Saturday, October 17, 2020

IDENTITY AMNESIA

When we, as sinners, get concerned about our standing before God, we usually think first about our sins. We’ve broken laws, transgressed commandments, trespassed forbidden boundaries, omitted obligations and in many ways “missed the mark” (the literal meaning of sin in the Bible, from how poorly aimed arrows miss targets). This initial concern is natural for humans, and God may use it to get our attention. In John 8:24, Jesus told those who doubted that He was God’s Son, “if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” But earlier, in the same chapter, His words to a woman caught in adultery clearly expressed His Father’s attitude: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.

Because God is gracious to repentant sinners, He forgave sins and transgressions in the Old Testament, long before Jesus became the sacrificial Lamb of God. But, while guilt for sins was one problem the Cross addressed, God’s major target was the sin nature: our disposition to sin. Because God created us with an intrinsically united body-spirit nature—the human body created to be spiritual and the human spirit created to be incarnate—Adam and Eve could not help but genetically pass on to all their descendants this bent toward sinning. We all inherit it, and receiving pardon for sins doesn’t eliminate it. Genesis 3:1-7 tells how Satan strategically worked to get this functional source of sins inside of us as a race. But 1 John 3:8 proclaims that the Son of God showed up on earth to destroy “the works of the devil.” This was His pragmatic purpose, but not His motivating goal.

The motive of His heart was revealed when Jesus said in Luke 19:10, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” We lost much in the Fall of our first parents, but the most crucial loss was in the memory of our created identity. Personal sins, whether in thought, word or deed, do not cause this spiritual amnesia. Sinning is a developed habit, bred and fed by deeming ourselves independent from our Creator. Yet this way of thinking seems to come naturally to us. We are born with no memory of our absolute and total dependence on God. Complaining that this ignorant situation isn’t our fault will change nothing. The effects of this missed mark on the human condition are universally persistent. The personal multiplication of sins, in acts or attitudes, continues to confirm this race-wide matrix of sin, which functions in this absence of an authentic, dependent relationship with our Maker.

Mark 1:4 states that “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (plural).” But when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming to him, he said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin (singular) of the world!” (John 1:29). Oswald Chambers explained this theological difference between sins and sin extremely well:

The Bible does not say that God punished the human race for one man’s sin; but that the disposition of sin . . . entered into the human race by one man, and that another Man took on Him the sin of the human race and put it away (Hebrews 9.26)—an infinitely profounder revelation. The disposition of sin is not immorality and wrong-doing, but the disposition of self-realization—I am my own god. This disposition may work out in decorous morality or in indecorous immorality, but it has the one basis, my claim to my right to myself. (My Utmost of His Highest, October 5th)

By a preoccupation with sins instead of a focus on sin, many have misconstrued what happened in the beginning. We know from Genesis 1:31 that after completing creation, “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” This divine evaluation included “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9), even though its early misuse derailed its “good” purpose from being revealed. God merely told Adam to take care of it, to guard it, but not to eat from it, warning that, if he did, it would kill him. When Adam and Eve ignored this warning and ate that tree’s forbidden fruit, they immediately died spiritually, and afterwards, physically. What they took into themselves had the deadly effect of making them morally independent from God. Once ingested, it gave them their very own “knowledge of good and evil”—an ability to determine right and wrong for themselves. This laid the groundwork for humans to develop a myriad of conflicting personal and cultural moralities down through history, each relying on a knowledge not directly received from God.

When a father warns his child, “Don’t play with the gun . . . it can kill you,” and the child disobeys and dies, the disobedience may have led to the death, but a bullet killed the child. Similarly, when Satan duped Adam and Eve into ignoring God the Father’s warning, they disobediently consumed something that had the power to separate them spiritually from Him and from the divine life He wanted for them. The ultimate effect of imbibing moral independence from God was to kill themselves and us, their descendants. Incorporating this spiritually lethal fruit into their lives and into the human race was the precise point where “sin entered the world, and death through sin,” as described by Romans 5:12-19. But in that same passage, God’s gracious solution to the sin problem is also explained.

Any possibility of having restored human bodies, souls and spirits with clear memories of our original role in servant-leadership required a new humanity. This hope materialized when God’s Son became a body-spirit human being. Christ’s unique conception (Matthew 1:20) from one of Mary’s ova and from the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing (Luke 1:35) combined both the necessary genes of the sin nature, which Mary inherited from Adam, and the essential “seed” of a new human race, which the Holy Spirit’s breath freshly created from earthly matter (as God had first done in Genesis 2:7).

God’s Son becoming a human being is the greatest of all cosmic and celestial miracles. This marvelous Incarnation initiated a new human genome, one with an intrinsically divine nature. But the genetic presence of the sin nature in Jesus, and its utter defeat throughout His earthly life, allowed Him to take this disposition for sinning to the Cross. Paul describes this incredible fact in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” It’s the theological ground for his insistence that “our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be rendered powerless so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin,” (Romans 6:6). This amazing facet of the Incarnation enables both Paul and us to say, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me,” (Galatians 2:20).

