Yesterday, I shared with you the reason I am a Christian. If you are interested in reading that or you wish to reread it for whatever reason, here is the link: To Seek and to Save.

Today I want to share an excerpt from John Stott’s book, Why I Am a Christian. This excerpt is a small biography of a man who had the same experience that every Christian has had, except, he took his experience and wrote them down in the words of a tremendous poem. The poem, if you are curious, is entitled “The Hound of Heaven”, and I will post it later on in the day for your viewing pleasure.

 

FRANCIS THOMPSON

‘The Hound of Heaven.’ It is a striking expression invented by Francis Thompson, whose story has been told, and his poem expounded, by R. Moffat Gautrey in his book This Tremendous Lover.

Francis Thompson spent a lonely and loveless childhood, and failed successively in his attempts to become a Roman Catholic priest, a doctor (like his father) and a soldier. He ended up lost in London until a Christian couple recognized his poetic genius and rescued him. Throughout these years he was conscious of both pursuing and being pursued, and expressed it most eloquently in his poem ‘the Hound of Heaven’. Here is its beginning:

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 chasmèd 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.’

At first R. M. Gautrey was offended by the poem’s title ‘The Hound of Heaven’. Is it appropriate, he asked himself, to liken God to a hound? But he came to see that there are good hounds as well as bad hounds, and that specially admirable are collies, which range the Scottish Highlands in search of lost sheep. He also saw that the theme of searching sheepdogs (or, more accurately, of searching shepherds) occurs in both the Old and the New Testament. Thus, the last verse of Psalm 23 reads:

Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Gautrey points out that the Hebrew word here translated by the mild verb ‘follow’ should be rendered more forcefully; for instance, ‘goodness and mercy have hunted me, haunted me, dogged my steps all the days of my life’. ‘It is a pursuit, patient but purposeful, affectionate but relentless.’

Then Jesus himself took up the metaphor of the shepherd:

Then Jesus told them this parable: ‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.’ (Luke 15:3–7).

Gautrey sees the poem as divided into five stanzas. The first he calls the ‘Soul’s Flight’, for the poet sees himself as a fugitive from the demands of discipleship. The second is the ‘Soul’s Quest’, in which the soul seeks satisfaction everywhere, but cannot find it. The third stanza he entitles the ‘Soul’s Impasse’, since he has discovered that life without God is meaningless. Fourthly, in the ‘Soul’s Arrest’, he finally surrenders to the love of Christ. Christ speaks to him:

‘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?’

In every stanza we hear that footfall of ‘this tremendous lover’, until finally the hunt is over:

‘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 …
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’

Francis Thompson was expressing what is true of every Christian; it has certainly been true in my life. If we love Christ, it is because he loved us first (1 John 4:19). If we are Christians at all, it is not because we have decided for Christ, but because Christ has decided for us. It is because of the pursuit of ‘this tremendous lover’.

 

Stott, J. (2003). Why I Am a Christian (pp. 13–16). Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press.

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