Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


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Sitting with God in a Dark Garage

Recently our family experienced a little crisis that has taught me something about the way God works in our lives.

As I was getting ready to drive home from my gym I saw a text from my wife telling me to call her right away. So I called and she was quite alarmed because as she and our daughter sat in the backyard our 21-month-old grandson walked into the house and locked the door. They had no way to get into the house, and although at first they heard him crying, after a few more minutes he went silent. They couldn’t even locate him through the windows. So they called me and I told them to call 9-1-1. By the time I got to the house the fire truck had come, busted down a door, and found our grandson sitting in the dark garage. Of course, he was quite happy to be set free into the wide expanse of his backyard!

I think that’s how we sometimes think the Christian life is supposed to work. When we get stuck somewhere, all we have to do is shoot a 9-1-1 prayer up to God and He’ll hear our cry and unlock the door to all the blessings we desire. Sometimes He does that. But the older I get the more I realize the Christian life doesn’t always work that way. So often He doesn’t break down the door right away — like when a marriage doesn’t heal, or when rebellious kids still rebel, or when a friendship continues to go south, or when a financial situation gets worse, or when loneliness intensifies and depression deepens.

Sometimes what God does instead of breaking the door down and setting us free is He climbs through a small window into our dark room. He doesn’t let us out. Instead, He sits down on the garage floor and says, Come sit with me! I want to meet you right here. He seems to think that climbing into the garage to be with me matters more than letting me out to play. We don’t always see it that way. If you love me, you’ll break down the door! But, the choice is ours. Either we can keep asking Him to give us what we think will make us happy — to escape our dark garage and run to the backyard of blessings — or we can accept His invitation to sit with Him for awhile in darkness, and seize the opportunity to know Him better and represent Him well in this even darker world.


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The Strength of an Ox

I was 21 years old, entering my senior year of college at Cal Poly. It was training camp. I had returned to playing football at Cal Poly after taking my junior year off. I had felt a clear call from God a few months earlier to return to football to be a witness for Christ on the football team and to all the athletes at Cal Poly. At the time, there was really no witness for Christ in that arena to speak of. All the scholarship athletes lived in what were called “the Jock Dorms” and it was a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah — a very dark place with a lot of bad stuff going on.

As training camp began, I was feeling pretty alone. I also felt overwhelmed with the task ahead of me, not only contributing on the field, but more so in my Christian witness. On both counts, the odds were stacked against me!

One day I came home from practice and noticed a scrap of paper someone had taped to my door at the dorm. I pulled it off and read the words,

Where there are no oxen, there is no grain;
          abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.

To be honest, at first reading I had no idea what this verse meant or how it related to me. But the more I pondered it, the more I began to see that I was that ox! Abundant crops come through the strength of just one ox! I believed then, and I believe today, that God was speaking to me through that obscure verse. He was saying, “I see you. I know you feel alone. I know you feel overwhelmed by the task. But I am with you and I will use you. Your efforts will result in abundant harvest for my kingdom.”

This was the encouragement I needed to keep on going. The results were exactly what God had promised. Within a year there were 40 athletes attending a bible study. Several of them came to Christ and are serving Jesus today. It encourages me to remember that it only takes one faithful man to make a big difference.

To this day, I do not know who left that note on my door, but I am thankful that they took the time to think about encouraging me. We all need encouragement, and there’s nothing more encouraging than a word from God.


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A Mother’s Day Meditation

Mother’s Day is this Sunday, May 14. I’m so blessed to be surrounded by wonderful examples of motherhood in my family. I had a fantastic stay-at-home mom who died when I was only 33 years old. I still miss her. My wife is an amazing and devoted  mother and grandmother. My two daughters have followed in her footsteps and embrace their calling as mothers with grace and joy. Needless to say, we’ll be celebrating Mother’s Day at my house — big time!

But Mother’s Day is one of those events in which the church has not always known what to do with. Originally, there was a Sunday in the year set aside to celebrate the Church as mother of the faithful. Somehow that got confused with Mother’s Day. Then Hallmark got involved and the rest is history. The Mother’s Day we celebrate today just doesn’t have much spiritual pedigree.

Others factors complicate the matter. Many people had mothers who were far from ideal. Still others have lost their mother. And, let’s face it, not every woman is a mother. There are those who are single, either by choice or because they haven’t found the right person yet. And there are those women who have decided not to have children, or can’t have children. Mother’s Day can mean a lot of hurt for all of these women. To have children handing out flowers at church only to those women who have biological children can add insult to injury.

So if Mother’s Day is to be celebrated it needs to be done with lots of sensitivity. Still, I believe it is so important to celebrate and honor mothers, even at church. Here are three reasons we should all celebrate motherhood.

First, the Bible celebrates motherhood. One of the Ten Commandments tells us to honor both our father and mother. Proverbs 31 says of a godly wife and mother, “Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.” As Jesus was suffering on the cross He was worried about His mom and who was going to take care of her after He was gone. He made plans for her provision. He put one of His disciples in charge of taking care of her (John 19:26-27). From Genesis to Revelation, motherhood is seen as an honorable vocation.

