Monday over Coffee: The Law of the Gift

The Law of the Gift

“I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve." 

— Albert Schweitzer, 1875—1965

 

Albert Schweitzer is one of those historical figures who accomplished so much, it was as if he lived multiple lives at once. An influential theologian, he wrote books on the historicity of Jesus and the mysticism of St. Paul. A skilled organist, he invented innovative recording techniques and devoted himself to the rescue and restoration of historic pipe organs all over Europe. As a musicologist, he was one of the world’s foremost experts on the compositions of Bach. As a philosopher, he won the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his book Civilization & Ethics which set out a philosophical idea he called Reverence for Life. Even with this long list of achievements, most of us know Schweitzer not as a musician, a philosopher, or a religious writer, but as a medical doctor who founded a landmark hospital in Africa.

 

In 1912, with funds raised mostly through his own concerts and with barely enough equipment to run a small clinic, he set out to establish a medical practice with his wife Helene down the Ogooué River in what is now the nation of Gabon in Africa. Albert and Helene saw over 2,000 patients in 1913, some of whom traveled many days and hundreds of miles to get there. The ministry grew and soon the Albert Schweitzer Hospital was built. Though Schweitzer considered his work as a medical missionary as a response to Christ’s call to spread the Gospel, he also viewed his healing labors as a miniscule recompense for the damage wrought during the long era of European colonization of Africa. After operating the hospital for decades through both World Wars, in his later years Schweitzer took up the causes of ecology and peace, advocating against the proliferation of nuclear weapons with luminaries like Albert Einstein. He also continued to write, to see patients, and to nimbly play the organ until, in 1965 at age 90, he died in Africa. Schweitzer is buried not far from the hospital he founded, his grave on the banks of the Ogooué River, marked only by a modest cross he fashioned himself.

 

Years before in 1935, when Schweitzer was speaking to a group of young students in Wakefield, England, he said this: “I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

 

Certainly, the Ten Commandments and the other rules for living our faith outlines, are gifts from God which show us how to lead good, well-ordered, and ethical lives. We might call these blessings of divine instruction—the Gift of the Law. However, God gives us something else, as well. Something just as important. 

 

Just as God provided the Gift of the Law—rules for us to follow—God has also set deeply into our moral conscience something we might call the Law of the Gift. Jesus expressed the essence of the Law of the Gift when He said that in clinging to our lives too tightly, we lose them, but when we learn to give them away, we find them. And though this is something of a paradox, it too is a law. A natural law. A thing of nature. It’s not changing. It’s here to stay. It’s embedded into our humanity; into our operating system as a decisive force. And it tells us this: Self-giving, not self-assertion, is the path to human flourishing.

 

This is all to say that God has put within our grasp to a remarkable degree, how we feel at the end of each day. It is written indelibly in our hearts that if we put in a good day’s work, volunteering ourselves from a place of choice and free will to help and humbly serve others in some way each day, we can, as we lay our heads down in the evening, reliably feel a sense of wholeness, a sense of peace, and a sense of happiness within ourselves. 

 

“I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve."

 

God—May I live out the Law of the Gift.


Amen.


—Greg Funderburk


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