by Jo-Ellen Fisher
Mr. Jonathan Tingsley looked down approvingly from the organ loft of his colonial New England Church at the altar decorated for the Christmas Eve Service. The special creche had been lovingly set out on a red linen cloth, and sprigs of holly and pine had been placed around the edges. The whole sanctuary looked festive and beautiful, adorned with poinsettias, angels, candles, wreaths and red and white bows.
A sense of expectancy filled the air, and Jonathan breathed it in deeply, filling himself with the anticipation he felt every year as he rehearsed his choirs for weeks preparing for the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship services celebrating the birth of the baby who would save the world.
Jonathan Tingsley loved First Congregational Church and First Congregational Church loved Jonathan Tingsley. Jonathan was a wonderful organist and music director, leading the Senior and Junior voice, bell and chime choirs to beauty they had never imagined possible from a small, country congregation. “It’s all to the Glory of God,” he constantly reminded them, and under his loving instruction and encouragement, they created wonderful music of praise.
Jonathan was fond of telling all his choir members, especially the children, that …”angels are always hovering, waiting to gather up the music we make and carry it to heaven as prayers and gifts to God.” Everyone, adults and children, loved this image of the angels harvesting their music and delighting God with the gift of beautiful sound.
As Jonathan looked down at the marvelous altar, he was suddenly flooded with a memory from his childhood of going into the snowy woods with his mother and father just before Christmas and gathering cuttings of that soft, delicate ground greenery New Englander's call Prince’s Pine. Right then and there, Jonathan decided that Prince’s Pine would be his small addition to the Christmas Eve altar. “Prince’s Pine for the Prince of Peace,” he told himself.
So late in the afternoon on Dec. 23rd, Jonathan Tingsley shut down the bellows on the church organ, turned off the lights, bundled himself up in his gray featherdown coat and the advent blue scarf and mittens the Ladies’ Auxiliary had knit for him, locked the doors, called his faithful friend, Gabriel- “Gabe” for short- his 2-year-old Golden Retriever from beside the kitchen radiator and headed into the woods behind the church fully believing he would be back, with time to spare, for the 6:30 rehearsal of the children’s voice and hand chime choir, the final practice before the Christmas Eve service, the very next night.
Jonathan and Gabe walked through the trees and brush and over a small brook, the sounds of their progress muffled by the snow packed on the forest floor and blanketing the trees and bushes. Jonathan kept his eyes and mind alert for a short while, searching for the delicate Prince’s Pine of his childhood, while Gabe galloped ahead and then circled back continuously. Soon, Jonathan began to compose music in his head, as he often did when he walked, paying special attention to the bell and chime parts, and no attention at all to where he was going. About a half-hour later, Gabe’s barking snapped Jonathan abruptly out of the crescendo of his musical composition and back into the woods where he really was. He looked about as a man will do when he awakes from a dream that seemed so real, confused and a little embarrassed.
Jonathan Tingsley saw, at once, why Gabe had barked so sharply. They were both dangerously close to a 10 foot rocky drop that interrupted the gentle flow of the forest before the woods resumed at the bottom. “Where are we?” thought Jonathan, looking around at the totally unfamiliar surroundings. “I don’t remember this part of the forest at all.” The problem, he realized, was compounded by the fact that is was very nearly dark, and things looked different in the snow covered woods at night.
Jonathan suddenly remembered the children’s voice and handchime rehearsal and turned to head back in what he guessed was the direction of church, when something caught his eye at the bottom of the rocky precipice. Was that the Prince’s Pine he had been looking for? Well, the only way to find out was to go down and investigate and that is exactly what Jonathan Tingsley was attempting to do when, 5 feet from the bottom, Jonathan’s boot hit an ice-covered patch of micah-flecked rock and Jonathan tumbled down the remaining 5 feet hitting his head at the bottom. He lay unconscious on the forest floor with a very concerned Gabriel licking his face, nudging him, and then sitting attentively at Jonathan’s side, ready to guard and protect his friend.
Back at First Church, Pastor Grace had arrived at 6:00 to find the church dark and locked and Jonathan Tingsley’s car sitting in the parking lot. She was mildly troubled as she unlocked the church doors and turned on the lights. She phoned Jonathan’s house several times but didn’t receive the usual cheery “Hello.” She did not actually become frightened until 6:45 when all 12 children were ready and waiting and still no Mr. Tingsley. Jonathan loved the children and would be there for them or get a message to her unless something was wrong. It was at this point that Pastor Grace called the town police.
Officer Calvin Thomas arrived at First Church to find a group of upset children and parents, his own 2 sons and wife among them, with Pastor Grace trying to allay their fears, even though she herself looked worried and somewhat scared. Cal saw that little Mary Noel (named so because she was born on Dec. 24th) Carpenter was trying very hard not to cry, and was showing the other children the beautiful bell she and her mother had purchased as a Christmas gift for Mr. Tingsley with money Mary Noel had collected from all the choir members. They all really loved Mr. Tingsley and hoped he was OK. Officer Cal stepped outside to look around while Pastor Grace led the children and parents in prayer and then asked them to go home and continue praying for Mr. Tingsley and to tell everyone else in town to pray also.
It hadn’t taken Officer Cal long to size up the situation outside. He knew what Jonathan Tingsley’s cold car in the church parking lot and tracks of a man and a dog leading into the woods on a cold winter’s night meant. It meant that Jonathan Tingsley could be in serious trouble, and he told Pastor Grace this forthrightly. But he also convinced her to go home across the street to the parsonage. “You can’t do any more right here, right now, Pastor. I’m going to organize a search party to begin at dawn. I don’t want to send people into these woods filled with rocks, ledges and streams in the dark and cold of winter.”
