Monday, March 21, 2011

The Hound of Heaven

About 130 years ago Francis Thompson wrote a poem called The Hound of Heaven. Using the hound as a metaphor for God, Thompson writes of God’s loving, yet relentless pursuit of the soul on the run from Him. Some of the language is awkward for modern ears, but it is a powerful poem. Google it some time. Now, let me tell you why this poem came to mind for me.

I was checking my email in between worship services on Sunday when I opened one that just about had me jumping out of my chair with joy. Danny did it. He made a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ in front of a Methodist church in Texas. No doubt stuff like that happens every Sunday somewhere, but this is a really big deal. Let me explain.

About four or five years ago a local high school physics teacher named Deborah started visiting our church. She had been out of the church and away from the faith for a very long time. She is married to the Danny I mentioned above, and they have two boys, Thomas and Matthew. Deborah brought her two sons with her; Danny didn’t come and wasn’t interested.

In visiting with Deborah, I learned something of her story. She was raised in the church. Early in her life she made a decision to follow Jesus and be a Christian. But as she grew up into college and adulthood, she grew farther and farther away from her faith. How far? Far enough to consider herself an atheist—and that’s about as far as one can go. She’d been schooled in the classical sciences and in physics. She couldn’t find a place for God in all of that. And that was okay with her husband Danny because he considered himself an atheist too. So they were doing just fine, working at their jobs, raising their two boys.

And that’s when it happened. It happened in a barber shop. It happened with the simple question of a child. Deborah had taken the boys to get a haircut. The oldest boy, Thomas, about six or so at the time, saw a picture of Jesus in the barbershop. It was the face of Jesus, crown of thorns pressed on His head, blood streaking down His cheek. Since Thomas had never heard of Jesus, he asked his mom a simple question: “Who is that man and why is he bleeding?” I think for Deborah those words felt more like a scalpel than a question because the Holy Spirit used those words to open Deborah’s heart to truth she’d known since childhood and had spent years denying.

Ah, the power of the right question at the right time! The Lord kept pressing that question to Deborah well after they’d left the barbershop. It disturbed her … and rightly so. And underneath that question were affirmations the Lord also continued to press upon Deborah: “I love you. Jesus died for you and rose from the dead. Your sins are forgiven in Jesus’ name. Come home, Deborah. Follow me.” The Hound of heaven had tracked down His girl and gently shepherded her back into the fold.

Deborah decided her boys were going to know who that man was and why He was bleeding. She and the boys plugged into the church. Deborah began to grow in her faith by leaps and bounds. She shared her testimony during a musical presentation and many were touched. She spoke freely of her faith to students at school. She did her best to help some who, like her, were skeptics, doubters, at the edge of atheism. And in the church, she worked with children. She got involved in missions. She taught a thing or two. She didn’t put a toe in to see how the water was; she dove right into the deep end. As a pastor, I found myself thinking, “Oh, for a tribe of Deborahs, and this church could turn the world upside down!” She became a franchise player in the church. And her boys were so very much at home among us too.

But her husband Danny wasn’t. He is a good man and was kind to give Deborah freedom to do her thing, but he made no bones about the fact that it was not his thing. And Deborah didn’t press him. She prayed for him. She lived a changed and changing life in front of him. She suggested a book or two if he wanted to know more. And Deborah’s friends in the church joined her in her prayers. Danny wasn’t a stranger to the church. He came once in a while when Deborah or the boys were doing something special. And he even got on one of our softball teams. But that was as far as he was willing to go. What he didn’t know, however, was that the Hound of heaven was hot on his trail. I said about Danny what I’ve said about others in a similar boat, “God is going to get him; Danny just doesn’t know it yet.”

We hoped to see that happen right here in Hot Springs. But it didn’t. Family considerations led them to move to Texas. Not long after the move, I got an email from Deborah with this news: “Danny has decided he’s no longer an atheist. He’s now an agnostic.” In other words, Danny was open to the fact that there might be a God but he wasn’t making any commitments. Progress! The Hound of heaven was now nipping at his heels. And then a few months ago, I got another email: “Danny asked Christ into his life today.” Deborah gave praise and the Hound howled and the angels danced and heaven threw a party and those of us who know Danny kicked up our heels in praise and joy too.

The next step was church—getting connected to the body of Christ where they live. Jesus didn’t call us to a solitary life but to a life of community. And that email came yesterday! Deborah and Danny joined a local Methodist church in their town. Danny had spent some time in the Methodist church when he was growing up, and it felt right to him to reconnect. Here’s the way Deborah put it: “The preacher invited us to the Celebration service at 8:30am instead of the main service. We went and it was amazing! It's just like worshipping at a Baptist church with a few of the Methodist rituals …. Danny loves it and so do I. After going there for almost 2 months, I told Danny I was joining and he said he'd join to with me! It was everything I could do not to cry as we were walking down that aisle holding hands with the two boys beside us!” Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from whom all blessings flow! Praise the Hound of heaven for loving us, for pursuing us, for finding a way to get our attention, for saving our souls, and for getting us all the way home.

Deborah and Danny still have a lot of growing to do. As Deborah said, “I think Danny is going through the same thing I did where sometimes I have the faith of a thousand people and then other times I wonder if I even believe.” That’s okay. Once He chases them down, the Hound of heaven doesn’t abandon His children. He stands guard over their souls through every valley and mountaintop and plateau that they face. When the Hound finds you, He keeps you. Danny and Deborah are not the first of Jesus’ followers to have seasons of doubt now and then. They are going to be just fine.

In writing of that Hound, Francis Thompson put it this way:

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.

Deborah and Danny fled. Danny and Deborah hid. But the Hound of heaven found a way to get their attention. He pursued them and found them and saved them and will watch over them forever. And one of the interesting things about this story is that the first time they heard the Hound’s voice it didn’t sound like the howling of a dog; it sounded like the voice of a child: “Who is that man and why is He bleeding?”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, John. What a great story. The Hound of Heaven has always been one of my favorite images of God's pursuing love. It's not far from Brennan Manning's description of the Lion and the Lamb, "the relentless tenderness of God."