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The Journey of Transformation

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Appreciate and rely on your spiritual resources

Saturday, April 13th, 2019

I wrote the following essay after living with my parents as a caregiver to my Mom, who had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). I was also going through treatment for breast cancer at the time and my hometown church was an essential part of my support system.

FOUR BELLS

My childhood was ordered by four bells. They outlined the parameters of life in our small Minnesota town. The first and most ordinary was the small bell hung on the balcony of my parents’ house. It was conveniently placed right outside the door, steps from the kitchen. When Mom rang that bell we could hear it anywhere in the neighborhood and headed for home, as we and all the neighbor kids knew it was time for supper, or bedtime. I believe the other parents appreciated my parents’ inventiveness because when it rang their kids all  headed home, too.

The second bell was not a bell at all, but was a siren. At the volunteer fire hall uptown, in our central Minnesota village of 350, there was a siren, and, in addition to notifying all the volunteers when they were needed to fight a fire, it was blown twice a day all year round, at 12 noon and 6 in the evening (for a few years it blew at 9 pm, too). It created a time-frame for the day, and was neatly aligned with mealtimes. When I moved back to care for Mom it was blown only at noon. This was a familiar, comforting call for everyone to take a timeout, eat, and then continue with the rest of the day’s activities.

The third bell was the bell that called campers to activities at Camp Lebanon, on our beloved Cedar Lake, four miles from town. This lake feels like it belongs to us, because my Grandparents (and now my brother) lived there and their home was the gathering place for cousins coming from far away. In addition, a handful of second cousins were neighbors there, since our grandfathers had all bought land on the lake in the 40’s. Camp Lebanon is a Bible camp and they had a fabulous diving board raft that was like honey to our young bee selves. We knew we were not to trespass on that raft but at times the temptation was too much and we indulged ourselves. Their bell would ring out regularly throughout the day, indicating various activities/times and it rang clearly over the lake. A favorite annual escapade was for the older kids (my brothers and cousins) to plan a raid on the camp, with the purpose of ringing the bell at night, throwing firecrackers, and generally raising Hell in this heavenly camp. The raid would be coordinated, using various watercraft, timing, roles or each of the older kids, and the escape plan.

The fourth bell was the church bell at Gethsemane Lutheran, where I was baptized, confirmed, and still claim membership. My mother was raised in the church, and Dad joined it (and was baptized, since that got missed when he was an infant–his father was recovering from tetanus or “lockjaw” as it was called then and his mother had her hands full with five children) when they were married. Every Sunday morning it would ring out, and we could clearly hear it at the house, since the town covered less than a square mile of area. The man who was the church custodian and bell-ringer was an expert—he rang it with measured, even and lovely regularity, setting the standard so that fill-in ringers did the same beautiful rhythm.

When St. Mary’s, the Catholic church in town, rang their bell it was a bit jerky, inconsistent, and clearly NOT Gethsemane’s bell. We all grew up hearing our bell, and if we heard it as we were heading to church, it insistently urged us to hurry up and get there. We could hear it in the church, too, and knew that the service would start before it was done ringing. As a confirmation student, a friend and I sneaked to the belfry and rang it. It was so big and powerful that on the swing back it pulled me off my feet. Very exhilarating for a 12-year-old. That bell was part of our lives and part of the framework of my family’s life in Upsala, along with the other three “bells.”

This bell was the most meaningful, because of its solemnity and sacredness. How it represented Gethsemane, the teachings we learned there, and the connection we had, as I was part of the fourth generation to be a member there, all added to its significance and our love for it. The sound it made, so melodic, resonant and perfect, just made it more special.

In the mid-1990’s Gethsemane built a new church. Once it was up, slightly behind and to the side of the other building, the old Gethsemane of red brick was torn down bit by bit and recycled. Since we built a fellowship hall first, with the plan to build a sanctuary later, the bell was secured in a church-member’s barn. There was no way to know when the sanctuary would get built, so the bell was there indefinitely. In 2001, my mother’s ALS was diagnosed. Sometime in that year she noted to my dad, “I’ll never hear Gethsemane’s bell again.” Well, that did not sit well with him. Mover and shaker that he was, he decided something needed to be done about that. He approached some other church members and said that he thought we ought to get the bell re-installed, somehow. A committee was formed and after a few meetings, some donations and brainstorming, a plan was completed for a small bell tower to be built. It was located next to the church, and to satisfy those concerned with it being placed in a future steeple, it was agreed that when the time came, it could easily be moved. For now, though, the bell’s sweet tones would be heard again.

I happened to be visiting in Upsala when it was completed, and John, one of the church members working on it, called us to say they were going to “test it” and maybe I should come up. Mom listened interestedly from home, and I went up for the premiere ring. After a dozen or so good solid peals, we knew it was a success, and we all laughed, celebrated with hugs and tears, and knew a very good thing had been done. This type of kindness from Dad to Mom was typical of him, and when he saw something needing to be done, he got it done. Mom got to hear that bell every Sunday until she died, even though she rarely returned to church.