December 21 – Asking for Whom the Bell Tolls

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 friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

John Donne Devotions on Emergent Occasions Number 17
Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.

The decision to ring our church bell in memory of the Sandy Hook victims came late. I had seen a headline about it, but busy with other things, I had not paid much attention. Only late yesterday afternoon did a friend and LPC member ask if our bell would toll this morning.

If I hesitated a moment it was because of my ambivalence about civil religion, this call from the governor of Connecticut (we were asked to ring our bell not because we are a people who know the God of all comfort, but because we have a bell to ring). I paused, too, because we Americans grieve so poorly. We hope that green and white ribbons and piles of flowers in the school parking lot will be enough to numb the sting of death. Was this bell-ringing to be just one more shallow way to deal with so deep a sorrow?

Of course, we rang our bell. How could we not? It was important that we ring the bell. It was important for me to lay aside my own concerns for the common good. It went well. We were not a large group who gathered, but we heard Scripture read and prayed and then listened as the bell tolled its 26 slow rings. As the sound of the last toll was lost in the cold gray air of this first day of winter, we prayed again, using the words of Paul about the God of all comfort.

Then the bell tolled two more times.

The governor’s call for the tolling of the bells was understandably for 26 peals in remembrance of the twenty children and six adults murdered at Sandy Hook School. But as others have said, 28 people died in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday.

Speculation about the lives of Adam Lanza and his mother Nancy have filled the airwaves, clogged internet blogs and newspaper columns for a week now and still we know very little. What Adam Lanza did last Friday was evil and nothing about his circumstances should ever diminish our conviction that it was. Nancy Lanza was trying to manage a desperate situation. Perhaps we would have managed better. Perhaps not.

Christians understand both Adam and Nancy Lanza to have borne the image of their creator – cracked, distorted, warped by sin, but his image, nonetheless. We would be foolish to say that they were just like us, but also foolish to say they were not like us. Had sin taken a harsher toll on them, its manifestations more malicious? Maybe so.

We know very little about Adam and Nancy Lanza. It is not ours to know God’s eternal decrees concerning them, though it is interesting to hear people who do not otherwise believe in hell condemning this son and mother to eternal anguish.

We do know that after the angel had calmed the shepherds’ fear he told them that the good news of great joy he brought was for all people. No exceptions were offered.

Photos of the Lanzas’ house in Newtown show that sometime before last Friday someone had put Christmas decorations on the outside of the house, a wreath and garland over the front door. We don’t know what the decorations may have meant to those who lived in the house. We don’t know that if somehow even in the preparations for the holiday their troubled hearts had prepared Him room. It is not ours to know.

The 28 victims of the Sandy Hook shootings are in the hands of a loving and righteous God. He is a God as holy as he is gracious. Our prayers are for those who mourn the deaths of the victims. And for us, that we would “hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell,” and that we, too, might pray, “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!”

The church bell rang 26 and then 2 times. Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.