Because it’s our self-life of sin that produces sins, God’s goal in salvation was not just forgiveness but renewal. The DNA of the old Adam was nullified by Christ’s bodily death. But the new human genome, the immortal DNA in His resurrected body, made Jesus “the firstborn from among the dead” (Colossians 1:18), with many others to follow. Resurrection introduced a new order of human life, a new humanity destined to reign forever over “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1), led by Christ the Savior and King.

Our upbringing in a world alienated from God’s will and ways confirms and nurtures our sin-bent false self in sinning. God’s plan for us is that we stop being sinners and remember our true selves. Christ’s saving gift of new birth begins a new creation in us that reinstates our lost memory. By indwelling us through the Holy Spirit, He facilitates our growth in remembering and living out our true identity as servant-leaders, created “in the image of God,” the Supreme Servant-Leader (Genesis 1:26-27).

If you’re not a Christian, you’re still suffering from spiritual amnesia. God wants to remedy that, but He will not override your personal will in order to do so. You must freely choose to surrender yourself to Him, the Lord of heaven and earth Who came to restore your spiritual memory loss. Heed Christ’s warning in Mark 8:36, “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” Nothing is more eternally precious than the true self God intended you to manifest in creation. He calls you to forget your false identity of a self-directed self-sufficiency, so you can discover your forgotten identity as a uniquely designed servant who depends on divine guidance. Your success in that holy remembering is enabled by the special grace that accompanies your choice to obey Christ’s familiar invitation, “Follow Me.

If you’re already a Christian, but have been so preoccupied by worldly concerns or distractions that you have forgotten “your first love” (Revelation 2:4), then you also must surrender. Choose to remember who you really are. Don’t let the world define your identity. Only your Maker and Lord can tell you who you are. If you wake up each day with your Christian memory foggy or fading, then realize your need for forming new habits. Start spending more time talking to God in prayer, more time reading His Word, more time focusing your mind on Christ and listening for His voice in your daily activities. Memorizing Scripture is one of the best habits to develop, and modern technology has brought modern help in that area (Google “the Verse-Locker app”). There’s really no such thing as a once-for-all surrender. The NKJV of Luke 9:23 records Jesus instructing each disciple to “take up his cross daily, and follow Me.

The following verses offer a concluding summary and poetic reinforcement of these finals exhortations.

SURRENDER

Never wait until disaster
wraps your body in a ball,
or your limbs get set in plaster
after feeble flight and fall:
cease today to flee the Master,
slowing down to heed His call.

Boast no sinful self-reliance
to disparage Heaven’s Throne;
wave no scepter of defiance,
proudly claiming, “I’m my own!”
or you’ll drown in dark compliance
to a demon’s rule alone.

Inner conscience is observant,
when away from God we swim:
our Creator is a Servant,
calling us to image Him
with devotion full and fervent,
waylaid not by wish or whim.

God won’t confiscate decision . . .
we must relegate our will
to His radical excision
of the sin that made us ill.
Dream no shallow, quick revision:
we’ve a void He longs to fill

When a sinner’s heart is willing
to become a saintly soul,
Christ indwells by Spirit filling,
making broken places whole.
Even angels find it thrilling,
watching Jesus meet His goal.

— David L. Hatton, 10/17/2020

Saturday, July 25, 2020

THE PANDEMIC’S PANIC-DEMIC

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power
and of love and of a sound mind. 2 Timothy 1:7 (NKJV)

Many Christians, including myself, began the year 2020 hoping it would be one of 20/20 vision, a year for gaining a clearer perspective on God’s will and purposes for us as His people. The verse prefacing this article encourages us not to despair of that hope. What the Apostle Paul proclaimed to Timothy predates all the fearful crises of history that followed its writing and still tells us what thwarts the “spirit of fear” that typically accompanies all such critical times.

When frightful dangers do take control of the mind, panic is the result. But God gave us “a sound mind,” one equipped with the spiritual fruit of self-control. This divine inheritance should distinguish our response to dangers from that of a worldly reaction, as Paul makes clear in Romans 8:15 (NKJV), For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” Pressing down on one side of the contemporary scales is the authentically bad news of a global plague. On the other side of the scales is the infinitely weightier Good News of who we are in Christ. But, before examining how our identity as God’s children tips the balances, I want to discuss another balancing act between bad news and some better news that is currently in effect for everyone.

Despite heated disputes about the political and medical nature of this present pandemic, the bad news is very harsh: many more will die from Covid-19. Neither the growing fears broadcast by mainline media nor the reassuring rebuttals proclaimed in social media will prevent Corona-virus-related deaths from mounting. Yes, traditionally wise hygienic practices may slow the spread. But none of the public’s confidently debated opinions—about the need for masks or their risks, social distancing or its ineffectiveness, lock-downs or their socio-economic dangers, vaccine development’s possibility or impossibility—will eliminate these tragic deaths. That’s the bad news.