So Pastor Grace went hone to pray for Jonathan Tingsley and to call other parishioners and friends to tell them of his plight and to ask them to pray too.
Cal radioed the station to apprise the other officers of the situation and to get a search party organized for daybreak. He asked the dispatcher to call his wife and children to tell them he was going to spend the night in the squad car in the church parking lot in case Jonathan Tingsley and Gabe emerged from the woods and needed help.
Three miles out somewhere in the woods, Jonathan Tingsley had begun to regain consciousness. At the first sign of his movement, Gabe began to whine and nudge him again. Jonathan got unsteadily to his feet and staggered over to an indentation in the rocks where he hunkered in against the cold. Gabe nuzzled in beside him, instinctively knowing he had to keep his friend and master warm.
The people of Oldtown did not sleep well that night. They knew Jonathan Tingsley was lost, and some feared he would not be found alive. Among the most restless was Mary Noel Carpenter who awoke at 3:30 in the morning from a fitful, nightmarish sleep. She tossed and turned and whimpered finally jolting out of bed at 4 am at an urgent need to run outside. She jumped into her slippers, threw a robe over her pajamas and ran out to the front porch leaving the door wide open behind her. She was confused about her own activity until she heard the beautiful wind chimes from next door cutting clearly through the cold winter air. Mary Noel experienced an epiphany so strong that it hurled her back through the front door where she seized the family’s antique dinner bell from the hall table, ran back outside again and began to ring it with all her little might. Mary Noel’s mother hit her bedroom floor running. She saw her daughter ringing the dinner bell and when she heard her little girl cry out, “Mama, get Mr. Tingsley’s bell. The angels are always hovering,” she knew exactly what was going on. Mrs. Carpenter opened the gift box on the dining room table, took out the beautiful crystal bell and joined Mary Noel in the front porch ringing along with the antique dinner bell and the beautiful wind chimes from the neighbor’s yard.
Lights went on in the house on the other side of the Carpenters’. Soon Mrs. Eliot was out on the front walk jingling the sleigh bells from the Christmas display on the door. Her husband, Simon, ran to the barn for some cow bells and he clanged in. From house to house to apartment to condo- all over Oldtown bells and chimes began to ring out: dinner bells, wind chimes, jingle bells, porcelain & glass bells, doorbells, a small replica of the liberty bell, the orchestra triangles that Billy had been practicing, shoelace bells, hat bells, kitty bells, sleigh bells, silver bells, cow bells, and even a tambourine. Old Mr. Hatch drove his ice cream truck out of its winter storage space in the garage and the ice cream jingle joined in. Over at the elementary school, Elizabeth Noone, who worked the 11-7 custodial shift ran to the office and began pressing the dismissal bell button. And Pastor Grace ran across the street to the church, out to the narthex and pressed the code for the church bells into the security box and the steeple bells began to sing.
All of Oldtown was chiming, ringing, gonging, dinging, pealing, singing- a tremendous tintinnabulation filled the late night and early morning sky!
And 3 miles out into the woods behind First Church the beautiful Golden Retriever Gabriel, who had been lying upon his beloved and fading master sheltering him and providing body heat, began to howl. Jonathan Tingsley became conscious. He heard Gabe’s howling and then he heard - bells- hundreds and thousands of bells. Jonathan looked up to the heavens, expecting stars, listening to the beautiful music, when suddenly the air was filled with swirling and the fluttering and flapping of wings. He had a vision of large white birds. Jonathan Tingsley got to his feet and leaned on his faithful friend. Pulled by the sound of bells, supported by Gabe and pushed by the fluttering of wings, he began to make his way through the forest.
Jonathan Tingsley emerged from the wilderness into the First Church parking lot just before daybreak on December 24th. Gabriel began to howl again startling the 200 people of the search party who had their eyes closed and heads bowed, being led in prayer by Pastor Grace. The assembled children, parents, police, fire fighters, paramedics, parishioners and general townspeople looked up to see the waving of Advent blue mittens and they began to cheer and ring the bells they had brought with them. Gabriel howled even louder!
Jonathan was somewhat groggy, very cold, had a slight headache, and his face was red, almost shining. He was clutching some Prince’s Pine greenery, which he didn’t even realize he had, and he was, well, he was covered with white feathers. To the sound of cheers and bells Jonathan was placed in the waiting ambulance where the paramedic, upon seeing all the feathers, remarked, “Well Mr. Tingsley, we’re glad you’re ok ,but it looks like your down coat has seen better days.”
The hospital staff examined Jonathan and they said, miraculously, he was in good health. Although the doctor advised him to get a few days rest, Jonathan Tingsley was back at First Church that very afternoon excited and waiting, ready to play and direct all the choirs for the Christmas Eve service. The curious thing was that upon examining his coat, there was not a single rip or tear in it. Before he climbed the stairs to the organ loft, Jonathan went forward to the altar and placed the Prince’s Pine and some of the white feathers he had gathered around the beautiful creche.
Now some will say there’s no way in the world the sounds of the bells and chimes of Oldtown could have carried 3 miles into the snow laden woods to be heard by Jonathan or even Gabriel. And they’re right. There is no way in this world. But this is not a story of this world alone. This is a Christmas story so it is a story of how God comes into this world by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a story of hovering angels gathering up the sounds of bells to present to God as prayers and gifts. And it is the story of God’s wondrous response- of heavenly ringing, holy visitation, and earthly redemption.
It was love, you see that carried those singing bells to the arms of the hovering angels. It was love that brought the music of hope and prayers of intercession to God. And it was love that opened the ears of Gabe and Jonathan to hear the chimes, and love that guided them home with the rush of angels’ wings.
Whenever you hear a bell ring, remember this Oldtown Tale and believe in the Christmas miracle of angels and the love that saves us time and time again.