The Hound of Heaven

JOHN THE BAPTIST saw a dove and believed. James Whittaker saw a sea gull and believed. Who’s to say the one who sent the first didn’t send the second?
James Whittaker was a member of the handpicked crew that flew the B-17 Flying Fortress captained by Eddie Rickenbacker. Anybody who remembers October of 1942 remembers the day Rickenbacker and his crew were reported lost at sea.
Somewhere over the Pacific, out of radio range, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean. The nine men spent the next month floating in three rafts. They battled the heat, the storms, and the water. Sharks, some ten feet long, would ram their nine-foot boats. After only eight days their rations were eaten or destroyed by saltwater. It would take a miracle to survive.
One morning after their daily devotions, Rickenbacker leaned his head back against the raft and pulled his hat over his eyes. A bird landed on his head. He peered out from under his hat. Every eye was on him. He instinctively knew it was a sea gull.
Rickenbacker caught it, and the crew ate it. The bird’s intestines were used for bait to catch fish … and the crew survived to tell the story. A story about a stranded crew with no hope or help in sight. A story about prayers offered and prayers answered. A story about a visitor from an unknown land traveling a great distance to give his life as a sacrifice.
A story of salvation.
A story much like our own. Weren’t we, like the crew, stranded? Weren’t we, like the crew, praying? And weren’t we, like the crew, rescued by a visitor we’ve never seen through a sacrifice we’ll never forget?
You may have heard the Rickenbacker story before. You may have even heard it from me. You may have read it in one of my books. Coreen Schwenk did. She was engaged to the only crew member who did not survive, young Sgt. Alex Kacymarcyck. As a result of a 1985 reunion of the crew, Mrs. Schwenk learned that the widow of James Whittaker lived only eighty miles from her house. The two women met and shared their stories.
After reading this story in my book In the Eye of the Storm, Mrs. Schwenk felt compelled to write to me. The real miracle, she informed me, was not a bird on the head of Eddie Rickenbacker but a change in the heart of James Whittaker. The greatest event of that day was not the rescue of a crew but the rescue of a soul.
James Whittaker was an unbeliever. The plane crash didn’t change his unbelief. The days facing death didn’t cause him to reconsider his destiny. In fact, Mrs. Whittaker said her husband grew irritated with John Bartak, a crew member who continually read his Bible privately and aloud.
But his protests didn’t stop Bartak from reading. Nor did Whittaker’s resistance stop the Word from penetrating his soul. Unknown to Whittaker, the soil of his heart was being plowed. For it was one morning after a Bible reading that the sea gull landed on Captain Rickenbacker’s head.
And at that moment Jim became a believer.
I chuckled when I read the letter. Not at the letter; I believe every word of it. Nor at James Whittaker. I have every reason to believe his conversion was real. But I had to chuckle at . . . please excuse me … I had to chuckle at God.
Isn’t that just like him? Who would go to such extremes to save a soul? Such an effort to get a guy’s attention. The rest of the world is occupied with Germany and Hitler. Every headline is reporting the actions of Roosevelt and Churchill. The globe is locked in a battle for freedom … and the Father is in the Pacific sending a missionary pigeon to save a soul. Oh, the lengths to which God will go to get our attention and win our affection.
In 1893 Francis Thompson, a Roman Catholic poet, described God as the “Hound of Heaven”:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthian ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter,
Up vestaed hopes I sped
And shot precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms.

Thompson speaks of Jesus as “that tremendous lover, pursuing me with his love.” Jesus follows with “unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy.” And in the end Jesus speaks, reminding us, “Alas, thou knowest not how little worthy of any love thou art. Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee, save me, save only me? For that which I took from thee I did but take, not for thy harm but that thou might seek it in my arms.”
Do you have room for such a picture of God? Can you see God as the “tremendous lover, pursuing us with his love”? During the first week of Jesus’ ministry he calls his first disciples. Why do they come? Who influences their choice? Note the verbs associated with Jesus in John 1.

Jesus turned … v. 38
Jesus asked … v. 38
Jesus answered … v. 39
Jesus looked … v. 42
Jesus decided … v. 43
Jesus found … v. 43

It’s clear who does the work. If anyone is in Christ, it is because Christ has called him or her. Christ may use a sermon. He may inspire a conversation. He may speak through a song. But in every case Christ is the One who calls.
Consider these examples:
One evening, John Wesley entered a brief account in his journal. He wrote of going unwillingly to a meeting of a society in Aldersgate Street in London where one of the group was reading the preface to Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Did you get the picture? He went unwillingly, a stranger to a small group, listening to a two-hundred-year-old piece of literature. And yet he wrote, “About a quarter before nine I felt my heart strangely warmed.”
In his classic work Confessions, Augustine tells of the turning point in his life. Torn between the temptation of a mistress and the quiet call of the Spirit of God, he was sitting on a bench under a fig tree, his Bible open, his eyesight fogged by tears. He heard a voice calling from a neighboring house, “Pick it up … Pick it up …”
The voice was not addressed to Augustine; no doubt children were calling to one another in a game. However, the voice stirred Augustine in his solitude, and he did what the voice commanded. He picked up his Bible and read it. The passage before him was Romans 13:13–14: “Let us live in a right way, like people who belong to the day. We should not have wild parties or get drunk. There should be no sexual sins of any kind, no fighting or jealousy. But clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and forget about satisfying your sinful self.”
He heard the voice of God, bade farewell to his mistress, and followed Christ.
Novelist Frederick Buechner was twenty-seven years old and living alone in New York City, trying to write a book when he, a non-churchgoer, went to church. On impulse. The preacher spoke on the topic of crowning Christ in your heart. Jesus refused the crown of Satan in the wilderness but accepts the crown of his people when we confess him. The preacher went on for quite some time with words that sounded nice but didn’t stick.
But then he said something that Buechner never forgot. I’ll let him tell you:

And then with his head bobbing up and down so that his glasses tittered, he said in his odd sandy voice, the voice of an old nurse, that the coronation of Jesus took place among confession and tears and, as God is my witness, great laughter, he said. Jesus is crowned among confession and tears and great laughter, and at that phrase great laughter, for reasons I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck in the face.

Too bizarre? Think for a moment about your world. Remember that voice, that face, that event? Wasn’t there a time when the common bush of the wilderness was ablaze with a voice that left you stuttering? For Wesley it was a reading, for Augustine the voice of a child, and for Buechner a call to laughter.
And for you? The extended hand of a bag woman? The birth of your child? The tears of the widower? The explosion of a sunset? The impassioned sermon that moved all? The dull sermon that moved none—but you?
It isn’t the circumstance that matters; it is God in the circumstance. It isn’t the words; it is God speaking them. It wasn’t the mud that healed the eyes of the blind man; it was the finger of God in the mud. The cradle and the cross were as common as grass. What made them holy was the One laid upon them. The dove and the gull weren’t special. But the One who sent them was.
Amazing, the lengths to which God will go to get our attention.

          Nathanael said to Philip, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
          Philip answered, “Come and see.”

John 1:46

Max Lucado,

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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