Originally published Dec. 14, 2016.
All the people on the street were bundled tight. Scarves, gloves and fuzzy hats were the order of the day. Everyone was in a hurry to buy their presents and get out of the cold.
“Good morning, Merry Christmas,” Rudy said, as each near-frozen shopper entered the mall.
“Yeah, eh, sure, eh, Merry Christmas,” passersby said. Most were trying not to make eye contact because of their unwillingness to throw a few coins into the kettle between them and Rudy. He’d ring his bell and just smile.
“God bless ya,” he’d say as they passed him by.
Rudy Gustafson had served in a couple of wars and had held myriad jobs during his long life but he had never done anything with as much gusto as he rang that bell.
Some people complained about the incessant clanging of the bell. Ah, but it didn’t bother ol’ Rudy. Whether people gave or not, whether there were people there or not, he just smiled and rang that bell. It was weird, though. He didn’t ring it in a consistent rhythm like you would think. He had a different kind of pattern.
Then one day, attracted by the strange cadence of the bell, a man approached Rudy and asked, “I’m curious about the way you ring that bell. Do you have a rhythm deficiency or is there a story there?”
Rudy laughed. “No one has ever asked. Let me tell you a story.”
“I once lived in Chicago. After my wife died I began attending a church there. One Christmas I saw a note that they needed people for their bell choir. I never learned to play an instrument but I thought, I can play a bell. So, I signed up. Turned out I could play a bell. They gave me a G bell and taught me to read a simple score. Every time the score said G I rang my bell. Oh, it was fun.
“We did all kinds of songs, from hymns to children’s songs. But the last Christmas I played there we played a song that will forever be in my head and heart. The song said, ‘Ring the bells of heaven! There is joy today; For a soul, returning from the wild!’
“We played that song a hundred times in various venues. Ha, there were a lot of G notes in that song. I loved it. I’d sing along under my breath. I played it in my sleep. Ring the bells of heaven! That’s what I felt I was doing, ringing a bell of heaven.
“But then I developed a hearing problem. I couldn’t hear well enough to play my G notes anymore. Well, sir, I ended up here. I saw a sign that said they needed bell ringers for collecting money for people in need. I thought, ha, nobody cares if I play at the right time, and I cared about people in need, so I signed up.
“They put me here. I started out just ringing the bell and shivering in the cold. But then something happened. I began to see the people passing by as people needing some good news and some heavenly cheer. I remembered that song, ‘Ring The Bells of Heaven.’ That old familiar song came back to me. I remembered where all the G notes were, every one. So, now when there aren’t many people needing to be greeted I play the G notes to the score. I can hear every note in my head and when the G note comes up I ring my bell.
“When I see all these people frantically running around the mall I think of the words, ‘Ring the bells of heaven! There is joy today; For a soul, returning from the wild!’ I think how much God loves all these people and wants to draw them to himself. The song continues, ‘See the Father meets him out upon the way, Welcoming His weary, wand’ring child.’ It looks to me that many of these people are weary and wandering and the Father is waiting for them to come home. So, I play my bell to attract their attention.”
Rudy is long gone now and I don’t think they use the bell anymore. But the kettles are still there. Next time you see one of them, remember Rudy playing his ‘Bell of Heaven’ and remember that God is indeed waiting to welcome his weary, wandering children home. Oh, and throw a five in the kettle. There are still hungry and hurting people that need your help.
Merry Christmas! See you in church. (“Ring The Bells of Heaven” was by William Orcott Cushing.)
Ross Holtz writes from The Summit.