Thursday, April 30, 2009

Arise! The Master Calls

Praise for the Lord #51

Words: Mary Brown, 1892
Music: Charles H. Gabriel, 1892

Mary Haughton Brown (1856-1918) was a native Canadian who moved to Connecticut to teach school, and served as a Sunday School teacher in the Baptist church. She wrote at least two hymn texts with a missionary emphasis, the other of which is "I'll go where you want me to go"(PFTL#314). Incidentally, she died from the Spanish influenza outbreak, a pandemic which recent events have brought back to our attention.(Cyberhymnal)

Stanza 1:
Arise! The Master calls for thee,
The harvest days are here!
No longer sit with folded hands,
But gather, far and near.
The noble ranks of volunteers
Are daily growing everywhere,
But still there's work for millions more!
Then for the field prepare.


Jesus more than once spoke of the work of evangelism in terms of a harvest, and that imagery underlies Brown's text throughout.

When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest."(Matthew 9:36-38)

Certain things have always been true of harvesting. First, a harvest comes at its given time, and not necessarily when it is convenient for us. My mother remembers school being dismissed temporarily in her childhood community, because the cotton had to be picked at that time and all hands were needed. This raises a second point: the sudden need for more workers. Mechanization has changed this factor with some crops, but others are still picked the way they always were--by hand--and thus we still have the familiar economy of the migrant harvesters. Third, there is an urgency to the work of harvesting, because there is a limited time during which it can successfully be accomplished before the crop spoils, the weather turns, etc.

These are true of the spiritual harvest of evangelism as well. We cannot predict when people's hearts will be open to the gospel; there may be a spiritual malaise or hard-heartedness among one group, and a thirst and hunger for truth among another, even in the same community. There will always be needs--when have we ever had too many missionaries, evangelists, and personal workers? And just as we do not know when the harvest will be ready, neither do we know when it will come to an end. Every day, each soul on this earth is closer to eternity; and circumstances may intervene to close the doors formerly open.

One of the frequently recurring words in the gospel of Mark is "immediately"; in fact, it is used so much that it gives the impression that Jesus went everywhere in a hurry! It imparts a sense of urgency to His actions that should be noted by those who would pattern their lives after Him. At the age of twelve He declared to His parents, "I must be about My Father's business;"(Luke 2:49) and from the moment His adult ministry began, He was on the move. In a little under three years He started a movement that changed the world. Must we not emulate His single-mindedness?

Refrain:
Arise! Arise!
The Master calls for thee,
Arise! Arise!
A faithful reaper be,
The field is white,
And days are going by,
Awake, awake,
And answer "Here am I!"


When a "door is opened" for spreading the gospel (as Paul described it in 1 Corinthians 16:9 and elsewhere"), we need to walk through it while we can. Not all doors will remain open; we need only witness the surge of mission efforts that went into the former Soviet lands in the early 1990s, and the gradual tightening of restrictions that came in the years following. On an individual level, of course, there are doors that are open on one occasion, but may be closed the next.

The "white fields" referred to in this stanza are of course from Jesus' statement,
"Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest."(John 4:35) He spoke this to His disciples by the well of Jacob in Samaria, even as the people of the nearby town were coming out to see Him at the urging of the adulterous woman He encountered at the well. It was an opportune time--at a later occasions, Samaritans in another village were not even willing to speak to Him (Luke 9:53) because of ethnic prejudices. When the opportunity to spread God's word presents itself, we need to answer with Isaiah 6:8, "Here am I! Send me."

Stanza 2:
Go seek the lost and erring ones,
Who never knew the Lord;
Go, lead them from the ways of sin,
And thou shalt have reward.
Go out into the hedges, where
The careless drift upon the tide
And from the highways bring them in--
Let no one be denied.


Bringing the gospel to lands unfamiliar with it is both challenging and rewarding. There is the opportunity to help fellow souls to discover the pure truth of the gospel for themselves, without having to "unteach" numerous false doctrines purporting to be Christian; on the other hand, there is a need for great delicacy in how the missionaries present themselves, as well as the word. Paul addresses this knowingly in 2 Corinthians 4, verses 1-7:

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.

