For whom the bell tolls – A word for Ash Wednesday


“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s the somber reminder of Ash Wednesday.

“To dust you shall return” wasn’t the original intention for humanity, of course. At the crowning moment of creation, “God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”1 God only speaks those second words––”to dust you shall return”––as he later details the consequences of the man’s sin. The wages of sin is death…

At Ash Wednesday, and then throughout these forty days of Lent, we’re invited to take special account of our own sinfulness.

In light of that invitation, John Donne’s famous piece below is fitting. He wrote this in 1623 while recovering from a serious illness. The bell he refers to is a funeral bell.

As we’re invited to consider our own mortality and sinfulness during these forty days, Donne’s work reminds of two things:

  1. We may have judged our own state better than it is––”Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.”2
  2. Our concern can never be for ourselves alone––”No man is an island [] therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I had to read this slowly and carefully to understand and appreciate. It was worth the effort…


From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation #17 by John Donne

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body, whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.


No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.



  1. Gen 2:7 –– special note: This is not meant in any way to bias genders. The woman’s creation is every bit as much a crowning moment (some have argued more). But I’m talking about dust here…
  2. Donne wrote before gender-inclusive language. I’m sure he would have written more inclusively had he written this today.

Who’s your pastor?


Several years ago, I received an email from a friend that included this:

I am applying for a  ________  position. May I put you down as a minister reference? I still don’t know any ministers at  ________  who could give me one since the church is so big.

A part of my reply:

I’ll be happy to be a reference. What a perfect position for you! I’ll say lots of good things.

I hope this isn’t overstepping, but I wanted to say this also… I really hope you don’t need me for a minister reference in the future. You are so incredibly gifted and also have so many places where you could grow if a pastor were investing in you. It’s upsetting to me to know that you’re in a place where you’re not known. To me, that means you’re being under-utilized and under-challenged.

If it’s just a matter of taking initiative, I hope you’ll do what it takes to find someone at ________ who really becomes your pastor. If that’s not a possibility there, I hope you’ll find a place where it is. You have too many gifts and too much space to grow to be without a pastor.

What this is not about:

1) Church size – You can find several large churches that do a great job of connecting pastors to individuals. You can find several small churches that don’t. On the whole, it’s easier to remain anonymous at a large church. You’ll need to take more initiative and so will the church. But size isn’t the only factor here.

2) A paycheck - When I ask who your pastor is, I’m not concerned about a paycheck. That is, your pastor doesn’t have to be on staff at the church. They may be a banker or nurse. But they’re a part of your local church community and they’re your pastor.

What this is about:

1) Pastoral discernment - Who is the spiritually discerning person in your life who is able to see the forest of your life when you have your face pressed up against a tree?

Note: This isn’t just for beginners. The most spiritually mature person needs a pastor, just like Roger Federer still needs a coach.

2) Pastoral authority – That’s an ugly term in our independent society. But it’s needed. We love ourselves too much. Without giving someone else authority to suggest and prescribe things we may not like, we’ll usually choose our own way.

Who has the authority to ask you uncomfortable questions and give you uncomfortable prescriptions?

3) Soul care - A pastor cares for your soul. (S)he works with you toward healing, wholeness, and hope in places of brokenness; works with you to reestablish broken relationships; helps you sustain in times when restoration is impossible or unlikely; and guides you toward growth and wise choices.

In a time of crisis, who is the pastor that will care for your soul? In the places where you need guidance or encouragement, or even a loving rebuke, who is prepared to offer it?

4) Someone in your local congregation - You may list several pastors. They may be scattered all over the place. That’s great! But you need to have a pastor to you in your local congregation. Each local congregation is a unique little body of Christ. It’s not just a venue to sing some songs and hear a sermon. You’re going through something special together as a community. You need a pastor within that community.