Second, mothers generally exemplify some amazing characteristics. It takes a lot of courage to be a mother. I’ve been there when all three of my children were born. There is no way I could handle what my wife did three times! It also takes commitment. The last thing anyone wants to do is threaten an infant in front of its mother. Mothers put their children first. Mothers deeply care about their children from the moment of conception. Their concern shows itself in both hope and worry. While a father may overlook a child because of work, a football game, or even a round of golf, nothing will make a mother forget her children.

Third, mothers live with a difficult tension in modern society. There are some mothers who work outside the home, either by choice or by necessity,  and feel guilty for not staying home. Other mothers stay at home and feel guilty for not working. Any guilt that working or stay-at-home mothers have is a result of a society that peddles the idea that mothers can have it all. They can’t, and they often must make hard choices that usually result in them feeling like they have sacrificed either spending time with their kids by working or their own career by not working.

Celebrating Mother’s Day can be an important reminder in the midst of these tensions that motherhood in and of itself is a high calling by all means worth celebrating.


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Eating Together

They all ate and were satisfied…  Luke 9:17

A few days ago, Lynn and I and two other couples drove up to San Francisco and had dinner at an amazing restaurant. The food and atmosphere were out of this world, but the community around the table was even more memorable. Three couples sharing life, love and good food — it doesn’t get any better than that.

What is it about sharing a meal that unites us? Food has a knack for bringing people together, forging bonds and creating conversation. It’s a centerpiece of holiday celebrations. It’s how neighbors welcome new folks into their community. In the dining room, families share traditions. In restaurants, relationships and romance blossom. And in many homes, the kitchen is hailed as one of the most important spaces to meet.

An early disciple of Jesus named Luke would agree. Scholars have noted that one of the distinctive elements of Luke’s gospel is the emphasis upon meals. It progresses the narrative along, and it provides the setting for major teaching moments in the gospel. On at least eight occasions, Jesus can be seen sitting down to meals with others. In two additional accounts, a meal seems to be implied.

There is a phrase that occurs in Luke’s gospel when Jesus feeds a great crowd of well over 5,000 people: They all ate and were satisfied… In fact, this phrase occurs in both Matthew and Mark’s gospel as well. They didn’t have to say that. They could have just said they all ate. But, no, they all ate and were satisfied. Maybe I’m reading into it, but I think more than their stomachs were satisfied. I think their souls were satisfied as well.  Can you imagine it? Families and friends sitting out in the fields of Palestine, talking, laughing, playing, and most of all marveling at the miracle of Jesus filling the hungry bellies of thousands of people with just a few loaves and fish.

You might think it wasn’t quite so enjoyable for the twelve disciples. After all, they were tasked with passing out the bread and fish. I’ve spent a bit of time waiting tables, and it’s some of the most demanding work I’ve ever done. But, when all the distribution was finished, the gospel writers are careful to reveal that there were twelve basketfuls of bread left over just for them. I can see the disciples wearily sitting down and having the time of their lives. Imagine the conversation at that meal!

It’s certainly no surprise, then, that Jesus would later institute a meal as the centerpiece of Christian worship with the words, Take and eat, this is my body. Followers of Jesus come together to commemorate his death by sharing a simple meal. In those moments, it is true in the most significant way possible that we all eat and are satisfied. But that’s not all, one day we will sit together in heaven and share in another meal — the marriage supper of the lamb!

It was true then, it is true now, and it will be true in the new heavens and the new earth: and they all ate and were satisfied.


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HELP!

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.

There comes a time when all of us must realize we need help. Perhaps really macho men exist who have enough “true grit” never to shed a tear or cry out in fear. But I suspect that image has far more to do with fantasy than with reality. Of course there have been great men and women who’ve shown us the extent to which the human spirit can face adversity and come through on the other side, but when you read the biographies of many great men and women, it isn’t so much that they didn’t need help, but that when they needed help they found it.

Where do you go when you need help? Perhaps you harbor a secret suspicion it’s not quite Christian or mature to admit you even need help. It was Ben Franklin who said, God helps those who help themselves. But the psalmist is crying out, “Help!” This psalm is meant to show us how to find help when we need it. It’s been called The Traveler’s Psalm because it’s often been used to bless those who are going on a journey to assure them of God’s watching care.

One of the pitfalls that often comes on our spiritual journey is being unwilling to ask for help. I love the determination in Franklin’s quote about God helping those who help themselves. But the reality is God doesn’t help those who help themselves. God helps those who know they need help. That’s what the psalmist does — he looks up for help. Counselors tell us this is the most important step to take — to acknowledge there’s something beyond our personal resources that we need help with. The idea we can always fix everything ourself has caused the breakdown of more marriages, the heartbreak of more people, and the disaster of more businesses than any other idea on the face of the planet. Pride might be the first casualty of failure, but pride is also failure’s common cause. Pride goes before destruction…

But if it’s important to admit we all need help from time to time, then it’s also important we go to the right place to find help. The psalmist lifts up his eyes to the mountains and asks, Where does my help come from? There’s a natural tendency for all of us to glance skyward when we need assistance. The psalmist looks up to the mountains. But he doesn’t stop at the mountains. The mountains don’t offer the solution; they point to the solution. The help isn’t in the mountains; it is found in God, who made the mountains; in fact, he’s the maker of heaven and earth.

