by Rev. Dr. Corey Fields
One could never call me a Bob Dylan fan, but I was introduced to his song “Ring Them Bells” when I first heard Sarah Jarosz’s fantastic cover of it. The original was a part of Dylan’s 1989 “Oh Mercy” album, and Jarosz covered it in her 2011 album “Follow Me Down.” It is a richly poetic song with plenty of biblical references and allusions. The song begins,
Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries ‘cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide, and the world’s on its side
And time is running backwards and so is the bride
A lot of observers have pointed to the apocalyptic hints in the song, and those are certainly there. It talks about the few judging the many “when the game is through,” references the “four winds” (Dan. 7:2; Matt. 24:31), to name just a few examples.
But there’s something else I hear in the song that speaks to why I like it. It reminds me of the place of the church in turbulent times.
I was blessed and fortunate in my spiritual upbringing. Church was a good place. I felt safe and accepted there. Church bells rang from the steeple on Sunday mornings and afternoons. Living in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, I quite literally heard the bells “from the sanctuaries, across the valleys and streams.” By the time I was in college, I had become passionate about the church’s role in offering hope and healing to a broken world, and decided to make it my life’s work.
Of course, I would soon learn the painful truth that those bells do not sound so pleasant to others’ ears. Soon I would learn more of the pain, rejection, and even abuse that those bells might characterize for some. Soon I would learn more of those who have not been given any reason to believe that those bells ring for them.
However, as Dylan’s lyrics suggest, the bells must ring for these too. “Ring them bells sweet Martha for the poor man’s son…for the child that cries when innocence dies.” The bells announce not just the church’s message of hope and healing, but they must also announce the church’s own repentance and shortcomings:
Ring them bells so the world will know that our God is one
For the shepherd is asleep where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled with lost sheep.
At all times, but these times in particular, the church has a sacred role and opportunity to be the community’s megaphone, giving voice not only to hope and healing, but also to hurt and pain. Nehemiah gathered people together not just to offer hope but to make sure their “nobles and officials” heard their hardship (Neh. 5:1-13). Jesus not only healed a man’s shriveled hand but called out the people who preferred he do it on another day (Luke 6:6-11). Jesus both raised Lazarus and cried with those who were grieving (John 11:1-44). We “ring them bells,” but sometimes as the ones calling out and amplifying what’s going on:
Ring them from the fortress
For the lilies that bloom
Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong
We are living in historic times. Important though the church’s regular rhythms of worship and gathering are, we cannot be completely consumed with the details of our live streams, reopening cleaning protocols, etc. Our country is embattled and wounded by many things all at once, and we are living what may prove to be a pivot point in our country’s history. “The sun is going down upon the sacred cow.” When the story of these days is retold, how will the church appear in the story?
We already know one unfortunate part of that answer. We already know that some will be remembered for excusing (or even praising) immorality, corruption, and the traumatization of the already poor and desperate. We already know that some have traded in their witness for victories in the culture wars. We already know that some who proudly wear the label “pro-life” seem confoundingly unmoved by lots of dead bodies due to gun violence, immigration policies, or a new disease.
But so long as the church can find its footing and build its house on the rock, that will not be the whole story, nor the most consequential part. I offer an urgent hope. More than anything, I want it to be said that the church showed up, that the church was there. I want people to say that they heard the church, and the church heard them. I want to be able to say that we “rang them bells.”
I know that for many pastors and church leaders, it has been draining just to figure out some of the basics in the midst of this pandemic. This doesn’t have to be a whole new challenge; I think we can view this simply. Show up. Hear people, and amplify their voices. Offer encouragement, hope, and prayer. When struggle is deep, when “the world’s on its side and time is running backwards,” it can be surprisingly simple to offer a reminder of the grace and presence of God.
Are there homeless among us? We could eat with them (safely, of course). Are there frontline and essential workers among us, feeling overburdened or forgotten? We could offer them a space to vent, cry, and pray. Are there immigrants among us struggling even more, or communities of color disproportionately affected by COVID-19? We could hear and reshare their stories. Are there elderly or others among us dealing with crippling isolation? We could call them, write them, leave a small gift on their doorstep. Are their parents among us exhausted and needing respite? We could offer help and encouragement. Are there local businesses among us struggling? We could patronize them, and leave a note of prayer and encouragement in the process. Are there protests in our area? We could be there with nourishment and encouragement to stay peaceful and civil.
The lines are long. The fighting is strong. Ring them bells.
The Rev. Dr. Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.