Practicing Parents

The Bells of Cole Camp


~by Kimberly Knowle-Zeller

A single bell rang.  And then it chimed again.  One ring after another.  Over and over.  My daughter and I were walking and I knew it wasn’t yet noon, the time that the bells typically chime.  The two of us walked towards the bells.  As we approached the church, the bell continued to chime.  We saw people leaving the church.  People dressed nicely.  A police car serving as an escort.  A hearse parked in front.  A funeral was taking place.  Of course, that’s why the bells were ringing.

Ring, ring, ring.

The bells of Cole Camp echoed from the church commemorating the years of someone’s life.  One ring for each year of life.  I don’t know how long the churches have honored the lives of the deceased in this touching way or how the tradition began in this town, I only know that since we moved to Cole Camp three years ago, the bells have continued to ring.  It’s humbling to hear the bells ringing and know that in each ring the entirety of someone’s life is heard.  It’s a haunting and beautiful tradition.  Many churches in Cole Camp take part – I know at least the churches that surround our house offer this holy sound.  When a member of the community dies, the church bell is rung for the number of years that person lived.  How do you measure the years of someone’s life?

Ring, ring, ring.

The bell signals to the community that in those moments we remember a life well-lived.  A life claimed and called by God.  A life that lived and breathed and loved right there in their midst.  A life that will continue to be held in love.  As the families grieve, the bells ring.  Calling the community to attention.  Calling the community to remember.  Calling the family to know that they are not alone.  

Hearing the bells ring, their sound echoing in the air, the pulse of life traveling upwards, catches me off guard every time.  I remember once waking up to the unending toll of a bell.  Here I was waking to the possibility of a new day and immediately reminded of the fleetingness of life.  Taking my first step that morning as the bells chimed, I said a prayer.  Just as the sound of the bell soars in the air so do my prayers.  Prayers to remember life in the midst of death.  To remember that we are all one.  The bells provide an opportunity to teach my daughter that life is a gift.  That we are bound to one another.  That saying a prayer for families and friends who are grieving makes a difference.  That stopping and listening to the bells makes a difference.  I need the bells to help me teach my daughter the profound gift and grace of this life.  

Ring, ring, ring.  

As a new member to the community, sometimes the bell rings and I don’t know the person whose life is remembered in the tolls.  Other times they’ve been near and dear to my husband’s ministry as a pastor.  As I hear the stories from my husband about his visits and communion shared, they become my stories too, and a reminder that we all are a part of Christ’s body.  The broken and beautiful and blessed body that is echoed in each toll.  I trust that these bells of Cole Camp tell us a truth about our lives in Christ.  That before we were born a song played for us, God’s unique beat for us.  That the song continued through our births and growth and entire life.  A song rooted in the mystery of God’s presence.  A song echoing to all the world.  Their song becoming our song.  The song of God’s heartbeat for all God’s people.    

This is a song I desire for my daughter to know.  For her to claim the song as much as God claims it for her.      

I hear God’s heartbeat.  A heartbeat that joins the living and the dead in the Body of Christ forever.  A heartbeat that never stops ringing.  

Ring, ring, ring.                 

About Kimberly Knowle-Zeller: I’ve found that the places God calls me have been places I never knew existed: The Gambia, West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer and my current home, Cole Camp, Missouri, a town of 1,000. Yet everywhere I’ve been, words helped to make sense of my world, my place, and my vocation. I’m an ordained ELCA pastor, mother of a toddler, and spouse of an ELCA pastor. When I’m not at the park with my daughter, attending church, out in town, or tending to our garden, you can find me with a pen and paper. Or a good book. And a cup of tea.


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