For whom the bell tolls

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Do you remember your Good Friday or Maundy Thursday Services? I do! For years we adapted a Tenebrae Service at which we read scripture, sang a song and extinguished another candle. We’d also share the sacrament of remembrance. Gradually, the lights were dimmed and when only the Christ candle remained, it would be taken away, not snuffed. Then, while the church was in darkness, the organ would “toll the bell” thirty-three times, recalling Christ’s life.

Even though many did not know the history of such tolling, it made an impact on young and old alike. There’s something about a bell’s tolling in the darkness that evokes feelings! Remembering Jesus’ death this way led to considerable wondering about our own dying and its meaning, asking: “Am I ready?…Could I face my Maker and Lord today?” Sometimes it seemed like a long, uncomfortable time. But, when after the thirty-three gongs the soft notes of “Up from the grave He arose…” were heard, there’d be a feeling of hope, of relief. We worship and serve a risen Christ!

I first experienced a bell’s tolling when pastoring a church in Montana with a high Bell Tower. It was on our first Saturday there that I heard it ring, precisely at 6.00pm. A traditional ringing to remind the community, “Your Sabbath Is Coming! Get Ready!” Then, the next morning, precisely at 9:00am, the bell rang again, “Time for Worship!” On calm days, it could be heard for miles, reminding, summoning and announcing as history teaches, the town or church bells have done for years.

History and literature lovers also know the familiar words from John Donne’s poetry.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less….
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

The town or city folks knew, when the bell rang, there was a death or a danger. In Michigan we learn it when the tornado sirens interrupt our routines. But a town or church bell tolling, a rarity!

Yet, “metaphysical” poet John Donne communicated an important spiritual concept that our world may not recognize, but The Christian Church, His body, should. We are involved with one another! This website, “One Faith, Many Faces,” says it simply with profound implications. Yet sadly, our becoming even somewhat calloused as we read obituaries and shooting headlines often reflects our poor practice of being a caring community, our bonding as God’s creatures.

Let me wrap up my musings…. At the Montana church, as the casket was carried from the church to the cemetery, the bell’s tolling rang the years of life granted the deceased. As it rang ninety-three times for an aged widow, we were thankful for her years of loving shared, but when it rang a short six times for a kindergartener, tears of sadness and questioning. Thus, however or whenever it happens, heed John Donne’s wisdom, “Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you.”

Pastor George Vink

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