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July 22, 2012 | 8:00 a.m.

Hounded by God

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 89:1–8
Mark 6:30–44

I fled Him down the night 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. . . .
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
     But with unhurrying chase,
     and unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
     They beat—and a Voice beat
     More instant than the Feet:
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

Francis Thompson
“The Hound of Heaven”

I fled Him down the night 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. . . .

These opening words of Francis Thompson’s poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” printed on the cover of today’s worship bulletin, remind me that try as I will I can’t get away from God. If you start with God, you’ll never get rid of God.

Of course there are times when I don’t want to. When my back is against the wall, when I have come to the end of my hope, when the woes of life o’ertake me and hopes deceive and fears annoy, when I’m discouraged, lonely, and down in the dumps, when everything in my life seems to be going wrong and I am up to my hips in alligators, I don’t want to get away from God or hide from God. I want God where I can see God and where I can be sure God sees me. When my life is in shambles and I am hurting all over, I want God to hang out with me to reassure me that I am not altogether alone in the world, that things will get better and that even if they don’t, strength and courage will be God’s gifts to me to help me prevail, and that no matter what happens I’ll always have a home in God’s love. Yes, there are times when I seek not to flee from God but to fly to God (“let me to thy bosom fly,” as the hymn writer has put it), because I need to be near to the heart of God and I want the heart of God to be near to me.

On the other hand, when life is going rather smoothly for me, when I don’t need to send an S.O.S. to get God’s attention to come to my aid, when I am off doing my own thing and don’t want to bother with God and don’t want God bothering me, sure enough, God finds a way to interrupt my life at some inconvenient moment. At some critical juncture, at one of those twists and turns in the labyrinth of my life when I have to slow down long enough to review if not reorder my values and decide what is important for me to do next, I find the Hound of Heaven nipping at my heels as I run faster and faster to try to get away.

Sometimes it seems that God ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog relentlessly chasing after me, never giving up no matter how fast I try to outrun him, until at last, out of breath and exhausted, I turn and say to God, “Alright already, what do you want from me?” And the answer comes back to me crisp and clear, “Have compassion on them.” Not pity, mind you. For pity can be what one feels from the safety of some Olympian height of superiority that looks down on the unfortunate, flips them a coin or two, just enough to salve one’s conscience and pride oneself in being a sensitive social activist.

No, not pity, but compassion, the willingness to somehow enter into the suffering of others, not to have pity on them but to suffer with them enough to take the trouble to see if there is something one can do, if not to relieve the suffering, then at least to companion with and support the sufferer so that the burden of pain can be borne better.

That’s what Mark said Jesus had when he looked upon the crowd of people who had come to hear him and be with him, like sheep without a shepherd and hungry because it was late in the day. And God hounds me to follow the example of Christ and have compassion on the poor and needy and oppressed who are bending low beneath life’s crushing load, at a time when my compassion is running on empty. Besides, when today’s advanced communication technology puts the face of human suffering in my face in all of its enormity 24/7, I don’t want to feel compassionate because to do so can confront me with the awareness that regarding much, if not most, of it, I can’t do a blessed thing, and that sense of helplessness is intolerable. Of course, it is also what makes me kin with those whose suffering I’m exposed to, because they too are often helpless in the midst of their suffering. So I can allow myself to become so desensitized that I pay no attention to the embodiment of human need sitting on the steps of the church or that I stumble over on the corner of Michigan and Chestnut.

Yet God continues to hound me to have compassion on them, because without compassion there can be no conscience and without conscience no compassion. And when that happens, I forfeit my humanness and am at the mercy of the law of the jungle.

Not only am I hounded by God to have compassion, God hounds me with the command to do something about the plight of those toward whom I would have compassion. God hounds me to do something just when I’ve decided nothing can be done or when I’d just as soon have the problem go away or have someone else tend to it because I’ve got enough on my plate as it is, so get out of my face and off my back, if you don’t mind, God! That’s what the disciples did. “It’s your problem, Lord, this hungry crowd of people. You take care of it, and we have a suggestion. Send them away. Let them fend for themselves.”

But Jesus threw it right back at them and issued his own imperative. You feed them. You figure out a way to give them something to eat. And that’s what the Hound of Heaven does to me when I try to wish away God’s challenge, turn away my eyes, deny the reality of the needs and sufferings of those about me, and try to evade my responsibility to do anything, because I’ve only got five loaves and two fish. God won’t let me get away with such a flimsy and convenient excuse and continues to hound me to entrust my meager resources to him and to use who I am and what I have to do what I can.