You might even ask yourself, when you come to some of those most special occasions of life––a wedding, a funeral, a baptism––will the person sitting with you during those times of celebration or mourning be someone who knows you? Will the person officiating over those most personal of services be someone who knows you personally?

Who’s your pastor?

On Saturday, I attended a memorial service for David Sparks. It was packed with people who had called David their pastor. It was remarkable to see all of those people whose lives are truly different because of the ways that David invested in them––the way he encouraged people to use their gifts, to do more than they had done before, and the way that he was there for them when they had a crisis or failed or screwed up. None of that happens without serious relational investment.

Who’s investing in you like that?

I’ve been formed a lot by several people who couldn’t pick me out of a lineup (e.g. Rob Bell) or who died long before I was born (e.g. John Wesley and Augustine). These have been important teachers for me, and I appreciate them for that. But they weren’t my pastors. They haven’t known me, been there when I needed someone most, or sat across a table to say something I needed to hear––whether a word of encouragement or challenge.

I’m not where I am today without the pastors in my life:

  • David Sparks calling, texting, and meeting with me to give words of encouragement.
  • Jerry Ernst teaching me to be a Christian leader.
  • Aaron Mansfield not letting me off easy.
  • Derek Robinette encouraging constantly and rebuking when necessary.
  • Paul Brunstetter believing in me before I believed in myself.
  • Todd Nelson offering words of wisdom and companionship.
  • Mike Powers giving me space to discern calling.
  • Paul and Sylvia Cummings teaching me to pray.

That’s far from an exhaustive list. To those many pastors in my life not listed above, thank you…

A note to people who have been burned by the church

church kills

For those who’ve experienced the wrong meaning of this…


I went to a restaurant a few months ago and had a bad experience. The wait was long, the food was mediocre, the service was bad.

That surely isn’t the best they can offer.

Now I may or may not give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were just having a bad night. Maybe I was just having a bad night. Even the best restaurant in America gets an occasional bad review. So maybe they deserve a second chance. Perhaps even a third. I may go back; I don’t know yet.

But even if I give up on that restaurant, I’m not giving up on restaurants. Because one restaurant failed to give me good food and good service doesn’t mean that I’ve decided none of them are worth it. Even if I have two or three or ten bad experiences (I’ve surely had at least a dozen), I’m not ready to give up on the whole restaurant thing. I think they have something of value for me—namely, a typically good meal that I didn’t have to cook or clean.

Burned by the Church

For you who have had a really bad experience in the church—or even two or three or ten—two things:

First, on behalf of all of us, I’m sorry that it happened. I hate it that some people have been burned by the church. But I also know it’s inevitable. Because everyone has off-nights.

More than that, it’s inevitable because the church gets into bigger things than a restaurant. We’re dealing with eternal matters, virtue and vice, deep relationships. We’re dealing with souls. And that means things are going to get personal at some point. And we may handle those things the wrong way. Or we may cause offense even handling things the right way at times.

The restaurant can take too long to deliver you a burnt steak and then be rude about it. But that’s about as far as they can offend you. Your offense at that can last a few days.

Because of the things we’re dealing with in the church, we can cause greater offense—the kind that still burns years and decades later. If you’re upset because of that kind of experience, hesitant to go back or adamant that you won’t, your feelings make sense.

But second, can I urge you not to give up on churches and on the Church, just because you had those bad experiences? The church is still the Body of Christ, flawed though we are. Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. And to be part of that larger Body, we should be part of an actual church body—a real, visible local congregation.

Though it’s popular today, it’s a big problem to like Jesus but reject the church. As Cyprian, a North African church father, said: “You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the Church for your mother.”

If you’ve been burned, or perhaps just gotten bored, or maybe even lazy, can I urge you to make 2015 the year that you re-connect to a local church? Your experience may not be perfect. Mine hasn’t been. But it’s likely to be life-changing. Without the love, forgiveness, truth and grace that I’ve received from a real, visible local congregation—First UMC in Lexington—I have no idea where I would be.