Oh the Places You’ll Go: Luther, Bonhoeffer Residences

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Our choir is hatching plans to sing on tour in Germany next year – and I am thinking I might intersect with them on a pilgrimage I would lead to places where Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived and amazed (and still amaze) the world. Germany (and especially the former East Germany) is the ideal setting to meet, as Luther and Bach lived and worked in beautiful little cities there; I love all the little churches that have a sign at the door: “Luther preached here,” or “Bach played our organ.”

Luther, people might forget, was pivotal in the development of sacred music. Bach was a devoted scholar of Luther’s theology, and put much of his best stuff to music. Bonhoeffer was a musician too. I got to play a few notes on a harpsichord he played in his home.

I fully understand you can live a full life and not even know much about Luther, Bach or Bonhoeffer. Or you can know this and that about them at a distance. You can listen to Bach on Spotify, and we’ve had small groups read Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship.”

But for me, these 3 giants came to life the first time I stepped into their birthplaces, their schools, their churches, and places where they hid from persecution or even caused some themselves. Bach was baptized in the St. George’s church in Eisenach. On that cold day in 1685, his parents had already suffered the death of 4 children from various causes. They had to wonder if he’d survive.

If you step outside that church and look up about a mile to the southwest to the rocky outcrop looming over the city, you see the Wartburg Castle, where Luther went into hiding once the authorities were hounding him after his inflammatory “Here I Stand” defiance of the powers of both church and state. He grew a beard and took a fake name (“Junker Jörg”). At a small wooden desk with a window overlooking the city, he translated the Bible into Germany, and began writing hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress.”

What I sensed in the space of Bach’s baptism and Luther’s borrowed castle was the perilous, tenuous nature of life for these geniuses, how truth and beauty are always at considerable risk, and how those who gift us with that beauty and truth from God are real people coping with discomforts, dangers, daily conditions that would undo us, and interpersonal challenges. How could it be otherwise?

So to Bonhoeffer: I fell in love with this giant of a theologian who was executed by the Nazis just days before the end of World War II. He would have gone down in history as one of the church’s greatest thinkers without the whole opposition to Hitler thing. But his courage in the face of lethal threats from the Gestapo, and leading other pastors and their churches into peril to stand against evil: so moving, and for a man who grew up in a fairly comfortable home among professional people.

My visit to his home was unforgettable. My guide first took me upstairs to Bonhoeffer’s bedroom. Wooden bookshelves along two walls – which he’d built with his own hands, and which held books by Luther and a holy host of other theologians who shaped his thinking. By the window was his small desk and chair, where he wrote his books – and you have to consider when he sat there, he was probing the heart and mind of God, and writing down what he was hearing, visualizing, understanding. So beautiful. Downright inspired, and inspiring. And of course, his harpsichord next to his desk. He loved music, especially playing Bach.

When we returned to the bottom of the stairs, we stopped by an old-timey phone sitting on a stand. He told me of the day this phone rang, and a Nazi sympathetic to Bonhoeffer called to say “Get out of the house now, run, now.” Bonhoeffer ran upstairs to grab his bag; but when he got back to the door, the Gestapo was already there. They seized him, and took him away, His parents, siblings and fiancée never saw him again.

That phone at the bottom of the stairs is etched deeply inside me. As is the cell at Buchenwald I got to visit where Bonhoeffer was incarcerated – and where he won the affection and admiration of even the most brutal Nazis.

I could and perhaps will say more about Germany. The Holocaust lingers there like nowhere else. Within the lifetime of many still living there, Jews and a few Christians were murdered out of unadulterated, vile hatred among Lutherans and Catholics who were faithful churchgoers. Luther had been a vicious anti-Semite himself.

But Germany has done sensible things. Freedom of speech generally reigns in Germany, but you cannot fly a Swastika flag or promote anything kin to Nazism; and Hitler’s apartment in Berlin is unfindable. They understand how horrific some expressions of freedom can be, how dangerous, so atrocious that their state says This cannot be here. Are we really okay with rallies and Capitol invaders displaying Swastikas and Auschwitz signs? There’s too much beauty to let too much ugliness poison and kill. Maybe it’s Bach who can show us the way.