Open the wells: meditation on a hymn

Oct 12, 2015 by

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Dead to the world would I be, O Father. Dead unto sin, alive unto thee. — Elisha A. Hoffman

The hymn, “Lord, I am fondly,” has been popping up in my head at random times.



It is intensely personal. To some it may represent a singular salvation moment, but I don’t sing it that way. For me it speaks of an ongoing longing for holiness. A continual and lifelong “yearning thy love more fully to know.”

I like to imagine a well opening up within me. Creator God gave me his image as my essential nature, and from God’s image comes grace, salvation and purity.

This is significant, because in our efforts to be “better people,” the Deceiver tells us that we can be like God, that our goodness is our own.

The poetry is rife with mixed metaphor (wells, pouring streams, showers from above), which somehow seems appropriate. God’s grace comes at us from all sides and in a myriad of ways.

At the same time that the hymn speaks of grace and salvation, its true concern seems to be holiness. The chorus says, “Cleanse and refine my thought and affection. Seal me and make me pure as thou art.”

I was recently at a Bible study where the first and only examples of worldly living were getting drunk, partying and “having sex with whoever you want.”

These behaviors clearly have no place in the kingdom of God. However, continually calling them out is spiritually lazy and serves as a diversionary tactic.

What about the desire for money, or stuff, or being as impressive as the next guy?

While we conveniently focus on the exterior, easily visible sins of “the world,” we avoid our own interior selves, the thoughts and affections that need to be cleansed and refined.

My favorite line: “Crucify all the earthly within me, emptied of sin and self may I be.”

“Crucify” is not a verb to throw around casually. It is gruesome, painful, and, frankly, disturbing. I sing those words haltingly. Do I want to be crucified?

No, actually. I do not.

Yet I do sing, because I must. Jesus chose crucifixion, and, as a recent song says, “bids me come and die and find that I may truly live.”

And indeed, in true Jesus fashion, it is the crucifixion that brings triumphant life, the emptiness that brings fullness.

Elisha Hoffman’s poetry is happily paired with Charles Pollack’s lilting melody. If the setting were something like “A mighty fortress is our God,” I wonder if we could bear the pathos.

You don’t have to be any kind of musician to feel the power of a simple chord change. As the tenors swoop up in the verse, with the altos right behind them, the plea for “more” communion, to crucify “all,” and for God to come to my “heart” becomes physically real as the harmonies vibrate around in your chest.

What would we do without the words of others? The Scripture and poetry, prayers, creeds and hymns that allow us to say what we are incapable of saying ourselves?

When the Spirit puts this hymn in my mouth, I am reminded that it is possible to slip away from God. I realize that I have been garbling his voice with the world’s voice — with my own.

These are not enjoyable reminders, and I always have to decide whether to turn away from the Spirit’s prompt or to keep singing: “Lord I am fondly, earnestly longing . . .”

Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.

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