In the midst of this crisis, however, there is some better news that is more hopeful: most who get infected with the virus will survive. That statistical reality decreases with age, especially with those of us who are approaching or have surpassed the average human life expectancy. These same morbidity-rate statistics have characterized other epidemics, as well as life in general: the elderly always die at a higher rate than those younger. But the news media’s focus has been on the deadliness of the virus and not on the survival rate. That one-sided emphasis is a contributing factor in this pandemic becoming a panic-demic. Our stressed-out society needs some encouraging news right now. Hearing that only a low percentage of those contracting Covid-19 will die from it is a much needed encouragement.

But, while the bad news is outweighed by this better news, there’s actually worse news than what we’re facing from this current pandemic. In fact, it’s what most people feel is the very worst news. Yet, there is also some much better news than surviving Covid-19, for those who are willing to believe it. In fact, it’s the best news on the planet! The worst news is already well known but usually ignored: sooner or later, all of us will die. The best news is divinely true but often doubted: because of what Jesus Christ did for us, we do not have to be afraid of dying.

Death is a universal reality. It isn’t increased by lethal diseases, by acts of violence, or by unforeseen accidents. Such fatalities do shorten our personal lifespans, but regardless of what form death takes, it is always 100% effective in removing each person from this planet. This is much worse news than the bad news of the Covid-19 death-count. The fact that it’s really just the same old news we’ve always known about doesn’t trivialize everyone’s suffering from this pandemic, but it does offer us a realistic perspective on the limits of earthly life.

We will each die from something, and the odds are that it won’t be from the CV-19 bug. This virus should not be identified with the Grim Reaper. It is merely a new tool of his for maintaining human mortality. But the broadcast focus on his recent use of it has made some people stop watching TV’s bad news reports altogether. This popular media-boycotting may not be so much a way of ignoring the contagion as an attempt to find some peace of mind. Such a motive would be a tacit statement that humans do not thrive on morbid fear but on hopeful faith.

This is where the best news comes in, at least for those willing to believe in what was accomplished by the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of Romans 3:23 and 6:23, Christians know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and that Jesus countered sin’s universal sentence of capital punishment on the human race: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” These basic Bible teachings confront the inevitability of earthly death with the divine provision of heavenly life.

Putting trust in Christ provides not just forgiveness for sins but a life where death need no longer cause fear or panic. Hebrews 2:14-15 (NIV) explains why this is so: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Until Resurrection Day, bodily death will continue, even if a CV-19 infection is survived. But for Christian believers, death is no longer a frightening terminus. Departing from this life escorts us into the presence of our Savior and Lord.

Having healthy fear is a necessity, especially when it alerts us to moral and mortal dangers that God wants us to avoid. Jesus was highlighting healthy, godly fear, when He said, “My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4-5, NKJV). But, because anxious human fear is unhealthy, Jesus also told us in Matthew 6:34 (ESV), “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Despite these troubled and trying times, those following Jesus should not cave in to this pandemic’s panic-demic. We are not called to imitate those who, by rejecting faith in Christ, are still “held in slavery by their fear of death.” This global crisis is indeed extremely troublesome and tragic. But it’s only one episode of trouble in a world that has been full of tragedy ever since our first parents were banished from Eden. Whether or not the gatekeepers of modern media continue to inspire fear with bad news reports, believers must heed and hold on to what our death-conquering King told us in a special verse that we should all memorize: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world,” (John 16:33, NIV)

In a poem I wrote some time ago (“Be of Good Cheer”—the KJV’s rendering of the NIV’s “take heart”), I expand and expound these personal words that Jesus spoke for our encouragement. It pictures Jesus telling us how we need to respond to critical challenges like those imposed by this viral plague. Its rhyming lines also offer an apt conclusion for my intent in this article. My goal is not only to keep my Christian brothers and sisters from letting this pandemic fill their lives with panic and pandemonium, but to encourage them to be living and dying witnesses to unbelievers who do not yet share our faith and marvelous hope in Christ.

BE OF GOOD CHEER
(John 16:33)

Trials and tragedies, trouble and pain,
Hopes that are dashed amid dreams that are slain:
All of these pepper the world where you dwell,
Making your life just a little like hell.

Satan may threaten, and demons may swarm,
Yet I am with you in tempest and storm.
This I will promise: your heart will have peace,
As you let go in My Spirit’s release.

Yes, there is darkness, disease and despair
Marring My beautiful world everywhere.
That’s why I came, to connect with each loss
By the embrace of My sin-laden Cross.

Be of good cheer in the Message you’ve heard.
Others have suffered who knew not My Word.
Others are hurting who still know Me not—
Yours is the cross that can light up their lot.

Take tribulations and trials you face . . .
Plunge them in love by the strength of My grace.
Follow My path, when the suffering grows.
Cherish the Cross! It will conquer your foes!

— David L. Hatton, 7/12/2000 (revised, 1/17/2014)
(from Poems Between Here and Beyond © 2016)

Friday, June 5, 2020

DEATH & LIFE AT THE TABLE

(Online Holy Communion link here and at bottom of this article)

Holy Communion, or the Eucharist [from the Greek word for “thanksgiving”], is a powerful means of grace. I touched on this briefly in my blog article of 3/9/2018, “Two ‘Means of Grace’ for Healing,” which you might want to read before this one. God has never stopped using means of grace, although most Christians today have stopped thinking clearly about them. But we must be very clear on the Table. For too many years Holy Communion has been treated as merely an act of ritual obedience. The Eucharist must be retrieved for what it is: a means of grace for personal spiritual growth, inner healing and, at times, spiritual warfare.

