Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


Two Graces

It’s been said, “We’re like beasts when we kill. We’re like men when we judge. We’re like God when we forgive.” Those of us who have been on the receiving end of forgiveness know what a gift God’s grace is!

Years ago, I learned that forgiveness involves another kind of grace as well. While I was a seminary student, I lied to one of my professors. I told him I’d finished a reading assignment that in truth I’d yet to complete. As our grade was based on the honor system, I received a decent grade based on the belief that I’d completed the reading. Years later, the Lord convicted me of the need to come clean with my professor. I wrote him a letter, confessing my lie and seeking to make it right in whatever way possible. I waited anxiously for his reply, fearing possible repercussions. It couldn’t have been more than two weeks before I received the following letter from him:

Dear Mark,
Thank you for your good letter! I value deeply your willingness to acknowledge your failure to list your reading accurately for the course. The pressure to ratify course requirements can be a temptation!
But through this you have received grace to acknowledge this. Calvin said that true and lasting repentance follows our union with Christ through grace. I accept your confession as a sign of God’s grace in your life – and you should too!
God bless you in your continued ministry and study – (and read the book because you want to, not because you have to!)
Ray S. Andersen

Needless to say, God used Dr. Andersen to show me His amazing grace in a whole new way. I received two graces that day. First, there was the grace of forgiveness. This is what I had asked for in the first place, and it was quite a relief to receive it after all that time! But, there was another grace that I experienced even prior to that. Dr. Andersen’s letter taught me that it was grace that led me to repentance and confession in the first place. This was a grace I had not asked for, but God granted anyway. Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind in his letter to the Romans when he said, “the kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4).

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Open Windows for a Grateful Heart

In my last blog post, I said that thankfulness is both a duty we work at and a gift we receive. I like the way Lewis Smedes put it, “Gratitude dances through the open windows of our heart. We cannot force it. We cannot create it. And we can certainly close our windows to keep it out. But, we can also keep them open and be ready for joy when it comes.” So what are some of these windows that we can learn to keep open so that gratitude might enter? Here are a few:

Learn to celebrate imperfect gifts. This may sound like blasphemy, but not all God’s gifts are perfect gifts. Are you ever thankful for your children? For your family? For your friends? Of course you are. But, are they perfect? Of course not. In 1 Cor 1:4 Paul says to the church in Corinth, “I thank my God always concerning you…” He then went on and in the rest of the letter he rebuked everything from sexual immorality to spiritual pride. Paul had learned to celebrate imperfect gifts. People who demand perfection choke gratitude before it has a chance to blossom.

Keep in mind that we are always thankful for one thing in spite of another. One day I was driving down the road feeling very thankful. Then I remembered a woman I’d seen just a few days earlier in the hospital who had died. Immediately I thought to myself, “What right do I have to be so thankful for my life when someone else’s was just devoured by cancer? How can I rejoice over my healthy children when someone else’s child was just run over by a car? How can I be glad for my full plate of food when someone else’s is empty?” Thoughts like this turn gratitude into shame. But if we wait till no one ever dies, we’ll never be thankful for our own life. If we wait till every child is healthy, we’ll never be grateful for our own children. If we wait till every beggar has a plate of food, we’ll never be thankful for our daily bread. Sometimes the “in spite of’s” hit closer to home. How can I be thankful for my job when my family is a mess? How can I be thankful for the roof over my head when I can’t afford to buy the house I really want? But, we can and we must or else we shut out gratefulness from our lives forever. We’re always thankful for one thing in spite of another.

Saying some thanks primes the pump of gratitude. There are times for all of us when, if someone tells us that life is a gift, we’d just as soon give it back. There’s too much trouble, too much pain. But, even in those times, in a raw act of our will, we can say thanks anyway. And when we do, the window for gratitude stays open. Feelings are strange and unreliable things. We can never know when saying something we don’t feel will prime the pump and get that feeling flowing. C.S. Lewis said the line between pretending to feel something and beginning to feel it is too thin for a moral bloodhound to sniff. So go ahead and pretend, because it might fan the flame of something already lit. One of the most helpful ways to do this is to keep certain times and places set aside for thanksgiving. Times like November 22, 2012. Times like Sunday mornings. Times like each time you sit down to eat a meal.