In one sense you may think this is just saying, when you need help, ask God. But telling someone to “just trust God,” can be painfully trite; like a plaster applied to a hemorrhage. This psalm does far more than offer simplistic answers. It says this God is the maker of everything. So when you say, “Trust God,” you’re referencing the rock-solid Creator of heaven and earth, of all reality.

The psalm goes on to say he’s not only our Creator, but he’s the one who watches over us in every circumstance. The psalmist draws a vivid picture. Often our imagination needs to be reframed when we need help; we need to be able to see how God can help and picture that real help is possible. So the psalm says, God is your watcher. The word for “watch over” runs through the rest of the psalm. The idea is God is keeping you, he’s watching over you, he’s looking after you. The picture is of God standing guard, eyes open, never sleeping — a powerful image.

One of the difficulties of trusting God enough to ask him for help is we can’t see him. But what if he sees us? We must live by faith, not by sight. But not God; he sees. Like a parent who says to a child who’s afraid to go to sleep, “Don’t worry. I’ll stay in the room tonight and watch over you.” God says, “I’m watching over you. I’m keeping you.” We can sleep because God does not. We can travel because God knows the way. We can take another step forward because God will not let our foot slip. He’s constantly watching, caring, keeping.


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Happy Eastertide!

Yesterday we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on what we call Easter. One of my favorite things we do at Easter at our church is baptize new believers. This tradition of Easter Sunday baptisms goes way back. In the early church, Lent was a season for new believers to learn about the faith and prepare for baptism on Easter Sunday. All Christians also prepared for Easter by fasting. At first, the fasting lasted one day; later it was extended to 40 hours, to symbolize the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness.

By the early 200s, baptism often included renouncing Satan and all his works, making a statement of faith, being baptized (naked) in water, being clothed in a white robe, receiving anointing with oil, and immediately celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

Here is something I learned just this week: According to the liturgical church calendar Easter is not just one day, but rather a 50-day period. The season of Easter, or Eastertide, begins at sunset on the eve of Easter and ends on Pentecost, the day Christians traditionally celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church (see Acts 2).

So let’s celebrate Easter for the next 50 days! To me, Easter is a season of joy because we celebrate our new life in Christ. He is alive, not just “up there” but in each one of us who believes! This extended season gives us more time to rejoice and experience what it means when we say Christ is risen. It’s the season when we remember our baptisms and how we’re “in Christ.” As “Easter people,” we also look forward to the birth of the Church and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), and how we are to live as faithful followers of Christ.

Happy Eastertide!


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Reflections of a Major League Baseball Chaplain

I am entering into my third year as chaplain for an organization called Baseball Chapel and assigned to serve with the San Francisco Giants. Needless to say, it has been quite a ride! Every Sunday home game, I do four separate chapels for the following groups: visiting team, home team, umpires, and wives/girlfriends of players and coaches. I also do a Bible Study on Tuesday home games.

Here are five things I have learned about myself and ministry to professional baseball players.

It’s good to be a rookie again.
I have served at my church for thirty years. The more you do something the more comfortable you become. This can be good or bad. Ministry should never be done in our own strength. There should always be a sense of desperate inadequacy. Being thrown into an entirely new environment with professional baseball players who are half my age has been humbling and challenging. I am out of my comfort zone and have spent far more time on my knees than usual. This is good!

I must earn the right to be heard.
Professional baseball players are very guarded — for good reason. Everyone wants something from them, and so they are very careful about letting anyone into their lives. Can they trust that person or is he just another fan who wants an autograph, a photograph, or has an investment opportunity? When I served in Young Life ministry we used to say, “You have to earn the right to be heard.” It’s true!

Ministry takes place in a team.
One of the things I have loved about serving the Giants is that my wife, Lynn, serves with me. Lynn is our chaplain to the wives and girlfriends of our players and coaches. She joins me on Sunday home games for our wives and girlfriends chapel, and she leads a Bible Study for wives and girlfriends on Tuesday nights at the ball bark. In addition to Lynn, I have a great Spanish chaplain named Rigo Lopez. There are tons of Spanish—speaking players in MLB, and Rigo does a chapel for them on Sunday home games as well.

It’s a long season!
Spring Training starts in late February and the last game of the World Series is not played until November. The 162 game schedule is grueling, to say the least. We all tend to think the life of a professional athlete is glamorous, but it is anything but! These guys work hard, endure tons of travel and time away from their families, and suffer through countless aches, pains, and injuries. Yes, they love the game, but it is not an easy life.

It’s about more than just the players.
One of the most fun things about serving as chaplain is that I get to develop relationships with not just the players, but coaches, club house personnel (“clubbies”), field crews, concession workers, etc. There is so much more that goes on at the ball park than just what happens on the field, and some of the nicest and hardest working people in the world serve in these support capacities.

The bottom line is I have loved serving as a chaplain. It helps that I get to serve a world class organization like the Giants.