Friday, June 4, 2010

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Every morning, I take our growing puppy for a nice long walk through the suburban wilds of Annandale. It's been getting mighty hot and humid lately, but I'm still out there.

Yesterday, I wandered with her out to the main road, a heavily used four lane artery that's been around for a bit. Columbia Pike used to be one of the major thoroughfares for folks looking to get to DC from points West. It predates the Civil War, and was here when Washington was being built.

On the corner of Columbia and Gallows Road (I think I see my friends a-comin', ridin' many a mile), there's a healthy United Methodist Church, which traces its roots back centuries. It's got a nice new and sizable facility, and is a staple of the community. And every morning when I walk, I hear the bells in the steeple--or the electronic simulcrum of bells--tolling out the tunes to old classic hymns.

As I walked, the howl of tires on the four-lane made it sometimes difficult to discern the song. It was "Let Us Break Bread Together," a simple, gentle song, and I sang along softly with it under my breath. I love that hymn.

Yet even as I sang, I wondered: Who else hears this? Certainly not those passing by. Where once the bells would have rolled across the forests and fields of a rich green land, now it's playing out across strip mall suburbia. The denizens of Annandale are no longer in the fields. They're sealed away in their SUVs, listening to loud people talk loudly as they rush off to their cubicles. They're in the nearby stores, as the thrum and whir of air conditioning drowns out the music. They're in their homes, as the teevee jabbers endlessly in the background.

I wondered again: who else knows what this means? It's an old African American spiritual. Does the Latino day laborer trudging along the other side of the road know it? Or the little Asian gentleman at the bus stop, standing sweating in his shorts, sandals, and black socks? Or the young woman in the Acura, window down, whose church music experience is of Christian Contemporary Music served up in a 5,000 seat auditorium? None of them hear the notes and know what words accompany them. None of them imagine falling to their knees with their face to the rising sun. It's just...another sound in the cacophany.

I appreciate the bells. I do. Yet I found myself wondering if they reflect the reality of many oldline churches. We are old, venerable, and wise. There is so much beauty in us, so much value. Yet even though our bells still ring, I'm not sure this cluttered chaos of a culture slows down enough to even hear them.