Military Chaplain Leads Soldiers in the Footsteps of Martin Luther, Gustavus Adolphus, and J.S. Bach
By: Rev. Brandt Klawitter
Please note that the views expressed in this article are entirely those of its author. They do not necessarily represent the official position of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense, but reflect the author’s own beliefs and ministry as a military chaplain of The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS).
In an increasingly secularized society, where faith often seems to become more and more compartmentalized, one may rightly ask, just what place is there for God and faith in every-day life? With such a question in mind, thirty-five Soldiers from the 4th Squadron of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment stationed in Vilseck, Germany, recently undertook a journey into history and into the footsteps of three significant men of faith—Martin Luther, Gustavus Adolphus, and Johann Sebastian Bach. This trip, organized and led by Squadron Chaplain, Brandt Klawitter, was designed as a combination of learning, travel, and reflections on the themes of faith and vocation.
Why these three men, though? From a Lutheran perspective, Martin Luther seems obvious enough. Yet, oftentimes the spiritual struggle that defined his days as a young monk, his life- and history-changing insight into the Gospel, his attack on the sale of indulgences, the significance of his courageous stand before Emperor Charles V, the loneliness and struggle of his time at the Wartburg, and his life-long efforts to direct the church back to the great alones (Christ, faith, grace, and Scripture) that so singularly define the Reformation, are all taken for granted.
The Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, compared to the other two individuals, is largely overlooked these days. Certainly, many might recognize his name as important due to the existence of Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, yet few realize nowadays that the gains made by the Reformation in the 16th Century would have been lost in the 17th Century had God not raised up this remarkable leader and general. Indeed, though not without his faults, Gustavus’ innovations, rule, and leadership continue to serve as worthy subjects of discussion and study in military classrooms today.
Finally, Johann Sebastian Bach has gone down in history as the epitome of a musical genius. With respect to faith, Bach has been called the fifth evangelist by many, although he was neither the founder of the Reformation movement nor its defender. Nevertheless, it would not be completely inappropriate to think of him as the instrument through whom the Reformation’s teachings have most beautifully resonated for the last two hundred and fifty years.
Even more than these individuals’ historical greatness, though, each of these men possessed a faith that commends itself to our learning. For example, each of these men was a humble student of the Holy Scriptures, whether it was Luther pointing the church back to the “Book of the Holy Spirit,” Gustavus who read his Bible daily that he might not let his position and power lead him into temptation, or Bach whose task so often was to edify and rightly lift up the words of Scripture through the service of music. In addition to everything already mentioned, one also benefits from the study of these men by learning about their work ethic and love of neighbor, their concern for truth, justice, and beauty, their struggles and failures, and, perhaps most importantly for the trip, their demonstration of what vocation in various callings can look like.
With that in mind, if we were to do any justice to these men on this trip, a lot of learning would be required. The learning, though, proved to be a most exciting component of the program. As lecturers, the participants benefited from the experience and knowledge of experts in various subjects and in diverse walks of life. Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Due, the commander of 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment and former assistant professor of history at the United States Military Academy at West Point lectured on the military and historic significance of Gustavus Adolphus in a lecture prior to the trip. Chaplain Klawitter also helped prepare participants by offering a pictorial presentation on the life of Martin Luther and by introducing the theme of faith and vocation based on Gene Veith’s book, God at Work.
With such a foundation laid for the participating soldiers, it was finally time for the trip itself. Thus, on June 5 in the early morning hours, the bus was loaded and pulled off to the group’s first destination, Lützen, Germany. Lützen showcases both its Schlossmuseum (Castle Museum) which contains a wonderful diorama of the battle fought there in 1632, as well as the Gustavus Adolphus Memorial, located only meters away from where the great king fell in battle. Thus, we had the unique opportunity to get a sense of not only what happened at that historic location where Gustavus died, but, thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Due’s guidance, to even somewhat relive what happened in the battle and where it actually happened—even while looking at today’s idyllic barley fields and stands of trees.
