Monday, December 30, 2013
The Sound of Silence. . .
Today I lament an unwelcome silence -- not one inside the building, although it definitely is no longer heard there very often, but outside the church, throughout the neighborhood and community. I grew up in a community of steeples built not as decorative adornments but as homes for the church bell. Growing up, the sound of Sunday morning was the sound of bells ringing to announce the day, the start of services, and even to toll during the Our Father and the consecration. The later part was especially heard around my home congregation, Golgotha Lutheran Church. I am told they do not do it anymore. How sad.
Bells were once heard throughout the community on Sunday morning and at other times. Once technology made an imitation carillon available to even modest budgets, churches without bells could have a full sound of many bells ringing hymns, sounding the call to worship, and even playing patriotic songs on the occasional holiday. When one member's family had connections to one of the firms offering such technology, we had one in my first parish -- installed locally with the help of the firm's representatives. We were a little enamored by the potential and, perhaps, overdid the bells in the beginning. A few complaints from the largely rural area around the church caused us to scale back the schedule. That was a new thing. Complaints. Complaints about the sound of bells.
At the Senior College and then Concordia Theological Seminary, a bell sounded every day for chapel and reminded the community of its central purpose and calling. When I return it is one of the most deeply moving sounds I associate with that place -- the sound of the bell calling us to worship!
I now live in a city of some 140,000 people and you seldom hear the sound of any church bell or carillon on Sunday morning or at any other time. You can hear motorcycles racing on the streets. You can hear sirens announcing firetrucks, ambulances, police, and other emergency vehicles. You can hear the sound of diesel engines when the drivers use the engine to brake a heavily loaded truck at a stoplight. You can hear the sound of those little four cylinder tuner cars with mufflers as big as their tires that muffle nothing and magnify the high revs of their little power plants. You can hear the occasional sound of tires screeching along road way to a sudden and unplanned stop. You can hear the ever present bump bump bump of a bass speaker pumping out a rhythm so loud it obscures the melody (if there is one) to the song playing. You can hear the sound of favorite music wafting from open side windows or open sunroofs. You can hear the sound of car horns honking at cars, announcing that the doors are locked, or sounding the warning that something is wrong. But you seldom hear a church bell.
Church bell ringing is part of the Christian liturgical and musical tradition. It has its source in Scripture. It’s not “decorative”, a “nice” thing to have, or part of the "aesthetic". Bells have historically been one of the first things in a new church and not the last, if budget allows. But that is no more. Our bellringing tradition is an important part of liturgical identity and it is time we reclaimed this. As integral as the sound of the mullah calling Muslims to prayer, the church bell is even more ingrained in Christian history, tradition, and identity.
Bells as we know them are mentioned in the Bible once: small bells were to be attached to Aaron’s vestments, which “shall be heard when he goes into the Holy Place before the LORD, and when he comes out, so that he does not die” (Exodus 28:33-35). This suggests that the sound of bells is protective, it gave warning to those present when the priest who attended the holiest of holies came out from his ministry. They also announced what was happening in the temple to a people who had no line of sight. The church bell does exactly the same thing. The ringing of the bell continues Aaron's practice of announcing what is happening in the Lord's House, of announcing the grace that is our protection and defense, and calling the people to prepare for the holy entrance of God to His people
We are so very close now to getting the old cast iron giant of a bell we have up and running to do its bidding. My only fear is what kind of reception it will get from the neighbors. Could it be that we do not hear the sound of bells because they have become an unwelcome intrusion, one our culture can no longer tolerate or condone? We will wait and see... if someone complains. Until then I heartily encourage churches of all sizes to recapture the sound of the bell and ring their presence into their neighborhoods and communities. It is amazingly easy to purchase a good used one on eBay and there are many bell suppliers who specialize in used and refurbished bells (a good thing because there are few making new bells today). Let the Church ring out with Aaron's bells as sign of the sacrament of Christ's presence, the call to worship and receive His gifts, and the witness that God's people are here...