Dr. Thomas Lane Butts - Chasing the Wind (Part 3)

The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes uses the phrase "and that was like chasing the wind" to describe the futility of running from reality by running after things that are of no lasting value. The 19th century mystic and poet, Francis Thompson, has modeled the depths to which one can fall while fleeing, and in his poem, "The Hound of Heaven", makes us aware of the tenacious chase of the Creator, who will not leave us to the fate of our flight.

Thrust into the embattled commercialism of the late 19th century, Thompson withdrew from a world in which he could not compete. At age 25 he cut himself off from friends and family and went to London. He sold matches on the street corner, ran errands, and sank to an incredibly low level of poverty. He staggered back and forth across the line of sanity and decency. He woke up each morning with his fears sitting collectively on his chest like a grinning gargoyle. Literally starving, he was rescued by a prostitute, who took him to her room, fed him, and gave him shelter. He spent two years with the Franciscan Monks, who helped him get off drugs, and it was there that he wrote "The Hound of Heaven". In a turbulent vision Thompson saw humankind as the quarry, the frightened spirit, running to hide in nature, and God as the divine hunter, pursuer and rescuer. This one verse gives the essence of the poem.

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 unperturbèd pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

They beat-and a Voice beat

More instant than the Feet-

'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me'.

Thompson later wrote that it did not matter how far out into the bush and brambles of life we run. Ever and anon, we hear the trumpet call of heaven, telling us who we are, and whose we are, and what our destiny must be.

We have all done some running. Perhaps we will do some more. Run if you must, for there are some aspects of truth and insight that are too hard for the average person to face without doing some back-peddling. T.S. Elliot once opined, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality". Run, but do it on a limited scale. Be insightful enough to understand that running is what you are doing. Stay within sight of reality even if your cannot abide its presence. But remember, however far you run, that is how far you will have to come back before you will at last achieve a manageable grasp on life.

The wise one of Ecclesiastes has a word of warning for people who think they know everything. Everybody is ignorant about something. Wise people are not cocky and self-assured about what they know. Bertrand Russell, a philosopher and mathematician who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, was once asked if he would be willing to die for his ideas. He quickly answered, "Of course not, I could be wrong". It is prudent to be modest about what we know, or think we know.

There is a kind of learning that is more important than factual knowledge, as important as facts may be in the scheme of things. It is a kind of learning more essential than the frailty of human reasoning, as important as reasoning may be. It does not defy reason, it confounds it because it surpasses it. It is akin to faith, resembles insight, and approaches intuition. There are people who know things they did not learn.

Back in the days when New Bedford, Massachusetts was a major seaport, scores of ships involved in the whaling industry went out from there each year. They often spent more than a year away from their home base. Of all the captains made famous for their seamanship none was more highly regarded than Eleazer Hull. He went our farther, stayed longer, brought back more whale oil, and lost fewer men than any other captain. He had an uncanny gift of navigation. When asked to explain this gift he would say, "Oh, I just go up on the deck, listen to the wind in the rigging, get the drift of the sea, take a long look at the stars, and then set my course". Times changed, as they always do. The owners of Captain Hull's vessel were informed that the insurance underwriters would no longer agree to cover a vessel that did not have aboard a formally trained and certified navigator. The owners were confronted with the problem of how to break this news to Captain Hull. He must either sign on some young up-start, fresh out of school, or go to navigation school himself. The old captain greeted the announcement with no particular emotion, but said he had always been curious about this new-fangled business of scientific navigation, and he would be glad to have a chance to study it. He went to navigation school at the expense of the company and graduated near the top of his class. Then he shipped out for two years.

The day Captain Hull returned to port, half the population of New Bedford was on the docks to greet him. The first question asked of him was how he liked the experience of navigating by scientific means. He said: "It was wonderful. I don't know how I have gotten on without it all these years. Now when I want to know my location and how to get to where I want to go, I go into my cabin, get out my charts and tables, work the proper equations, and after about an hour I set my course with scientific precision. Then I go up on the deck and listen to the wind in the rigging, get the drift of the sea, take a long look at the stars and go back and correct my course for errors in computation." ("A Tale of Boxes", Robert T. Latham, Pages 263-65) If you do not know about the wind in the rigging, the drift of the sea, and the long look at the stars, you suffer a kind of ignorance that no amount of education can cure.

The Bible often uses the word "wind" as a code word for "spirit". "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes, so it is with everyone who is born of the spirit." (John 3:8) Instead of chasing the wind, listen to the wind, the wind of the spirit. In this perplexing world where so much of life is a puzzle, and many voices clamor for your attention, "The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind." LISTEN.