So there you go, three ways to open the windows of your life up to gratitude. Maybe you can come up with a few more. We ought to be grateful, but we don’t always feel like it. And believing that God wants more for us than just going through the motions, these are ways to be ready for it when it comes.


Surprised by Gratitude

I woke up one morning and sleepily stumbled into my kitchen. For some unknown reason, on the way to the far end of the kitchen where that sacred coffee pot rests, I decided to stop and look out the kitchen window into my front yard. It was there I saw it, or should I say, felt it. I must admit, it took me by surprise. It snuck up on me, and when it grabbed me it squeezed me pretty hard. It was gratitude I felt that morning. A deep river of thankfulness within I didn’t even know existed. I can’t take credit for it; I wasn’t even looking for it. I’d have to say that it found me, rather than I found it. With it came a gladness unrivaled by anything I’d ever experienced. I suppose what made it especially nice was that I knew who to thank. It’s been said that the worst possible moment for the atheist is when he feels grateful and yet has no one to thank. Gratitude. There is no doubt that one of the greatest pleasures on earth is this feeling of gratitude.

My father had a heavier way with gratitude. Years ago, my dad came home with from a shopping spree with a jacket he picked out just for me. His face shone with the gladness of a giver. I took one look at it and though I think I knew better, I cringed. It had squared-off shoulders and it was cut short at the waist and it just wasn’t the look I wanted. Few things ever made my dad as angry as my ingratitude on that winter evening. He did what all parents do, myself included. He pressed gratitude into the mold of duty: “Mark, you ought to be grateful!”

Certainly he was right. His sentiments reflect the wisdom of all ages. The Roman sage, Cicero, called gratitude “the mother of all virtue.” The ancient stoic, Seneca, wrote, “There was never any man so wicked as not to approve of gratitude and detest ingratitude.” Immanuel Kant, the Father of modern philosophy, agreed: “Ingratitude,” he wrote, “is the essence of all vileness.” And the great theologian, Karl Barth, said that gratitude is “the one thing which is unconditionally and inescapably demanded” of us.

More importantly, scripture speaks of the duty of gratitude. In Colossians 3:15 Paul very simply says, “Be thankful.” In his first letter to the Thessalonians he writes, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” And finally, in Romans 1:21 Paul names ingratitude as the chief characteristic of sinful man and the one thing that propels man into further darkness: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”

Settled then! Ingratitude reeks. Gratitude is our moral obligation. But still I wonder if we can really be thankful the way God wants on command. I wonder if God wants more than a thankfulness that proceeds out of a guilty conscience that says, “You ought to be grateful!” I wonder if that sacred moment I shared by the kitchen window wasn’t something closer to what God has in mind when he says to us, “You be thankful.”

Is thankfulness a duty we work at or a gift we simply stand by and receive? Perhaps a little bit of both. Lewis Smedes, whose book, A Pretty Good Person, has helped me formulate my thoughts on all this, says it like this: “Gratitude dances through the open windows of our heart. We cannot force it. We cannot create it. And we can certainly close our windows to keep it out. But, we can also keep them open and be ready for joy when it comes.” Later this week, as we prepare for Thanksgiving, I will write about some of these windows that we can learn to keep open so that gratitude might enter.

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Standing the Strain

In my last blog post, I promised I’d share more about why I believe shared elder leadership is the right way to lead a church. The most obvious reason is that I believe it is biblical. For now, I won’t try to prove that, but it’s worth mentioning that not everyone agrees. Many seminaries teach pastors that there’s really no one model of church government in the bible. As a result, some churches are organized more like a business than a church. I think the church suffers as a result.

