Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Looking for the Lost

The last dozen years of my active ministry I had the privilege of meeting each year with some thirty to forty of the most prominent ministers in the United Methodist Church in a group called The Gathering. It was an enriching experience in which this group became ‘church’ to me. The only problem was that when you retired, you had to leave the group. Several of us retired members of The Gathering missed the comradeship of the group so much that we started our own group called ‘Alumni of the Gathering’.


Every year or two about fifteen or twenty of us ‘Alumni of the Gathering’ meet for several days in some major city and swap stories, listen to good speakers and talk about how much better the church got on while we were in charge. It is a delightful and encouraging experience.


A few years ago when we were meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, one of the ‘older’ members of the group (actually he is almost as old as I am), Dr. Joe Emerson, told an unforgettable story. The story was originally told by the Rev. Jack Turner about an experience he had as a child. Perhaps it will touch you as it did all of us ‘old preachers’ when we heard it.


Jack’s father was a victim of polio which had left him with two lifeless legs. He walked laboriously with two metal crutches which clicked as he walked. When Jack was 7 or 8 years old, he and a friend went on an outing in the woods with their parents’ permission. They ran and played and had such fun they did not notice it was getting dark. Suddenly they didn’t know which way to go to get home. It was pitch dark! The two boys huddled together for several hours, getting colder and more frightened every minute.


After a while, as they were lying still, Jack heard a very familiar clicking sound. He knew at once it was his father walking through the woods looking for him and his friend. He had the most wonderful feeling of relief in his young life, and then he realized at the same time what great effort and sacrifice his father had made to find them.


I could not help but transfer the idea of a father looking for his child to a higher level, and recall and recount how God comes looking for his lost children - you and me. It put me in mind of the poet, Francis Thomson’s tormented poem, The Hound of Heaven. It is a long and laborious piece, but the first stanza gives the spirit of the whole. Here it is:


"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 chasmed fears,

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".


We have all been lost at some time in our lives. We have all been down and unable to get up by ourselves, and someone reached down and picked us up. It is a humbling experience when we remember the times someone snatched off the manhole cover and came in looking for us.


In the finest and most accurate understanding of the incarnation of Christ, in Him God came looking for us when we were not looking for God.


Think about that!!