Paul first asserts that he did not alter the gospel to fit the circumstances. He reminded the Corinthians, after a particularly strong directive, "This is my rule in all the churches."(1 Corinthians 7:17) In 1 Corinthians 14:33 he also mentioned that the worship practices he taught them were universal--"as in all the churches." The matters he directed them on--the marriage bond, and the role of women in worship--would not be opposed by Jewish converts, but were a real problem for the Gentile Christians who came from a culture with much looser attitudes on these issues. Paul would not and could not compromise on matters of doctrine, even if it meant clashing with the surrounding culture. Ultimately, God's truth will always clash with the cultures of this world at some point, because all of the cultures of this world are fallen in various ways.

At the same time it is necessary to adapt our means and manner to the local culture; Paul did this himself, claiming, "I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some."(1 Corinthians 9:22) In his sermon at the Areopagus (Acts 17), Paul began with those areas on which he and many of his listeners agreed: that one all-powerful God had created the world and the human race. Paul even quoted their own philosophers and poets in verse 28--"In Him we live, and move, and have our being" is from the poem "Phainomena" by Aratus, and "we are all His offspring" is presumed to be from Epimenides of Crete.(ESV footnote)

Paul did not "proclaim himself", as he reminded the Corinthians in the passage above, but proclaimed Jesus, because "the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." In doing so, he laid aside his Jewish heritage and reached out to the Athenians in their own terms so far as possible. Many of them balked, of course, when confronted with the non-negotiable (and to them, utterly alien) doctrine of the resurrection of Christ; but many still responded with interest in hearing him again. May we always be sure in our efforts that we are preaching the gospel of Christ, and not the gospel of Americanism, or of free-market capitalism, or of democracy, however much we might value these things ourselves. We must shake off any vestige of a colonialist attitude; it is tantamount to imitating the "Judaizing" teachers who so damaged the Gentile churches during the days of Paul.

Stanza 3:
The message bear to distant lands
Beyond the rolling sea;
Go tell them of a Savior's love--
The Lamb of Calvary
Arise! The Master calls for thee!
Salvation full and free proclaim,
Till every kindred, tribe and tongue
Exalt the Savior's name!


The final lines of this stanza come from Revelation 14:6, "And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people." John's vision saw the gospel continuing to spread throughout the world, even as "Babylon" was falling (which I interpret to be the Roman Empire, which sought to destroy Christianity but was itslef destroyed while the gospel continued to spread). The need for the continued spread of the gospel outlives individuals, congregations, and even nations. Jesus said, "I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors."(John 4:38) Someone taught the gospel to us; someone taught the gospel to them; and on it goes. Or does it? In every generation faithful Christians must decide to take up the responsibility of Christ's last earthly command, "Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation."(Mark 16:15) Whether it is across the ocean or across the street, there is a need to wake up and rise to the occasion.

About the music: What can I say about Charles Gabriel? His musical output veers from the improbably quirky to the inspired. The fact that some of his songs were later recorded by gospel and country singers, such as "If I have wounded any soul today"(PFTL#320) and "His eye is on the sparrow"(PFTL#235), also speaks to his possible role as a transitional figure between the traditional gospel style and the commercial, soloist-focused gospel style of the mid-twentieth century and later.

To me, "Arise" is on the border between quirky and inspired. Things are pretty normal through the stanza until the basses and tenor go into unison with their trumpet calls, "A-rise!" The D above middle C is not an unreasonable note for basses in a chorus, but it is stretching it for congregational bass singers, many of whom are uncomfortable singing in full voice at the top of their range. Couple that with the uncertainty the singers feel in holding that high note across two measures, and it is a setup for failure. But the refrain has even more pitfalls, the worst of which is the tenor soli entry on "A-rise!" immediately following "the Master calls for thee". If you have strong, confident tenors, well and good; otherwise it is another moment of awkward silence. Finally, the end of the second phrase, "a faithful reaper be", inserts a quick "A-rise!" instead of holding out "be" for the expected two beats established by the end of the preceding phrase on "thee". Coming on the heels of a likely stumble at the tenor entry previously mentioned, many singers tend to stumble again at this lack of delivery of the expected phrasing.

None of this is to condemn the song; it is exciting and effective when it comes off. But I rarely lead it, because of the potential problems just mentioned. It needs a large number of rock-solid tenors and basses, preferably music-readers. I have a strong feeling that Gabriel wrote it for choral, rather than congregational singing. He certainly knew how to write a good, easy-singing congregational song: look for example at "The way of the cross leads home"(PFTL#653).

References:

"Mary Haughton Brown." Cyberhymnal. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/b/r/o/brown_m.htm

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