A Mystery Beyond Human Speculation

The Lord’s Supper is a mystery. Making what’s on the Table fit our theological explanations may comfort human minds, but it often robs Holy Communion of its centrality to Christian life and witness. Disputes about the virtues of one position over another have divided the Body of Christ. It might be best to approach the Table always repenting that we ever tolerated such division. Roman Catholics insist on transubstantiation, the more ancient Orthodox on objective transformation; for Lutherans it’s a sacramental union, for the Reformed a spiritual union, or for many other Protestants, a holy memorial; unfortunately, for some denominations, it was a temporary rite no longer needed. Please, for the sake of our King, put all these rationally-defended theories and viewpoints on hold and bask in the mystery. Heaven will eventually vindicate or obliterate your chosen view. But right now, and for the rest of your earthly life, be a servant subject to our Sovereign Lord, and take Him at His word. With the trust of childlike faith, regardless of your viewpoint, accept at face value what is written in the Book:
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-57, NASB)
And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood,” (Luke 22:19-20, NASB).

And to solidify your meditation on the Eucharistic mystery, plunge your heart deep into what Paul says about the ongoing celebration of this Holy Meal: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16, ESV, emphasis mine). Both Paul’s understanding and Christ’s clear instruction should convince us that approaching this sacred Table is physically the closest we can get to what Jesus accomplished on Calvary. In a mysterious way, to “eat this bread and drink this cup” is to both participate in and “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26, NIV).

A Table of Death

Christ’s crucifixion was a terminus, an end point for many things; His Resurrection, the beginning for many others. The Cross and empty tomb divided time into BC and AD—now renamed BCE and CE, which hasn’t altered that division. They closed the Old Testament with a New Covenant, turning a Jewish story into a global one. For every believer, they end the old life with new birth, as sacramentally portrayed in baptism.

Baptism—a one-time rite for initiation into the Christian community—is a burial of the old life (as in a watery tomb) and an emergence into a newborn life (as from a watery womb). Paul describes this in very plain language: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4, ESV). This break with the old life and entrance into the new life is demonstrated once in baptism, but our ongoing need for replacing old ways of living with Christlike living is repeatedly demonstrated at the Table. There we participate again and again in the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice and empty tomb for the rest of our earthly sojourn.

It’s highly significant that Jesus introduced foot-washing in the context of His Table. He told Peter its purpose in John 13:10 (ESV): “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” Whether or not foot-washing accompanies Holy Communion, the need for cleansing is ongoing. We bring to the Table an array of worldly attitudes and behaviors that we must part with and leave behind. They need to die, and Paul says their death is the work of Christ’s Cross: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world,” (Galatians 6:14, NIV).

God is not into magic. Physically taking the Eucharist does not automatically free us from worldliness. This is why Jesus said, “you are clean, but not every one of you.” Judas missed out, despite having his feet washed by Jesus and eating the new Passover meal. An authentic participation in the body and blood of Christ at the Table is a relational act dependent on personal faith. Just as baptism is a physical confession of faith in Christ’s work on Calvary, so is partaking of the fruits of the Cross presented to us again on the Table. This makes Holy Communion a means of grace—a focal point where God’s power can put to death those vestiges of worldly ways clinging to our lives—as long as we faithfully bring them to Him, remembering that the purpose for His death was to eliminate them from our lives.

Practically, this means spending time in prayer before coming to the Eucharistic Meal, asking the Holy  Spirit to convict us in whatever areas we have participated in those dispositions and deeds that belong to the realm of darkness. It may be helpful to ask Him to show us if we have:
  • any attitude we need to confess and forsake
  • any behavior we need to bring to an end
  • any habit or addiction from which we need to be set free
  • any laziness or laxity needing banishment from our lives
  • any ties we have inherited or formed that need to be severed
  • any obsessions or compulsions that need to be broken
  • anything else in us that needs to die
But the most profound question to be asked and answered is the one Jesus asked of the lame man, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6, ESV). This is the primary question. Do we really want to change? Are we ready to bring to His Table whatever needs to die, whatever needs to end, to cease, to stop? If we do, we will agree with whatever the Holy Spirit points out to us and make it our intention to bring them to the crucifying work of Christ represented on the Table and leave them there.

A Table of Life

If we have made our prayerful preparation and are bringing our worldly trash and baggage to leave at the Table, we will likely approach Holy Communion with tears of grief. It is right to be sorrowful that such things have been held back from our Lord, in spite of having received new birth from Him. But when what the Holy Spirit has shown us is left on the Table, we can then take His life from the Table with tears of joy and celebration. Holiness and wholeness and freedom must fill up those areas where unrighteousness and darkness and bondage have been banished.

This participation in His resurrection life is a relational act of faith in its initiation and its continuation. When you accepted Christ as your Savior, you entered salvation by new birth. But you have been exhorted to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose,” (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV). Jesus stipulated baptism as a physical faith-affirmation of new birth, and He gave us His Table as an ongoing physical faith-reminder of our need to let His resurrection life fill every area of our personal lives.

