Saturday, February 14, 2015

I Must Tell Jesus -- Elisha Albright Hoffman

Elisha Albright Hoffman was doing what might seem to be a natural, expected thing for a minister to do one day, when a reverse-ministry circumstance – a kind of boomerang – happened to him in Lebanon, Pennsylvania (see location on map here). Was it the first time that he talked with some spiritually needy individual, and the person almost immediately absorbed his help, and gave back some words that stuck in his brain? “I Must Tell Jesus”, he had first uttered, but perhaps little knowing at that moment that this assertion would endure beyond a few hours. Or, on the other hand, maybe Hoffman had grown accustomed to unexpected musical encounters. See what you think.

Elisha had been a minister for some time by his mid-50s, as the end of the 19th Century approached in 1894, but the episode that led him to “I Must Tell Jesus” may have had some elements that were different from the rest of his ministry life. Although he was a native Pennsylvanian, he ministered for the vast majority of his career in several churches in Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan between 1880 and 1922. So when he visited a discouraged believer in 1894 in a southeast Pennsylvania community, this was evidently a pretty small dot on the map of his life’s work. Whatever had brought him there was brief, yet meaningful. Hoffman’s own memory indicates he had visited a woman on multiple occasions, including one day when she was so depressed about her many struggles and listened intently as he read various bible passages to lift her. What would these have been – words of Peter (1 Peter 5:6-7), Paul (Philippians 4:6-7; Ephesians 3:14-20), James (5: 13-16), and even Jesus (John 14:27)? Elisha must have been very familiar with sharing God’s word with people, but had others responded as this woman apparently did, with the title of a song he’d compose later that day? Her apparently brimming confidence had struck him. The Lord is alert to reply, if I am bold enough to admit my weaknesses, Hoffman says in his prose. Newfound poise is a moment to remember, the composer must have thought to himself. God hasn’t forgotten. He’s just waiting for me to  depend on Him. Even a minister in his mid-50s can use a reminder, right?

Hoffman must have been thinking many thoughts as he left the woman whose words and demeanor still echoed in his mind. Is life here too distant from what I can read in my bible? Is it relevant? One wonders if Elisha may have pondered initially just how much he could really say to assuage this woman’s spirit. His account of the incident indicates she expressed desperation at one point in their discussion. Is that when she and the composer really rediscovered God’s ear still listens – when I have run out of options? How quickly desperation evaporates, when I am convinced He’s there – that’s another lesson to underscore here. Try it out, OK?         

See more information on the song discussed above in 101 More Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003; Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; and The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

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