From a purely practical standpoint, I simply can’t imagine all of the responsibilities for leading a church being placed on the shoulders of one man. Shared leadership lightens the load. We see this principle at work at an important juncture in the history of Israel. Moses was leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. There were a lot of them! We’re talking 600,000 men, plus women and children (Exodus 12:37-38)! Each day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people. One by one they’d come to dump their problems on him and he’d render a judgment. When his father-in-law Jethro paid him a visit, he wisely questioned Moses, “Why are you doing this all by yourself?” 

That’s a good question! It would be appropriate to direct this same question to many pastors who insist on being the sole decision makers in their church. Perhaps they’d answer in a similar way as Moses. I can imagine Moses shrugging his shoulders as he explained to Jethro how the people came to him with their disputes to seek God’s will and it was his job to decide who was right based on God’s word. It seems Moses felt he was the only one who knew God’s word well enough to make an informed judgment.

But Jethro wasn’t buying it. With words that have become legendary in leadership circles, he confronted Moses: “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.” He went on and advised him to select capable, godly men, teach them God’s word and show them how to live it out. The most difficult cases would still come to Moses who would bring them before the Lord. Jethro concluded, “That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied” (Exodus 18:17-23).

We can all see the wisdom of Jethro’s advice, and Moses was smart enough and humble enough to put it into practice. Who knows how long he’d have lasted in the wilderness if he insisted on doing it all himself!

Shared leadership in a church lightens the load on those in leadership. Instead of wearing out, leaders are able to “stand the strain.” It’s not just a matter of spreading the work around, it’s also having others to share the emotional burden.

Shepherding God’s people is hard work. It takes a toll both physically and emotionally. Consider the sheer variety of things a pastor does in a given week: long hours of study, preaching, leading meetings, counseling, prayer, strategic planning and far too many potluck dinners! Pastors need others to bear the load.

Not only will this help them “stand the strain,” it will also increase effectiveness. Jethro said something to Moses that’s easy to miss. He implied Moses wasn’t doing a very good job all by himself. Why else would he say, “If you do this…all these people will go home satisfied.” It seems to me that when Moses was trying to do it all himself, they weren’t satisfied. It’s no wonder! When you spread one guy that thin, how can he possibly be effective?

Without a doubt, the Apostle Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church was the Body of Christ. Like a body, the church is one with many members. “Just as the body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). Paul usually discusses spiritual gifts in this context. As members of Christ’s body, no one man has all the gifts. Having a group of elders to lead a church under the headship of Christ allows for a variety of gifts to be modeled, utilized and valued. Furthermore, as elders work together in the shepherding of God’s people, the larger body has a chance to see the beauty of both unity and diversity at work within the elder team itself.

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The Guts and Glory of being an Elder

One of the greatest joys in my 26 years of ministry at Central Peninsula Church has been working side by side with our team of elders. Together we have over 100 years of experience serving as elders. That means besides growing old together, these guys are my friends. We hang out together. We have fun together. We laugh a lot and shed a few tears. We support each other through personal struggles and losses. We confess our sins to each other and pray for one another.

When I try to assess a person’s character I sometimes ask myself, would I want to go to war with this guy? Would I want this guy covering my back on a beachhead landing like the one at Normandy? I can honestly say I’d gladly go to battle with any one of our elders.

And it IS a battle! Being an elder isn’t a glamour job. There are no perks; no fringe benefits. Each one of them and their families pay a steep price. They pay with their time. They commit enough hours and days a year for it to be considered a part-time job, but there’s no paycheck at the end of the month. They commit nights and weekends; our meetings often last until midnight. One of our elders regularly gets up at 4:30 am for work the next day, and sometimes he even drags himself straight to work from our meeting! Being an elder cuts into family time, work time and leisure time.

They pay in other ways too. We commit ourselves to rigorous accountability where we give each other the right to ask hard questions. We’ve made a commitment not to hide. We’ll tell each other the truth about ourselves, even when it’s ugly. Sometimes they pay with their friendships. Often, an elder has to make tough decisions that people don’t agree with or think is fair. Most of these men have lost at least one good friend as a result of being an elder. Those losses cut deeply, not just into their own hearts but into the hearts of their wives and kids. Perhaps the steepest price they pay is an emotional one. Like the ancient High Priest wore on his breastplate the names of the 12 tribes of Israel, these men carry the brokenness, pain and sin of many on their hearts, and it takes a toll.

