It was Mother’s Day weekend in Yosemite National Park, and our son was lost. We had been camping with friends and, of the five boys, Quinn was the youngest, having turned seven just days earlier.
Saturday morning, we all began to make our way up the Vernal Falls trail. Just under two miles round-trip, it’s a moderate hike with a four-hundred-foot elevation gain. While the adults plodded up the walkway the boys scrambled up and over boulders, reappearing periodically. We came to a dramatic vista, and my husband Dave and I stopped to admire the raging Merced River below—a rare sight in drought-dry California. We lingered as the group carried on since we hadn’t seen Quinn and expected he’d reappear to touch in. A knowing settled over us simultaneously; we shared a look before launching ourselves up the trail.
We caught up with the group hoping to find him only to discover that they had four boys, not five. Where was Quinn? The dads dropped their backpacks and ran in opposite directions: one up, the other down. The other mama continued walking with the boys while I sat with packs I couldn’t lift.
Commence the longest hour of my life. If you later told me that it had been three hours, I would’ve agreed. Time stretched painfully.
To avoid imagining my child alone and scared, fallen between rocks or tumbling in the water below, I focused on a waterfall trickling down the granite wall across the gorge. Over and over, I whispered the verse from Psalm 91 we prayed together nightly: “God will put his angels in charge of you to protect you wherever you go.” I looked for my boy in every group that came around the bend. A girl wore a shirt that read, “God is good all the time,” reassurance that God was with Quinn wherever he was.
Finally, our twelve-year-old son, Corban, came running back to me. Face streaked with hot tears of relief and guilt, he shouted, “We’ve got him!” Just as one dad had arrived at the ranger station and the ranger picked up the phone to call Search and Rescue, the other had reached the Vernal Falls footbridge where he found Quinn with a family who had children around his age.
Somehow Quinn had landed ahead of us on the trail. Thinking he was behind, he raced on. Apparently, Quinn spent his hike describing his mama to everyone he passed which tipped this family off to the fact that he was lost. They kept pace with him. When they arrived at the footbridge, our destination, they waited with him. Protecting angels, indeed.
One dad had raced up the train, the other racing down, and my role? I was to stay put watching and waiting and praying. And I have never pursued anything so desperately as I pursued my son in that hour. In fact, the relentless pursuit involved a whole team: quick-acting dads, a mom who cared for the other boys, the family who walked with Quinn, and even potentially the park rangers.
The Dog, The Cat, The Shepherd
Pursuit pervades the Bible. We may first think of the pursuits of evil. Pharaoh’s hubris sent his armies in pursuit of the Israelites straight into the Red Sea and their devastation, and Saul pursued David into the wilderness. David was inspired to write poetry about taking refuge in God when enemies wrongfully pursued him. Proverbs warns against worthless pursuits that lead to poverty while encouraging the pursuit of righteousness and kindness which instead lead to life. Maybe when we think of pursuit our mind finds the Bible’s advice to set our feet to the pursuit of peace, love, faith, and gentleness. Mostly, however, the Bible offers the grand and glorious story of the God who pursues the people he created in love.
It’s this last point we often forget: God pursues us more than we will ever pursue him.
English poet Francis Thompson picked up this theme in his poem “The Hound of Heaven,” first published in 1890. A devout Catholic, Thompson led a tragic life. He studied to become a priest and then a physician before falling into financial hardship. While he pursued a writing career, he sold matches to earn money and borrowed paper on which to write poetry. He developed health issues, leading to drug addiction and illness to which he succumbed at forty-seven years old.
Thompson’s poem, however, indicates that he never lost sight of God’s redeeming love. The poem’s speaker, aware of God’s love for him and pursuit of him, runs away from God to wallow in worldly pursuits. He writes: “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 . . .” an echo of the Psalmist: “Where shall I flee from your presence? . . . Even the darkness is not dark to you . . .”
Still, the Hound of Heaven persists: “From those strong Feet that followed, followed after // But with unhurried chase // And unperturbed pace, // Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, // They beat.” God isn’t hurried or harried; he’s not desperate but deliberate. Even the sound of Hound of Heaven’s paws hitting the ground convey his majesty.
In her spiritual autobiography, Traveling Mercies, author Anne Lamott offers another metaphor for God’s pursuit of the beloved. Once determined not to be a Christian, she writes: “. . . I never felt like I had much choice with Jesus; he was relentless. I didn’t experience him so much as the hound of heaven, as the old description has it, but as the alley cat of heaven, who seemed to believe that if it just keeps showing up, mewling outside your door, you’d eventually open up and give him a bowl of milk.” Eventually, God’s catlike endurance wore her out, and she let him in. “He started sleeping on my bed that night. It was not so bad. It was even pretty nice. He loved me, he didn’t shed or need to have his claws trimmed, and he never needed a flea dip. I mean, what a savior, right? Then, when I was dozing, tiny kitten that I was, he picked me up like a mother cat, by the scruff of my neck, and deposited me in a little church . . .”
Whether the hound or the alley cat of heaven, devoted dog and cat lovers can pick their metaphor. And here comes another: the Good Shepherd who both leads and pursues his sheep.
Psalm 23 may be the most widely known psalm, familiar even to those who have never opened a Bible. Read at memorials and public events, it conveys protection, guidance, and comfort in all situations, from still waters, dark and deathly valleys, and picnics in the presence of one’s enemies.
We recognize Jesus in the figure of the Good Shepherd, especially since Jesus referred to himself using the term and also told a gracious parable in which the Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to seek out the one lost sheep. Additionally, in her new book The Lord is My Courage, author K.J. Ramsey indicates that God steps upstage with the words, “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life . . .” She explains that, while the Hebrew scriptures use the word translated “follow” 144 times, only here are “. . . God’s goodness and love the nouns carrying out the action of pursuit . . . We are not merely followed by mercy. We are hunted by it. We are haunted by beauty. Every day of our lives we are being chased down by grace. Your whole life is not about finding God. It is about being found.”
This week our family sat down to watch the Ms. Marvel series about a Pakistani-American teenage girl who, with the gift of an ancient bangle from her grandmother, discovers she has superpowers. When she travels to Pakistan, Kamala meets someone who translates the bangle’s inscription: “What you seek is seeking you.” I jumped up from the couch to scribble it down.
We pursued Quinn who also pursued us, and you better believe I moved as fast as my feet would carry me back to him. The God of goodness and love will never cease to pursue his children. You may be running up a hill to make a deal with God or to get away from him. You may be afraid to give up your vices or terrified that you’re alone in your darkest hours. You may have learned that it’s necessary to garner favor with people and with God, so you’re caught up in the hustle. Or, like me on the trail, your current role in the pursuit may be to watch and pray. Still, what you truly seek is seeking you. As Ramsey writes, “God chases us down with this blessing . . . He’s on our side. He loves us. He’s relentless—all the days of our lives.”
Cover image by Ashley Light.