With the same heart-searching prayer and personal intention, we must come to the Table of Christ’s resurrected life, taking from Him what we need in the area of:
  • attitudes and desires aligned with the mind of Him Who indwells us
  • choices and behaviors that reflect “not my will but Yours be done”
  • habits of devotion to prayer, Bible study and spiritual growth
  • a serious concern for others and commitment to serve them
  • gathering with other Christians for spiritual fellowship
  • waging spiritual warfare against the realm of darkness
  • whatever else God reveals that needs to come alive in us
Christian growth is based not on accumulating knowledge about God and the Scriptures, but on obeying God’s will and making Jesus Lord of our lives. We can’t do that on our own. We’re totally dependent on Christ’s resurrected life in us to empower us to live and grow as Christians. But God has given us physical means of grace to highlight our dependence on Him, and Holy Communion is one of them.

Conclusion

We may not be used to thinking of physical rituals, like baptism and Holy Communion, as truly spiritual activities. We may have a Gnostic view that sees no relationship between the physical and the spiritual, no intrinsic union between the body and the spirit. If so, have ignored God’s many uses of physical means of grace throughout Scripture, but worse, we have fail to uphold the central significance of Christ’s incarnation, bodily death and resurrection. Our faith is incarnational, or it is not the Christian faith found in the New Testament. The fruits of the Cross and of the Resurrection are on the Table, and Christ’s “in remembrance of Me,” includes His words, “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” Embrace the mystery and participate in it.

I hope that all reading this article will discover a new way of coming to the Communion Table. I hope all will start seeing it as a return to the Cross, where Christ’s death brings us life, by putting our old life to death so that we can freely participate in His resurrected life. The following poem makes an apt conclusion, describing the approach both to the Cross and to the Table.

THE DARK SIDE OF THE CROSS

Brokenly we stumble down the twisted trails of life,
Struggling to discover peace in self-made worlds of strife,
Fighting to escape our fears of losing what we gain,
Craving for a feast of pleasures free from any pain.
Yet, upon these broad and damning roads beneath our feet,
There’s a solemn shadow that our steps may often meet.
In the setting sun of earthly dreams there stands a Cross,
Casting hope upon those paths of everlasting loss.

From its slender shade, which seems at first so cramped and tight,
Comes a whispered offer for a journey into Light.
Once, there was no exit; now a doorway stands in view,
Open for the weary passerby to walk on through.

Oh but how it looks constricted, narrow as the grave,
Waiting to convert the seeker’s soul into its slave
By its strong death-dealing nails for fixing limbs to wood:
No more wandering the world we thought we understood;
No more squandering of precious gifts that God bestows;
No more pity for ourselves for self-engendered woes;
No more place for stubbornness within our willful heart—
Selfish thrones must topple, proud dominions fall apart;
No more so-called freedom for our flesh to play the fool;
Only crucifixion, setting Jesus free to rule . . .

Harsh and strict, this pathway through the Cross of Christ appears,
Warning all who enter of its dark side’s loss and tears.
Yet, if we have thought it out and in that way have stepped,
We elude what choked our lives, rejoicing where we wept.

Such emancipation on the Cross’s other side
Opens up to us a realm extremely rich and wide.
Heaven’s light unveils a vast expanse where glory shines.
Holy wealth with pure delight and beauty intertwines.
Far beyond imagination, rapture fills our souls.
Endless joy in useful service flows from godly goals.
What were not true friendships in the world we leave behind
Change to new, real fellowship we’d always hoped to find.
On the Cross’s brighter side, our destination’s clear.
Working out His Word and will, we sense His presence near.

Jesus walked the dying side to hellish depths below
To unlock the living side, where treasures overflow:
Mysteries of faith and prayer, His Body’s bread and wine,
Light of Life, a life of Love, and love for Light Divine.
What He purchased when He hung as “nothing” on the Tree
Was to be our everything: His life in you and me.

So, don’t flee the Cross because you see its darker side.
Don’t keep running off to find a wider place to hide.
Stop and leave the worldly highway, choose no more to roam:
Make the Cross of Jesus yours, and it will lead you home.

— David L. Hatton, 4/6/1993
(from Poems Between Darkness and Light ©1994, 2014)

( For a 10-minute, online Holy Communion
 observance, go to https://youtu.be/lWQtfOM3caY )

Monday, May 4, 2020

WHAT IS SPIRITUAL MATURITY?

The answer to that title’s question is probably more easily described than practiced. Nevertheless, I’ll try describing a personal, biographical answer through sharing my attempts to practice spiritual maturity.

Having become convinced in high school that philosophy was the key to knowledge and that theology was the path to spiritual wisdom, I began my college education trusting the academic study of both to bring me to spiritual maturity. But after getting my B. A. in Bible and still feeling inadequate to enter the ministry, I began seminary studies in San Francisco. That was back in the 1970s, right after the surge and crash of the Hippie Movement, just when the Jesus People Movement was taking off. A few weeks into my seminary studies, my spirit was suffocating, starving in a spiritually dry desert.

