Roll Call

Keep Calm and Read a Psalm 9:13-14:

“Have mercy on me, O Lord!
Consider my trouble from those who hate me,
You who lift me up from the gates of death,
That I may tell of all Your praise
In the gates of the daughter of Zion.
I will rejoice in Your salvation.”

James Milton Black was walking down the streets of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, humming the tune to one of his latest hymns. He took in the buildings around him, wondering how in the world a man of his musical talent ended up in such a sketchy place as this. The houses looked like they were eating themselves whole as their roofs collapsed, their shutters draped, and their paint smeared. This is no place for a music teacher! he remarked to himself as he quickened his pace.

Brush! Brush! He heard a strange sound and turned his head toward a tilting porch. There, a very young girl, dressed in torn clothing, was sweeping a porch. He was about to pass by, but then the Sunday School teacher inside spoke up, We need new members for the class! She should be in church! Grudgingly, he went through the gate and creaked onto the porch—half-expecting it to collapse in on him.

“Dear child! Oof!” He slipped on a shattered beer glass but maintained his stance. “What are you doing?” A stupid question…

“Sweeping the porch—Poppy says I have to or I’ll get a whippin’.”

“And where is your ‘Poppy’?”

“Inside. Asleep with his bottle, like he normally is.”

Black shuddered. “I see. Tell me, do you attend church anywhere?”

“Church?”

“Indeed. I am a Sunday School teacher for the children at the local Methodist Episcopal church, and I…er, I thought you may like to come with me one Sunday and visit the other children.”

Her eyes lit up as Black thought, What have I gotten myself into. My wife will think I’ve resorted to bringing in local street urchins to fill the pews!

She attended that Sunday. And the Sunday after. Black was surprised to find her one of the most faithful attendees. But he was even more surprised when she accepted Christ into her heart some weeks later. He sensed the immediate change—both in her heart…and in his attitude toward her.

Every Sunday morning, Mr. Black would call roll. He would call a child’s name, and they would respond with a Scripture verse if they were present. “Sally?” “John 3:16.” “Timothy?” “2 Corinthians 12:9.” And every week, when he called that little girl’s name, she would say, “Present! Philippians 4:19.” Week after week he heard her recite verses. And each week she seemed happier and godlier than before. Why, pretty soon, her spirituality will surpass my own!

One Sunday morning, he called her name as he had done for so many weeks. Silence. He looked around, sudden panic washing over his body. She wasn’t there. Where on earth could she be? He looked to his wife. She shrugged. No sign of her. He frowned and continued, but he kept getting distracted by a random thought. What a sad thing it would be when our names are called from the Lamb’s Book of Life, if one of us should be absent. The nagging feeling wouldn’t leave him after the service.

He hurried over to where he remembered she had lived. Creak! He stepped past the porch where they had first met and entered the house. He ignored the slumbering drunkard in the corner and headed for the couch. There lay the sad little girl, with no covering but her rags. Shivering. He immediately sent for his own doctor to make a house call—if he would even dare come in such a neighborhood. He soon found that she had a severe care of pneumonia…and wouldn’t be expected to live much longer.

Holding back the tears, he trudged home. With that strange thought still in his head, he searched his hymnbook for a hymn to comfort him—and to address such a topic. Not surprisingly, he didn’t find any hymn that seemed to fit. Why don’t you write one, came a voice. He sat down at his desk and began scribbling furiously.

Knock. Knock. He opened the door to find the doctor. “I’m sorry—it was too late for her. She is no longer present with us.”

His mind seemed to replay her little voice when he called her name on the roll. “Present!”

She was so young. So full of life. But now…full of eternal life. Mr. Black smiled.

A couple days later, he was there to sing his new song for the funeral of the little girl. Holding back the tears, he sang his famous hymn inspired by the girl who was always “present” for the roll on earth and was now “present” with her Savior in Heaven.

“When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.”

My friend, God’s very name is “He Who lifts me up from the gates of death.” We all must pass through those gates—but those who believe find another set of gates on the “yonder” side: the gates of heavenly Zion. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and He proved it by coming back out those gates of death Himself. Easter has come. Now what will you do with its story?

Jesus rose. And now He stands ready with His Hand on the Lamb’s Book of Life, ready to call roll by the gates of heavenly Zion. That little girl’s name is in it, next to mine and Mr. Black’s. Is yours?

-Matthew W., SC

James Milton Black (1856-1938)
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