It is unnerving to say that the most godly person I have ever known is my father, James "Buck" Hatch, who turns 80 this year—unnerving because he has never been a tower of strength. Those of us who have known him best saw his weaknesses as clearly as his strengths. Grace amid weakness is, I suppose, the theme of this birthday tribute, for it was through his brokenness, not his strength, that he brought healing attention to the shadowed interior rooms of people's lives. His life has much to say about the nature of Christian ministry.
A painfully shy person, always near the brink of depression, Buck has experienced life more as a vale of tears than as a vista of opportunities. I often remember Dad coming to dinner—a boisterous affair with four sons—and just sitting at the table, not uttering a word.
His life cannot be canonized as an all-American success story. It was his father who had been the Horatio Alger type, rising from poverty on a hard-scrabble North Carolina farm to ownership of a prosperous hosiery mill in Charlotte. My father had little use for the respectability my grandfather sought. Driving a Pierce Arrow, owning a fashionable home, joining the country club-these did nothing to fill the void of a soul not at home with itself.
Why his eldest son consistently forfeited opportunities for success was an enormous puzzle to my grandfather. An honors student at Duke University, Buck abandoned his pursuit of a career in medicine, much to his father's dismay, after a powerful conversion experience drew him toward the ministry. He served for a time as a Presbyterian minister in Mississippi and then did graduate work in psychology at the University of Chicago under the renowned Carl Rogers. Once again he refused to use his degree as a professional springboard. He went to work for what his father feared was an upstart, fundamentalist institution, Columbia Bible College. To my grandfather, a dyed-in-the-wool member of Charlotte's staid First Presbyterian Church, this made no sense.
Without fanfare, for over 40 years, my father has poured himself into people at Columbia Bible College and the surrounding community. Year after year he taught classes in Scripture, biblical hermeneutics, psychology, and family life. His office was open ten hours a week for counseling, a pattern he continues today without charging a fee.
My parents' relationship has been a model of gentleness and mutual respect. Dad was the most untypical Southern gentlemen I have known. He didn't wait around to be waited upon. From bathing the children to washing the dishes, he did whatever would be of most help to my mother. Mother, in turn, used our home and her warm hospitality to enhance Buck's calling. Their commitment to a common ministry cemented their beautiful relationship. Toward this end, they gladly submitted themselves to each other.
Dad has been no respecter of persons. He has naturally gravitated to "little" people, the ungifted, the unattractive, those often regarded as unlovely, or troublesome, or unuseful. One deeply wounded person whom he counseled for years wrote, "You have been Jesus in flesh and bone to me."
As an adolescent, I could never understand how the ministry of my shy and private father reverberated with such power in people's lives. When he taught, people listened, riveted. When he preached, people's views of God and themselves changed, often in dramatic ways. And when he counseled, broken people tasted healing.
No amount of analysis can explain the contagious quality of love he radiates: he is a vessel simply brimming with the powerful love of Christ. But it is instructive to think about the central characteristics of his life and ministry.
Describing my father's character requires a word that is the antithesis of judgmental. Robertson McQuilkin, Dad's longtime friend and colleague, coined it on my parents' fiftieth anniversary when he wrote, "Your affirmation was constant and outrageous."
That's the word—outrageous. Buck showers boundless affirmation upon family, friends, and students alike. A family friend recently told me he regularly visits my parents' home feeling that his life is a failure, and he always comes away buoyed with hope. "I could walk into Mr. Hatch's house unshaven, dirty, and completely disheveled," he noted. "If I had only one strand of hair in place, Buck would stop me to note how great I looked."
What a refreshing gift—to release others from judging themselves severely. In the exercise of this gift, Buck's life and beliefs converge. The depths of his own experience awakened him to the heights of divine grace and care. His bedrock conviction: God is far more reliable, faithful, and forgiving than his people imagine.
Dad has known that inner yearnings for the embrace of God are rarely fulfilled, that people hear the message of grace but seldom believe it intended for them. Whatever people profess about God's love and care, Buck knows the default mode of the human heart: God seems aloof and indifferent, and we are distanced from him by our repeated failures and lack of faith.
Dad's single-minded goal throughout his preaching, teaching, and counseling has been this—to remove the veils that keep people from seeing God's lovingkindness. As Philip Yancey once noted in a letter, Dad's influence was key in "unpolluting" his faulty concepts of God. Dad's purpose, as Augustine put it, was to "restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God might be seen." He did not chide people for their lack of spiritual vitality. Instead, deftly as a surgeon, he lifted away layer upon opaque layer of guilt and shame. In Buck Hatch's presence, people experienced love and acceptance.
Buck lived what he taught—unconditional love. He knew nothing of stern fundamentalist moralism, despite living in an environment steeped in it. Instead, he gravitated to those who were out of step: the lonely, the rebellious, the angry, the confused-and particularly anyone whose self-esteem had been stripped away. Scores of letters to my parents attest to his rare ability to pour himself into hurting people. One student wrote: "You have been a father to the hundreds of people who needed a father like you."
The sterling quality of my dad's ministry was not forged without great cost. Through the goodness of God over fourscore years, my father has come to radiate a deep and abiding joy. But you could not call him a happy person. He has always wrestled with thorns in the flesh that drove him not to rely on himself.