About that time, someone in the Jesus Movement introduced me to the writings of Watchman Nee. Despite my Bible college education, I struggled with his book The Normal Christian Life, because, as simple as it was, it presented a depth of Christian experience that was foreign to my knowledge-based ideas of spirituality. In his books The Ministry of God’s Word and The Release of the Spirit, Nee taught that only by a break-through from the Holy Spirit, Who wrote the Word of God, could anyone minister that Word effectively. A senior seminarian I carpooled with trivialized Nee as shallow and simplistic. Since I knew the opposite to be true, his haughty gibe at Nee began to sour my perception of the seminary path. Doubts merged with my sense of spiritual dryness to make me contemplate abandoning seminary. That thought was soon confirmed.

I had been asked to preach at a rescue mission in Oakland, but I purposefully did not prepare a sermon. Instead, praying for guidance, I opened my Bible during the song leader’s last song and my eyes fell on a familiar passage in Romans. Immediately, I saw in my mind’s-eye a vision of Christ on the Cross, being overwhelmed by the sins of humanity, past and future, converging on Him to stifle His very life. Just as described by Nee, when I stood to speak, an unplanned message began to flow out. Somehow I knew what to say and how to say it. But when it came to the vision I had seen of Jesus crying out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? . . . My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” my mouth poured out words to describe what was taking place without the help of my rational thought. When I sat down, I knew God had showed me the inadequacy of studying my way into a spiritual ministry. Shortly thereafter, I quit seminary just before the end of my first semester.

Those living at the Lord's Land in the 1970s
Around that time, the fellow who told me about Watchman Nee had invited Rosemary and I to visit him at a Christian commune near Mendocino called The Lord’s Land. We’d had our first child after Christmas in 1972, and I was still working at a paint factory—our only source of income. On my way to work one morning, I felt the Lord telling me, “Don’t go to work.” Ignoring this as a strange thought, I kept driving. But as I turned onto the road to my job, I heard, “Okay then, there will be no work for you today.” When I got there, the foreman told all of us that there was no work. I quit that day, and Rosemary and I headed off to Mendocino to visit the commune. I discovered later that everyone else was called back to work shortly after I left.

Cross at the bluff - Lighthouse Ranch
Our visit to The Lord’s Land impressed us tremendously. These Jesus People, living in a communal setting, had an amazingly mature level of spirituality. It showed me how my academic education in God’s Word had not trained me to practice the Word, as these young believers were doing. Later we visited the group’s headquarters in Eureka and ended up moving to their original commune called Lighthouse Ranch, housed at an old Coastguard station on Table Bluff near Lolita.
View from the water tower at Lighthouse Ranch

I soon began to grow spiritually in this group, especially under the powerful preaching of Jim Durkin, a Foursquare Gospel minister who led Gospel Outreach, the name they chose for their ministry. Under his evangelistic preaching, several hippie communes had become Christian communes, and I eventually became what they called “a coordinator” of one of them, Living Waters Ranch near Whitethorn, an hour west of Garberville.
Young Hattons at Living Waters Ranch

Every few weeks, we caravanned up to Eureka for a general Sunday gathering of the communes at the War Memorial Auditorium, the only place large enough to hold those meetings. One such Sunday, I clearly remember discussing a question with Jim DeGolyer, another leader who later helped lead Gospel Outreach teams in Guatemala and Ecuador: “What is spiritual maturity?” He offered his idea of it, but suddenly an illustration popped into my head, and this imaginary narrative has stuck with me as a defining answer all these years:

A Christian counselor is approached by a young couple having marital problems. He listens, then prays, asking God, “Lord, I’m helpless to counsel this couple without Your guidance. Please, show me what I’m to say to them.” God tells him to share a certain passage of Scripture with them. It solves their problem. Soon, another couple comes with seemingly the identical problem. Instead of assuming that he has God’s answer, he prays again, “Lord, I’m helpless . . . ,” and God directs him to the same Bible verses as before. The problem is solved.
The next couple, and the next, and the next, 25 times in a row, come to him with what he perceives to be exactly the same problem. Instead of assuming he knows what God wants him to share, he does not turn to that passage to answer them, but always prays with complete sincerity the same prayer, “O Lord, you know what this couple needs, and I’m at a loss to help them without Your guidance. Show me what to say.” Again, God directs him to the same Scripture, which he then uses as his counsel to them. Their marriage is sailing smoothly again.
Some would define spiritual maturity as having the gumption to learn the mind of God from these many episodes where He did not vary in His guidance. After all, how many times does a lesson have to be repeated? Isn’t it obvious that God wants to give that Scripture passage to such couples, whose relational troubles are obviously so similar? For the spiritually mature counselor, absolutely not! Nothing is obvious, because only God knows the human hearts involved. Only He can give them what they individually need for healing.
The example of that counselor’s spiritual maturity is confirmed when the 26th couple arrives with the same problem. He prays the same prayer, desperate for God’s clear direction, and God shows him a different passage of Scripture to share with them. It uniquely meets their need.
Spiritual maturity has nothing to do with how long we have been Christians. Some young believers are far better at seeking and obeying God’s guidance than older ones who have tons of Bible knowledge but a poor track record of personally listening for divine guidance. Yet it is God’s will for all of us to listen to Him directly. Jesus in Matthew 4:4 quoted from Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

From the very beginning, we were to get our guidance from a direct, personal relationship with God, not from an internal, independent “knowledge of good and evil.” In John 10:27 (NKJV), Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” When self-confident of being right about things, based on our own experiences or education from others, we easily end up listening to the voice of our own mind. Guidance from God should always be checked against His Word, for He will not direct us to do anything in conflict with what He has already revealed. God’s Word, however, was not intended to substitute for hearing from Him directly for guidance in areas where His Word does not specifically give direction.

