For Whom the Bell Tolls

By: Janet Mendenhall

He is a hard worker, and no task is too menial. He would lend a hand with whatever is needed.  He is compassionate and loyal and deeply concerned for his friends. He is also, ironically, a good beggar, and no donation is too small. Just enough for a breakfast burrito or some Church’s chicken. He is quick tempered, and sometimes lashes out when his request is refused. He is quite possibly the dirtiest human being I have ever seen or smelled. He is my neighbor. I have worked side by side with him on neighborhood cleanups, listened to his prayer requests for friends who are sick, and driven him to deliver food he had gotten from a church luncheon he had technically crashed, to a friend who had been shot the night before. He has walked me to my car when I have been out in the neighborhood so that no harm would befall me. He knows about community, sitting often at the corner of my street at the house behind the convenience store, where folks gather to drink beer and share the day’s stories and often some pretty decent theology. And take care of one another.

I remember one of my early visits with him when I was new to the neighborhood. We sat on a bench and talked. He was frustrated with his landlord, hungry as usual, out of his monthly allowance, but telling me about some folks who were struggling, and telling me about where he had been working and helping out.

The church bells from a large downtown church began to ring.  It was strange. I felt miles away from that downtown deposit of churches, yet here I was sitting in my neighborhood hearing them ring. Comforting, perhaps?  I am not as isolated as I supposed. Encouraging?  They are practically right here with me. A reminder of their interest and connection to my neighbors.

But here sat my neighbor. And I suspected he wasn’t having those thoughts as they rang. I wasn’t really sure he was even hearing them. The disconnect between these large, wealthy bodies of believers in fancy buildings with these glorious bells and my neighbor seemed a louder proclamation to me. Were the bells tolling for him, too?

Why are they ringing? What is the message they are bringing? Who are they calling and to what are they being beckoned?

Church bells traced back to medieval times were a means of communicating with the church’s community. A call to worship. An alarm when danger was present. A call to morning, noon and evening prayers. The tolling of the funeral bell. The sounds of community.

But why are they ringing today? For whom are they ringing? If the folks within earshot don’t feel called to a common purpose nor a sense of connectedness to each other or to God’s people (his church), are the bells melodious, or a clanging gong or a noisy cymbal?

In John Donne’s Meditation XVII, he writes, “therefore never send to know for who the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

That line is preceded by these words: “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind …”

Earlier in the meditation, Donne talks more about the universality of the church. How whatever the church does belongs to all. Baptisms, burials, worship, prayers. Because we are all members of that same body. We are all called to the same purpose.  All of us.

I have recently had opportunities to meet with leaders from some of those downtown congregations, who are thinking of their community and neighbors differently, and I am encouraged by that. There are folks inside those walls who want to come out. There is some good talk about loving their neighbors –especially the ones who don’t look like them or think like them or even smell like them.  Or worship like them. That makes me listen. And when that talk becomes action even in the smallest ways, it makes me hopeful. That kind of love makes the peeling of the church bells indeed glorious.  It is music to my ears.  And I think it will then be music to my neighbor’s ears.

2 thoughts on “For Whom the Bell Tolls

  1. jtb04a says:

    It’s so important to remember what our religious practices say to those who aren’t a part of it. Thank you for the reminder to look outside of ourselves and see from others perspectives.

  2. Steve Holt Sr says:

    I never thought of church bells in that way. Truly there’s a message in those peels. My peeve is with church signs. They always promise more than they can deliver. Thanks for your reminder that we who follow the King also exude a message. What will mine be today?

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