Following the time in Lützen, the group pressed on to Wittenberg and there had the opportunity to walk the historic mile, visiting the Schlosskirche where Martin Luther posted his 95-Theses, the Stadtkirche where Luther preached so often, and also the Lutherhaus, center of family-life for the Luthers and so much early-reformation activity. The group’s guide was especially interesting in that he talked not only about the significance of Luther to the city, but he was even thrilled to point out that in the same baptismal font in which Luther’s children had been baptized, someone else had also been baptized—he had. Equally noteworthy, there was a question asked during the tour about a certain hymn and its melody. He answered by beginning to sing the hymn by heart in the middle of the street.
On June 6, the day began with our final introductory lecture. Rev. Dr. Christopher Ahlman (LCMS Missionary currently in Leipzig) joined the group in Wittenberg and presented on the life and music of J.S. Bach—this at the chapel in the LCMS’ newly renovated Old Latin School only meters away from the historic Stadtkirche. After Rev. Ahlman’s lecture on Bach, the group continued back in the direction of Leipzig by way of Breitenfeld. This site was perhaps Gustavus Adolphus’ most significant battle militarily, but also for the cause of the existence of the Lutheran Reformation. At the time of the battle, the Catholic Imperial armies had pushed all the way up to the Baltic Sea and, under the Edict of Restitution, were widely persecuting and pressuring the Lutheran faith. It was only in 1630 that the Lion of the North entered the picture out of Sweden—essentially Protestant Europe’s last and perhaps most unlikely hope. Yet, with modernized combined arms tactics and an army inspired under his leadership, Gustavus Adolphus wrested the battlefield from the Imperial General Tilly and the future of the Lutheran Reformation, barely 100 years young, was assured.
Following the visit to the memorial, there was a guided tour of Leipzig’s old city and then the opportunity to hear J.S. Bach’s cantata, Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn (Jerusalem, Praise the Lord), at the historic Thomaskirche. The performance at this church where Bach spent some twenty-seven years of his life was truly exceptional, made even better thanks to the fact that Rev. Ahlman had already explained so much about the music and words. Listening to the stately and powerful music, our group had little difficulty imagining the new city council being inducted almost three hundred years ago—as the choir, through the words and music of the cantata, reminded the citizens of the day, and us still today, that God’s gifts of government and peace are something for which all are required to offer thanks.
The morning of June 7 certainly stood in marked contrast to the trip’s previous destinations. On that morning participants received a tour of the Nazi- and Soviet-era Internment and Labor Camp at Buchenwald. While this visit had little to do with Luther, Adolphus, or Bach, it did stand as a stark reminder of what can happen when faith is separated from one’s vocation and life. In a very sobering way the visit stood out as a reminder of the evil that all of us must struggle against even as we carry out our various vocations.
The conclusion of the trip took us to the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach. Aside from the beautiful castle towering above the Thuringian Forest, we had the opportunity to discuss “vocation under the cross.” Luther’s lonely (and yet productive) time in exile at this castle, at the time an outlaw of society and separated from the Roman Church, provided a perfect example of what it is to endure difficulty while living out one’s faith.
In reflecting back on the themes of this program and trip, one finds that it provided a wonderful opportunity for the participants in several different ways. To begin with, it was a quick sprint through three centuries of history and an introduction to the lives of three very significant individuals who worked in three entirely different callings. Equally important, though, the trip also gave the opportunity for soldiers to reflect on their own lives through the themes the program introduced. What does it mean that God works through various vocations to take care of His creation, society, and most especially His church? What does it mean that God has called each of us—whether soldier, accountant, salesman, pastor, farmer, father, mother, son or daughter—to various different tasks in service to our neighbor and to His glory? What does it mean that we live out each of our callings in both the freedom we have through Christ’s cross and as individuals who must one day stand before God’s judgment? In short, this trip offered no shortage of memorable experiences, but even more, it allowed those who participated in it to delve into those often-overlooked topics of faith and life—and how they interact with one another as our everyday vocations play out.