I will share more in an upcoming blog post about why I believe shared elder leadership is the right way to lead a church. For now, I just want to say how thankful I am for the elders of CPC. I look forward to the day when Peter’s words about faithful elders are fulfilled: “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:4).

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When God Shows Up

This Sunday I’m preaching from 1 Kings 8 on the dedication of the Temple. The chapter is really all about worship. At one point, after the ark is brought into the Temple, the glory of the Lord fills the Temple and the priests were so overwhelmed they “could not perform their service.” I find this rather funny! God shows up and the ministers are dumbfounded; paralyzed by his presence! It’s like they were fine as long as God was way up there, but as soon as he showed up they didn’t know what to do. They’d been playing with the idea of God for so long they were stunned when the real thing showed up!

As I was thinking about this, I ran across something by one of my all time favorite writers – Daniel Taylor. In his book, Letters to my Children, his son Matthew asks, “Church is getting boring. Why do we have to go to church?” Taylor’s reply to his son helps me understand a little better why church is sometimes a far cry from what happened that day long ago when Solomon dedicated the Temple:

Think about it. If a friend called and said a famous athlete or singer was going to be at his house, and asked if you wanted to come over, wouldn’t you go? Wouldn’t you be excited? Of course! So would I.

Well, church is the place where God will be, every time you go. Of course he’s with you whether you’re in church or not, but he can be there in a special way when many believers gather to celebrate him together.

“Sounds great,” I hear you saying, “but then how come you fell asleep so much? If God is really there, I mean really there, then how come we aren’t bug-eyed and breathless most all the time?”

That’s a very good question. I wish I had a very good answer. Part of it is that God knows we can’t take very much of him. It’s like when you hold Fluffs, our hamster. If you squeezed very hard, Fluffs would be on his way to hamster heaven. You have to hold him gently, talk to him quietly. Well, God has to be sort of like that with us.

Truthfully, though, the biggest reason might be that we don’t want very much of God. We want God to stay in his cage like Fluffs does. We’re afraid of losing control of our own lives. We just want him to help us a little here, and forgive us a little there, and let us handle the rest. And so we try to make church a safe place where we can get a little bit of God but not too much.

We don’t like surprises, not even from God, so we make our churches places where surprises aren’t likely to happen. We ask God to come, but only if he will be polite. And therefore, little kids and adult kids often fall asleep—even if they keep their eyes open.

And yet, at the very same time, church is a wonderful place. God has chosen it, “sorry-ness” and all, to be the place where he will meet his people, the place from which he will send his people to all parts of the world to preach the good news about Him. 

Daniel Taylor, Letters to My Children (InterVarsity Press, 1999), pp. 64-65

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Election Day

It’s Election Day and we all have our hopes set on one candidate or another. Our church is used as a polling place in our city and the folks working there report a lot of people are showing up to vote this year. That’s a good thing, for sure.

A week ago Sunday I preached on 1 Kings 4, which describes Israel under Solomon’s reign. It was a golden age; an ideal kingdom. It reminded me of family vacations as a kid. Every year we went to the same place up in the gold country of the Sierra Nevada. We’d stay in a small resort built on the North fork of the Yuba River, called Shangri-la. It was a kid’s paradise. We caught Brook trout with salmon eggs, we rode the rapids into town on old inner tubes, we hung a swing on a tall tree that allowed us to fly out over the river and jump into deep, cold waters. There was even a General Store in town where we bought real rock candy out of a jar.

We all long for a place like that. Perhaps that’s because God has promised us such a place; a perfect kingdom. Jesus once said to his followers, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32). The Apostle John had a vision of this kingdom: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4).

