Our church hosted a free kids soccer camp this week at an inner city elementary school known for an uncharacteristically high percentage of refugee students. I had my children signed up to attend, but I was honestly hesitant to volunteer my time. I have my own three wild little boys, which makes most of my life feel like a children’s soccer camp. I was looking forward to some down time.
But the Lord won out, as He always does, and there I was this morning, in a crowd of over 100 little kiddos from all around the globe. It was a beautiful mess, as real life always is.
There were sweet little glimpses of joy scattered throughout the day of sweat and sun and silliness. Little girls in beautiful, brightly colored hijabs, playing soccer in their longs skirts, giggling and laughing. My little boys and their church friends playing wildly on the playground with children of every color skin, not even noticing the differences of language or dress or culture. There were sweaty, tired saintly adults chaperoning the wild masses into snacks and songs and stories.
I thought I would leave exhausted but feeling satisfied, as I normally do from events like these. But I found myself leaving feeling bothered and burdened.
You see, there was this one little fella in my group with obstinate eyes and a punk-ish streak. And, of course, I was most drawn to him. He wouldn’t listen to a thing anyone said, and he distracted everyone through the whole Bible lesson with his blatant disrespect. I did all I know to do with a child who is struggling to behave: I tried humor, I tried sitting next to him, I tried encouraging him, all the things that usually win a strong-willed child over. Nothing worked. After he began bullying and name-calling, I found myself swiftly pursuing him across the school field. I was merely trying to talk to him, to explain what was and wasn’t acceptable at camp.
He broke into an all-out sprint until I had him in the corner of the schoolyard. “I’m not angry with you, I just want to talk to you,” I said gently. But he refused to listen or to look me in the eye. The whistle blew and the games began again before we made any progress from the stalemate.
This one encounter has haunted me since, overshadowing the sweet moments I mentioned earlier. The way he ran in fear and with such ferocity broke my heart. I was earnestly trying to pursue him in love, to show him forgiveness and grace, but he would have no part in it. It broke my heart.
This little guy, barely 9 years old, was already running from the very thing that he needed most: love, grace and forgiveness. I wanted to be frustrated, but I couldn’t be. In that moment, I felt a tiny sliver of what I am certain God feels every time I needlessly run away from His presence.
“The sorrows of the those who run after other gods will increase,” the Psalmist admits in Psalm 16, yet He continues by sharing that in God’s “presence is fullness of joy” and at His “right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
I came home and reread The Hound of Heaven, a beautiful poem written by Francis Thompson in the late 19th Century, depicting his experience of God’s relentless pursuit of him even as he sought to avoid Him. Thompson poetically describes God as a hound who chased Him and removed every false hope from him until he was finally able to stop running and receive Him.
“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….
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 betrays Me.'”
I wish I could have the opportunity to consistently and persistently pursue that little man’s heart. I wish that I could remove the broken systems and the broken home that most likely contribute to his running in fear. But after this week, I won’t be able to.
I am so very thankful that the Hound of Heaven can and will pursue him when and where I cannot, as He hounded me until I was ready to stop running and turn toward His gentle face.
The conclusion of The Hound of Heaven gives me hope for my obstinate little buddy and my own obstinate heart that finds itself running more often than I care to admit.
“All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for they 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!”