Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) taught that the Bible is more about God’s search for us than our search for God. Whatever we think we are in pursuit of, whatever dream or desire, it is God we are looking for. Most of the time we don’t know that. And most of the time we don’t realize who is chasing us down as we chase life. I love Jesus’ parable of the good shepherd, who when he realizes that 99 sheep are safe in the fold, goes out to find the one missing. The good shepherd, says Jesus, is the one who pursues the run-away. And “good” (Gk: kalon) can also be translated “beautiful”, as in beautiful shepherd. The shepherd in search of the run-away is one of the most beautiful expressions of the love of God I can think of.
We all know Psalm 23: “the Lord is my shepherd”. But have you ever noticed in this famous psalm how “gracious pursuit” is deeply part of what the shepherd does? When David says “your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life” (v. 6, NIV) he is saying something quite specific. And it has to do with the two words “love” and “follow”. The word translated “love” is the Hebrew hesed, which should be understood as “covenant love, enduring love, mercy without end”. And the word translated “follow” is the Hebrew rawdaf, which means to follow, but also has the sense of “running after or chasing”, even “hunting”. The Message Bible renders it well: “Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life”.
Francis Thompson was an English poet, who lived in the second half of 19th century England. Early in his life he fell into hard times in London, was reduced to poverty, becoming addicted to opium. All the while Thompson carried the dim awareness of being pursued. In fact, he came to see himself as a fugitive, as someone on the run only to be pursued by God. When his gift of poetry was finally discovered, a family took him in to care for him. Although Thompson continued to have struggles through out his life, dying of tuberculosis at age 48, he knew himself to have been caught by grace.
It was his poem, The Hound of Heaven, that he is most remembered for. The hound is God, chasing him. Some didn’t like the image, thinking it beneath divinity, but Thompson saw it as an apt description of the profound grace that would not let him go. The poem starts 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 mist of tears I hid from Him…
Thompson is describing the strangeness of our human condition, the strangeness of our attempt to out-run God: “I fled him…”, he says. But the poem tells the story of not only running but the story of being caught, for indeed the hound of heaven does catch him. Near the end of the poem are these words which explain the gracious surprise Thompson would discover in being caught. God says:
“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.”
And that is about as fine a comment on pursuing grace I know of. Grace pursues us in spite of ourselves so that we can truly call it grace. Grace chases us down to give us the life we were always trying to find, the life we were running hard to catch. But we are the ones being caught.
Last Sunday we began our telling of the Jacob story. Its a story which provides further evidence for what Heschel asserted, that the Bible is the story of God in search of man. Over these next weeks, as we pay attention to Jacob, we will see how God chases him through the years, pursuing him through his failures and schemings, through his wanderings and wrestlings, until, at the end of his story, we see him fully caught by grace. And from that “caught” place, full of years, he realizes all that has happened: “[Jacob] worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (Gen. 47:31, NIV; cf. Heb. 11:21).
The story of Jacob, it turns out, was the story of Francis Thompson. It is the story of us all, the story of the beautiful Shepherd who catches us.
questions / exercises
- what do you think about the image “the hound of heaven”? how does that surprise you in terms of who God is and what he does?
- do you know of other biblical characters who run from God, only to be caught by grace? do you know any stories like that in your experience of people and life? what caught those people?
- how do you understand grace?
- if you like, watch the Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can (2002) — consider how the themes of Jacob’s story resonate with this modern version of a running life
- over the next few weeks, consider the parallels between the prodigal son story and the Jacob story: you will find the Jacob story in Gen. 25-35, with an afterward in Gen. 42ff; the prodigal son story is found in Luke 15
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