Buck Hatch bore the scars of a terribly dysfunctional family, whatever its outward success may have been. He remembers sitting at the top of the stairs, night after night, straining to hear a single kind word between his parents. He always climbed into bed disappointed.
The second of five children, Buck seemed most buffeted by his shattered home life. Although bright, he was insecure, melancholy, and introverted. His older sister and two younger brothers, however, came to maturity visibly confident, outgoing, and successful. One brother became student body president at Wheaton College where a friend described him as the most natural leader he knew. Similarly, his sister was a professional woman in the 1950s, rising to be director of personnel at the Carson, Pirie, Scott department store in Chicago.
Their success was short-lived. My aunt became a chronic alcoholic and lost her job, her apartment on the Magnificent Mile, and her exquisite furniture. My uncle's story was yet more tragic. After serving as a chaplain in World War II, he openly renounced the ministry and his faith, cut off ties with the family, and lived a meager existence, bouncing from odd job to odd job, until his death. Another brother, whose life as a young man seemed stable and prosperous, witnessed the collapse of his personal and family life. He died prematurely, his health also compromised by alcoholism.
This story of a shattered family is a parable of grace. Buck Hatch, who began his pilgrimage carrying the heaviest burden, found strength in his infirmity and became a stronghold for his troubled siblings. My aunt, beaten and fatigued, moved in with my parents, who worked patiently to get her back on her feet.
Dad's sister-in-law, rudely divorced by his brother, also moved to Columbia and found loving support in our home. Years later she wrote my parents: "I am not writing this letter just for myself. This comes from all the Hatches alive and dead whom you two have loved, helped in so many ways, and prayed for through the years. … [You have] helped a very unhappy and sorrow-filled woman get her life back together-again so gently, so lovingly and unfailingly there when needed."
Dad never fled from his own brokenness or tried to paper it over. It is this lack of pretense that people found so winsome. My dad's brokenness, not his strength, gives him ready access into the interior rooms of people's lives. He typically listens more than he speaks. When he does have something to say, it springs from deep wells of experience. And when people confess to him their dark nights of the soul, they do not get pat solutions but an embrace from one who has also traversed the darkness.
AFFIRMING THE NATURAL AND THE SPIRITUAL
My father always laughs at any suggestion of his being an intellectual and points to my mother whose love for books outstrips his own. Yet from the time of his graduate training at the University of Chicago in the 1940s, my dad pursued a serious intellectual agenda: how to relate the natural "truths" of modern psychology to biblical revelation. In personal terms, he explored what it meant to have a relationship with God for those severely wounded by broken relationships.
This was Dad's passion a generation before the church became awash in therapeutic forms of Christianity. Dad rejected any suggestion that he was an authority on the subject and refused to put his thoughts into writing, despite repeated suggestions from former students. Yet his insights were profound.
In his teaching and counseling, Dad emphasized an incarnational view of reality, a careful blend and balance of the natural and the spiritual. He did not, for example, expect quick and easy spiritual solutions to problems faced by Christians who had been denied healthy intimate relationships. If Christianity is a relationship, my father reasoned, how can someone who has grown up in a web of poisoned relationships learn to identify with a nurturing and covenant-keeping God? Like the Swiss physician Paul Tournier, Dad emphasized that new life in Christ does not free us from obedience to the natural order. In other words, no progress in faith erases a person's past. Everything that has been lived and gathered by experience still exists and must be reckoned with.
At the same time, Dad insisted that helping people to cope psychologically was only the beginning of the pilgrimage to know God and his ways. Effective counseling, as he saw it, allowed people to get beyond themselves and prepared them to encounter the matchless grace of God, the only enduring reason for living.
Moving easily among these diverse realities—psychological, theological, and pastoral—gave my father acute insight into how broken people easily miss the essence of the gospel. How do hurting people negotiate the lofty expectations of the Christian life? The Bible speaks of a life characterized by love, joy, and peace, yet people often look within and find pain, frustration, and bitterness. Buck Hatch understood that the logical reaction for many was to despair of living a fruitful Christian life. Similarly, he understood the tendency of persons who had not known much affirmation to try to win God's acceptance through a flurry of good works.
With words gentle but firm, Dad called a halt to the cycle of guilt that plagued these Christians. He insisted that the gospel offered no quick fixes for deep-seated dispositions of the soul. Using Jeremiah, a man of tears, he was able to explain to some why life, given their backgrounds, would be a continuing struggle. At the same time, he pointed them to a faithful Savior whose mercy was always new. My father knew that for some, just getting through each day could be a glorious victory of grace.
Try as they might, some people over the years were slow to believe that God loved and understood them. Yet they could count on the acceptance of at least one other person. Bitter travail and gracious healing allowed this friend to stand in the stead of his Savior.
My father's ministry became widespread despite his best efforts to keep it small and local. He resisted lecturing at other institutions, putting his thoughts into print, or—perish the thought—creating a clinic or a parachurch organization to continue his work.
We live in a day when Christians strive to emulate the latest successful ministry, unaware that as a goal that is a contradiction in terms. The life of Buck Hatch is a vivid reminder that the divine economy inverts natural priorities. In Christ's kingdom, the last shall be first, life is saved by losing it, and weakness confounds strength. In the greatest paradox of all, bitter affliction may allow the power of Christ to rest upon us. This is the best training I could have received in a religion that worships a crucified Savior.
Nathan Hatch is vice president for graduate studies and research at the University of Notre Dame.
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