Believe His promise in Psalm 32:8 (NKJV), “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye.” I know it takes faith to trust God to guide, and it takes practice to learn how to hear His voice. But we are all called to spiritual maturity, and we get there by practicing the prayer the little boy Samuel learned from Eli in 1 Samuel 3:9 (NIV), “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.

Jesus, our best example of spiritual maturity, said in John 6:58 (NKJV) that He came “not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” That was His whole ministry, to do and teach what He heard and saw from the Father (John 8:28, 38). We know, as Christians, that is our calling too, because He said, "Follow Me."

Saturday, December 28, 2019

POEMS BETWEEN FEAR AND FAITH - Introduction

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(Before becoming a preacher, a nurse, an amateur artist, or a massage therapist, I was a poet and still am. Getting my poetry published in more than homemade binders had been a dream for years. Health challenges and the rise of modern book-publishing technology merged to motivate me to make the effort. This is not my sixth book of poems published in paperback and Kindle editions.

I wanted to put the introductory essays for each collection on my blog. If you want to know what makes me tick, my poetry tells it better than a biography.

This "Introduction" and the concluding poem are from my first book of poems. To read the posts from my others, click on these links:

“Introduction” to
 Poems Between Fear and Faith

When compared in general, fear paralyzes, while faith motivates. Fear erodes; faith edifies. Fear drains emotional energy; faith re-charges our batteries. Fear can lead to despair; faith can encourage hope.

Such contrasts easily multiply, because the experience of these two different attitudes is part of the human condition. God created our potential of either fearful flight from or a faith-filled fight with various challenging situations. Both are familiar responses to encountering hostile circumstances.
These two opposing states of minds may not always fit into vice-or-virtue categories. Just as pain alerts us to health issues needing attention, so fear can warn of real dangers to avoid. At the same time, faith in a deception can also be dangerous. Acting on a false belief can even be lethal.

In other words, healthy fear can be good, and inaccurate faith can be bad, not based on how we react to something but on the reality behind the reaction. Faith and fear cannot turn whatever initiates them into authentic realities. But they can transform unreasonable worries and unfounded hopes into powerful, mind-controlling factors in the way we live life.

When approaching a narrow trail on a steep cliff, a hiker is wise to cross it with caution. The object of concern is the real possibility of a deadly fall into the ravine below. But if, on coming to a calm, ankle-deep stream, that same hiker is frantic at the possibility of stumbling and drowning while wading across, we would call his fear childish. Objectively, the narrow ledge is a real danger, but the far-fetched threat of the shallow stream is totally subjective.

Faith’s situations are similar but not as easily evaluated. Beliefs are not considered to be absolute knowledge. The hiker’s friend might have told him earlier to go right, when the trail divides. But if he finds a sign posted at the fork telling hikers to go left, he must make a critical decision. Will he believe his friend’s word or the authority of the sign? Both are appealing for his subjective trust, but one direction will be objectively right and the other objectively wrong.

Based on a modern denial of absolutes, there is no right or wrong. Progressive thinking’s popular motto is: “The way you choose for yourself is the right one.” Maintaining a loyal confidence in his friend’s mistaken directions might feel like the right choice, but that feeling will last only until the sun begins to set on him and his unattained destination.

As in these illustrations, subjective experiences of faith and fear can misguide us. Fears spawned from nonexistent dangers or groundless worries may be emotionally felt but are falsely trusted. Likewise, faith in fictitious information or unsound instruction may be deeply sincere but can steer us far off course, sometimes into disaster.

God offers a divine solution to our debilitating fears and disappointing faiths by divinely wedding fear and faith into a life-affirming union. These two opposites can join in a happy marriage, if we learn how “to have and to hold” both godly fear and holy faith, while avoiding their false counterparts.

Did you know that we use the muscle of faith, when we cry out against the perplexing pains and recurrent griefs in the human condition? Suffering arouses our inner being to look up to God and say, “This ought not to be so!” That’s a good first step in proper faith, as long as we await His reply. Anticipating our Creator’s answer is the second step, and an essential one for our faith’s ongoing growth and health.

In nature’s beauties, God’s voice whispers only hints. When His Spirit anointed on the lips of prophets, He gave directions in signs and metaphors. But when He assumed our very nature and became one of us, His love shouted to us in perfect clarity, “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls.” (Mat 11:28-29.)

