 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: Quest of the Historical Jesus

Moving beyond theology, in a way lifting the text off the page,  he received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life.” Such study led him to founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, which up to 1958 was situated in French Equatorial Africa, and after this in Gabon.

And then there is music. My first introduction to the work of Dr. Schweitzer came through music and my own study of organ performance commencing in 1975. A fellow student had some old editions of the Organ Works of J S Bach. They were edited by the French Catholic Charles Marie Widor, and the German Lutheran Schweitzer. While performances by Schweitzer posted online are very old fashioned by 1975 standards (tempi were slow, ornamentation not historically grounded, articulation not considerate of the instruments or the period) they were ground-breaking performances when the editions were published in 1912-14.

Schweitzer’s particular contribution to this edition was explaining how the texts of the Lutheran Chorales influenced Bach’s music, and how the theology of the text is reflected in the mood and interpretation of the music. Schweitzer also contributed to an entirely new was of building organs through principles emphasized by the orgelbewung movement which influenced organ building especially in Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle and elsewhere in North America from the 1950s to the 1980s.

When reviewing the lives of famous people it is sometimes hard to relate, and to draw helpful conclusions for ourselves. He was an amazing human being, gifted and confident to a degree few if any may attain. That said (and through what means or process I cannot say) he followed his heart in a spiritual and vocational evolutionary process, expressed in a constantly unfolding journeying life of giving and sharing with so many others. He was the ultimate leader. His influence on many vocations opened so many investigative, performance, philanthropic and ontological doors, too many to adequately name in this short essay.

So let us remember the Doctor of pretty well everything on this anniversary of his birthday. Whether Anglican, Lutheran or intentional faith-seeker of any description, there is much to discover, learn, savour and imitate.

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