The Hound of Heaven
Christian churches around the world celebrated Easter this weekend with its focus on the resurrection. Few of them, I suspect, focused on the crucifixion – the signal event in human history which made the resurrection of Jesus “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say. Crucifixion isn’t an Easter Sunday topic. The week before, maybe, but not Easter Sunday.
But in a lifetime of listening to Easter sermons, I’ve never heard one that centered on the story behind the Easter story – the cosmic motivation that made necessary that bloody weekend and all its suffering two thousand years ago. Oh, I know the theological argument for redemption. The cross was part of it. But what compelled this last desperate act of sacrifice as angels wept and wondered why we humans were so costly?
What is it about God that compels Him to pursue us, to never give up? Looking at mankind’s moral improvidence since The Beginning, I’d have written off the human experiment long ago as a failed idea. God didn’t. Why?
Years ago I read Philip Yancey’s book Disappointment with God. He tells of a visit to his mother’s home long after he had married and began working hundreds of miles from her. They talked and as it is with mothers living alone she pulled down a box of old photos for them to reminisce about the life that was once theirs.
Yancey came upon a photo of himself as an infant, not unlike baby photos any of us have – fat, smiling, dressed in preparation to be memorialized by the photographer – but this one was different. It was crumpled.
Yancey asked his mother of all the photos she had of him as a baby why keep this one. In an aside, he mentions that when he was ten months old his father was stricken with polio. At age 24 and totally paralyzed, he could only live assisted by an iron lung. Philip and his older brother were not allowed in their father’s hospital room in fear they might “catch” their father’s affliction. So, captive of the metal cylinder in which he lived, Mr. Yancey asked for photos of his family – his wife and two boys – which Mrs. Yancey obliged by jamming them between knobs on the exterior of her husband’s iron lung. When he died three months later – just after Philip’s first birthday – his mother kept the crumpled photos as a memento.
Yancey said he often thinks about this man who was his father. How did he spend his days? No doubt most moments were spent looking at the photos of the three most important people in his short life. Looking at the picture he couldn’t touch, his father surely thought about Philip, loved him, missed the feeling of his presence.
Reading Yancey’s story I thought, God is like that. If God had a refrigerator, our picture would be on it. When we had soccer games, He’d be at every one, cheering us from the stands. Everything that is important to us, for no other reason, would be important to Him. Each person in His human family would always be on His mind.
Why? Of all the metaphors God could have used to describe His incomprehensible nature, He used “Father.” Like Philip’s father, He cares for us and longs for us as Joe and Susie and Mary and Paul – not as the human race. There are no group photos where He dwells, only individual pictures. Each of us has our own special place in His heart.
The English poet Francis Thompson captured in verse the image of a God who never gives up. Thompson would know. He was a dropout in 1885 before it was cool. Addicted to opium when he was afflicted with neuralgia, he was reduced to selling matches and newspapers on London street corners. He lived under the bridges of the Thames and was so poor he had to beg for paper on which to scribble poems.
One, The Hound of Heaven, is reproduced below. To save space, I’ve reformatted it from verse to paragraphs, and I’ve replaced a few words whose stilted poetic use is obscure in common vernacular today. The narrator is Thompson himself. Mid-sentence capitalizations are his references to God.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind and in the midst of tears I hid from Him and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped and shot, precipitated, adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears from those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase, and unperturbèd pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy, they beat – and a Voice beat more instant than the Feet – “All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
I pleaded, outlaw-wise, by many a hearted casement, curtained red, trellised with intertwining charities; (for, though I knew His love Who followed, yet was I sore adread lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.)
But, if one little casement parted wide, the gust of His approach would clash it to: fear [knew] not to evade, as Love [knew] to pursue.
Across the [margin] of the world I fled, and troubled the gold gateway of the stars, smiting for shelter on their clanged bars; fretted to dulcet jars and silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to Dawn: be sudden – to Eve: be soon; with thy young skyey blossom heap me over from this tremendous Lover – float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
I tempted all His [servants], [only] to find my own betrayal in their constancy, in faith to Him their fickleness to me, their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I [beg]; clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
But whether they swept, smoothly fleet, the long savannahs of the blue or, whether, Thunder-driven, they clanged His chariot ‘thwart a heaven, [splashy] with flying lightnings round the [kick] o’ their feet – fear [wants] not to evade as [much as] Love [wants] to pursue.