Yet we dare not deceive ourselves into thinking that we will gain victory necessarily over the intractable problems that face us in our society and world—progress perhaps, and there has been that in many areas, but victories, when they may seem to occur, are short-lived and partial. We are still dealing with racism, homophobia, sexual abuse, violence, and war. Furthermore, we can’t always predict or control human behavior. But it can be argued that as long as people in high places or aspiring to high places, allow themselves to be intimidated, held hostage, bribed, and blackmailed by financially and politically powerful lobbyists and special interest groups with a distorted take on what comprises our constitutional rights as citizens, we shall continue to witness and to weep tears over scenes of horror and carnage like the one in Colorado.

Once the miracle of multiplication takes place, the result can be a bunch of leftovers. Warm-ups, my mother-in-law used to call them. Sometimes they tasted better than the original meal from which they came. It is the care given to leftovers that God hounds me to pay attention to, especially when I might be tempted to throw them away. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead years ago stated that the best way to describe God is as “a tender care that nothing be lost.” For me it is a poignant part of the story as Jesus has the disciples carefully gather up twelve baskets full of the leftovers, precursors of what today we know as doggy bags. I have often wondered what was done with them.

Be that as it may, God hounds me to gather up and care for the leftovers and the left out in our society and world, the folk whom the world has a way of shoving out of the way to the sidelines of life where they are no longer a nuisance. God hounds me about that, and God hounds the church about that.

But there is also another kind of leftovers that I am hounded by God to look after and take care of. It is the leftovers I and we leave behind when we are at last no longer on the earth but in the earth. Several weeks ago I stood in a cemetery beside a freshly dug grave into which were to be interred the ashes of a man who had died unexpectedly. Because he was my friend, the family did me the honor of asking me to conduct the graveside service of committal. As I laid my hand on the simple but handsomely crafted urn containing the ashes and intoned the words of the liturgy, “We commend to almighty God our brother, and we commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I asked myself once again what I have asked myself many times on similar occasions: “Is this all there is? Is this all it comes down to?” The sorrow and anguish so obviously etched on the faces of those gathered there, especially those of the immediate family, served to reinforce the bewilderment implied in those questions.

Plagued, haunted by those questions, I take refuge in God’s word for me, in particular the concluding verse of the Apostle Paul’s majestic treatise on the subject of resurrection in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. It is, as it were, Paul’s last word on the subject. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling [or abounding] in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

But I also turn to a book I have had for a number of years by Noah Ben Shea entitled Jacob the Baker. Billed as “Gentle Wisdom for a Complicated World,” it is a series of short stories of conversations between Jacob, who in addition to being the town’s baker is also a guru-like dispenser of wisdom to whom the townspeople flock with their questions and concerns about a variety of subjects. On one occasion Mr. Gold, who is old and dying, asks Jacob, “Is this it? Is there nothing more? We become attached to this life only to be torn from it like some crude joke in the stars. It doesn’t make sense. Our days amount to nothing.” Jacob replies that our days do amount to nothing but that “while everything appears to live and die, it is only the appearance of things which lives and dies. The dead are buried. Their memory is not.”

Mr. Gold ponders Jacob’s words and then asks Jacob where he finds the strength to carry on in life. Jacob responds that he finds the strength in the ashes, and then goes on to explain. “You see, Mr. Gold, each of us is alone. . . . And, each of us is on a journey. In the process of our journey, we must bend to build a fire for light, and warmth, and food. But when our fingers tear at the ground, hoping to find the coals of another’s fire, what we often find are the ashes. And in these ashes, which will not give us light or warmth, there may be sadness, but there is also testimony. Because these ashes tell us that somebody else has been in the night, somebody else has bent to build a fire, and somebody else has carried on. And that can be enough, sometimes.”

Part of the leftovers we leave behind when we are no longer here are our ashes, which are to be taken care of, honored, and appropriately scattered or buried. But another part of the leftovers we leave behind is the influence for good and otherwise we have made in the world and in the lives of others, for our legacy of influence is at best mixed, as we have been made aware recently regarding the legacy and influence upon others of the life of the former coach of the Penn State University football team. These ashes of influence remind us that someone has been there in the night before us, even as our ashes of influence will remind those coming after us that someone has gone on before them.

God hounds me to take care of the leftovers, to have compassion, and to do what I can to show God’s love in the world. God hounds me because God loves me and wants the best for me. But sometimes I am a fugitive—not from the law, but from the love, the love of God in Jesus Christ.

But God keeps after me.

If ever God were to stop pursuing me and hounding me, I would be done for, because I would know that the Hound of Heaven had given up on me and let me go. But thank God, the Hound of Heaven never will give up on me or you, and the love that hounds will never let us go.

I know I don’t always like to be hounded by God, but I also know I would not want it any other way.