Solomon’s kingdom is a foreshadowing of the Kingdom Jesus came to establish. It’s also a reminder of the fact that we’ll never achieve such a place this side of our Lord’s return. Even Solomon’s seemingly perfect kingdom didn’t last for long. At the end of his life, Solomon strayed from the Lord and Israel was eventually divided and conquered (1 Kings 11:6, 14). It’s a reminder that, regardless of the many blessings we enjoy, we live in a fallen world. Every earthly kingdom and king will eventually fall and fail to meet the longings of our heart.

I believe there is a warning in this for all of us; a warning we especially should be aware of on the eve of knowing the outcome of this election. Solomon’s kingdom seemed so perfect. Do you think he would have been reelected? Of course! But eventually the people who voted for him would be disappointed. We tend to look for earthly leaders like Solomon to create earthly kingdoms and for a while it may all seem to work, but eventually they all fail. They fail because we live in a fallen world with fallen people and fallen leaders.

We all care about our country. There are important issues at stake: the right to life, health care, national defense, our role in the world, religious freedom, education. I hope we all do our best to study these issues and vote. But the warning is not to put your hope in any earthly kingdom or any earthly candidate because eventually they’ll all let us down. Even a king as great as Solomon teaches us that.

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Holy Inefficiency

I’m not sure when I read my first book by Henri Nouwen, but I had to read more.  In many ways this was odd because Henri was a Catholic priest and I an Evangelical pastor. But there was a depth and insight Henri had into our life with Christ that resonated with my spirit in a unique way.  Over the years I read more, devouring most of his 40 or so books on the devotional life.

Several years ago, I wrote to Henri and asked his advice on some areas I was struggling with in my walk with the Lord.  Within a few weeks He wrote me back, inviting me to spend a week with him in Toronto.  I was amazed that this prolific author who had taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard would write me back, much less take the time to invest an entire week with me.  Needless to say, I went to Toronto and had a life changing week of learning from Henri and a small group of about 25 others he had invited.

Henri taught me most of all from his example.  He taught me the value of downward mobility.  Like our Lord, Henri descended into greatness.  Though a highly educated man, Henri chose to live in obscurity with a community of severely mentally handicapped people in Toronto.  He was their pastor.  Each week he spent his time bathing, feeding, and praying with people who couldn’t care for themselves.  I vividly recall sitting around a large dinner table of these men and women, feeling very awkward, and watching Henri feel right at home.  These men and women did not care how many books Henri had written or where he had taught, they just appreciated Henri because he loved them enough to be present with them.

I think the reason I related to Henri so much is that he and I shared a common struggle.  We both tended to base our worth and our identity on our performance.  In the midst of that struggle, Henri taught me what Philip Yancey called “a holy inefficiency.”  Living with the handicapped instead of teaching at Harvard was inefficient, but it was also holy.  Spending each morning in silent prayer in the basement of his house was inefficient, but it was also holy.  Henri’s holy inefficiency taught me the value of being rather than doing.  He taught me the value of prayer, not as a way to accomplish something for God, but as a way of drawing near to God and allowing Him to love me apart from my performance.  Henri taught me that all ministry must flow from that place where I am in communion with God or else it is just another vain attempt to earn my belovedness.

Henri also taught me graciousness.  The day before I left Toronto, he invited me into his simple little room where all his earthly belongings were stored.  He took my hand and told me that I would always be a part of his community and I could return any time for help or friendship.  It sounds so simple, but it was one of the most gracious and sincere things anyone has ever done for me.  His graciousness was also demonstrated to me a couple of years later when I wrote him a hard letter after hearing him speak in San Francisco.  I felt that he had compromised the truth, and I told him so.  Within a few days, Henri’s reply came in the form of another letter.  He explained why he said what he said, but more than anything else he was humble and gracious in his reply.

Though I continued to read his books, I never heard from Henri again.  On September 21, 1996, Henri died of a sudden heart attack in his native Netherlands.  Though I know he was far from perfect and there were many things we would disagree on, I still miss his example of holy inefficiency.

If you would like to read a book or two by Henri, here are a couple of my favorites: “The Return of the Prodigal” and “In the Name of Jesus”.