Still with unhurrying chase, and unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy, came on the following Feet, and a Voice above their beat – “Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.”
I sought no more after that which I strayed in face of man or maid; but still within the little children’s eyes seems something, something that replies, they at least are for me, surely for me!
I turned me to them very wistfully; but just as their young eyes grew sudden fair with dawning answers there, their angel plucked them from me by the hair.
“Come then, ye other children, Nature’s – share with me” (said I) “your delicate fellowship; let me greet you lip to lip, let me twine with you caresses, wantoning with our [Mother Nature’s] vagrant tresses, banqueting with her in her wind-walled palace underneath her azured dais quaffing, as your taintless way is, from a chalice lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.”
So it was done: I in their delicate fellowship was one – [unlocked] the bolt of Nature’s secrecies.
I knew all the swift [meanings] on the wilful face of skies; I knew how the clouds arise spumèd of the wild sea-snortings; all that’s born or dies rose and drooped with; made them shapers of mine own moods, or wailful divine; with them joyed and was bereaven. I was heavy with the even, when she lit her glimmering tapers round the day’s dead sanctities.
I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather; heaven and I wept together and its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine: against the red throb of its sunset-heart I laid my own to beat and share commingling heat; but not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek. For ah! we know not what each other says, these things and I; in sound I speak – their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth; let her, if she would [own] me, drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me the breasts o’ her tenderness: never did any milk of hers once bless my thirsting mouth.
Nigh and nigh draws the chase, with unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy; and past those noisèd Feet a voice comes yet more fleet – “Lo! naught contents thee, who content'st not Me.”
Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke! My [armor] piece by piece Thou has hewn from me, and smitten me to my knee; I am defenceless utterly.
I slept, methinks, and woke, and, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.
*In the rash lustihead of my young powers, I shook the pillaring hours and pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears, I stand amidst the dust o’ the mounded years – my mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap. My days have crackled and gone up in smoke, have puffed and burst as [bubbles] on a stream.
Yea, faileth now even dream[s] [of] the dreamer, and the lute [of] the lutanist; even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist, are yielding; cords of all too weak account for earth with heavy griefs so overplussed.
Ah! is Thy love indeed a weed, albeit an amarinthine weed suffering no flowers except its own to mount? Ah! must – designer infinite! – Thou char the wood ere Thou canst [sketch] with it?
My freshness spent its wavering shower i’ the dust; and now my heart is as a broken fount, wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever from the dank thoughts that shiver upon the sighful branches of my mind. Such is; what is to be? The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?
I dimly guess what time in mists confounds; yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds from the hid battlements of eternity; those shaken mists a space unsettle, then round the half-glimpsed turrets slowly wash again. But not ere him who summoneth I first have seen, enwound with glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned; His name I know and what his trumpet saith.
Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields thee harvest, must Thy harvest-fields be dunged with rotten death?
Now of that long pursuit comes on at hand the [noise]; that Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
“And is thy earth so marred, shattered in shard on shard? Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me! Strange, piteous, futile thing! Wherefore should any set thee love apart? Seeing none but [me] makes much of naught” (He said), “and human love needs human meriting: how hast thou merited – of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot? Alack, thou knowest not how little worthy of any love thou art! Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee, save Me, save only Me? All which I took from thee I did but take, not for thy harms, but just that thou might'st seek it in My arms. All which thy child’s mistake fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home. Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”
Halts by me that footfall: is my gloom, after all, shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, [most foolish], blindest, weakest, I am He Whom thou seekest! Thou [drove] love from thee, who [drove away] Me.”
At some point in our lives all of us have fled God only to hear those relentless feet in dogged pursuit … that love that will not let us go.
Easter reminds us to be thankful that He didn’t give up.