By heeding those first two voices, a faith rooted in the soul’s authentic longings, will choose to walk in the light of that last invitation from God’s incarnate Son. It would be not only foolish to reject His offer but a real spiritual danger.

This is why Lady Wisdom in Prov 9:10 says, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Without godly fear, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” The human condition offers abundant clues that something has definitely gone wrong. To disregard God’s personal involvement in resolving what went wrong is to ask for even more trouble.

Those who believe that only this material world exists imagine that death will end all troublesome human concerns. But their chosen faith is based on ignorance of humanity’s real nature and future. Suddenly, one day, they’ll be shocked to find that they have survived death. If they lived their lives without a morally wholesome “fear of the LORD,” dying will leave them in a truly dangerous predicament.

Fortunately, life offers instruction about moral choices. Most grow up learning that both action and inaction can have painful consequences. People shirking moral responsibility often find their evil choices catching up with them in their lifetime. Death, instead of alleviating this possibility, insures that this catching up will be absolutely unavoidable.

The inevitability of death calls for a serious and sober response to God, yet many are prisoners of unconcern. Their false faith inspires false courage. But the afterlife will correct their unbelief. They will experience the same dread known by their deceiving captors, the demons who “also believe, and tremble,” (James 2:19). The only hope for unbelievers is a present one. During this earthly life, they must embrace a reverential fear and turn in faith to God with repentance [metanoia, a Greek word meaning “a change of mind”].

Although godly fear grows into an ever-deepening love for God, worldly dangers may nag believers with worry. As depicted by my optical-illusion painting on the front cover, such fear looks dark, when it invades the light of God’s promised care. Conversely, when surrounded by threatening darkness, true faith glows brighter. Some day, in Heaven, dark danger will flee away and faith will become sight. Obviously, we’re not there yet. But, while we await our eternal home, faith can live life fearlessly, if we maintain our awareness that the Lord of Heaven indwells our hearts.

As with my other poem books, some poems here have nothing to do with the title or this introduction. While I’m still on this whirling globe, worldly fears continue to vie for control over my heart and mind. Some of these poems were written to encourage myself and fellow-believers to keep a faithful, steady pace in our journey with Jesus. A few others were merely for comic relief along the way. You’ll find experiments with haiku and brevity, on both light and deep subjects. Walking life’s narrow path between fear and faith is serious business, but not morose. Faith can be lighthearted, especially when enjoying a good laugh at a silly fear.

My hope and prayer in sending forth these poems is that some of them will reach those still wavering in their faith, whether non-christians or straying believers, and help them make that wise decision to respond to Christ’s invitation, “Come unto me . . .”

David L. Hatton

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

 LETHAL GUESTS

As hungry, burrowing worms gnaw through,
destroying the plants on which they grew . . .

As rust reduces to soft red earth
the mighty iron that gave it birth . . .

As moths lay larvae in woolen wear
to ravage the threads that feed them there . . .

As ashes fall in a fiery flame
from the fueling wood from which it came . . .

So pride’s long reach for its haughty goal
consumes the life of its host, the soul.

                          — David L. Hatton, 2/20/2019
            (Poems Between Fear and Faith, © 2019)

For more single poems from this volume, visit my website's “Poetry Page.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

MY POEMS OF CHRISTMAS #20 - “Christmas Presence”

This last poem for this blog posting series—written only 2 days after “Peace and Good Will” (see MY POEMS OF CHRISTMAS #19)—offers solutions to the relational difficulties that some may face at social or family gatherings during this season, even on Christmas Day itself...


CHRISTMAS PRESENCE

Don’t fail to give the gift
that no one else can bring.
If there’s a former rift,
Let love remove its sting:
    All grudges find release
    when bygones rest in peace.
Your joining in can lift
a broken tune to sing.

You may cause ice to melt,
if you are truly there.
No matter what life’s dealt,
Stay present with your care.
    Meet eye-to-eye, as planned—
    no smart-phone in your hand.
Your self’s uniquely felt,
when you remain aware.

As get-togethers mount
at Christmastime each year,
your heart can be a fount
to draw the thirsty near.
    The smiles and hugs you give
    must flow while people live.
So, make connections count
before they disappear.

— David L. Hatton, 12/09/2018

(this is in Poems Between Fear and Faith
for purchasing it, go to My Books 4 Sale)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

MY POEMS OF CHRISTMAS #19 - “Peace and Goodwill”

This very short poem, written during Advent of the same year as “From Crèche to Cross” (see MY POEMS OF CHRISTMAS #18), is a brief expansion on the implications of the message announced by angels to the shepherds....


PEACE AND GOODWILL

Since Adam ate from off that tree,
Earth spins without tranquility.
No golden age of ancient Greece
Nor Pax Romana gave us peace.
The Son of God and Mary brought
The hope that midnight angels taught.

If you’d find peace from Heaven’s King,
Then join the song the angels sing:
“To God the highest glory be!”
That’s goodwill’s faithful melody!
All sinners, willing to believe,
Alone that Prince of Peace receive.

— David L. Hatton, 12/7/2018

(this is in Poems Between Fear and Faith
for purchasing it, go to My Books 4 Sale)