Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

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The Skill of Friendship: Part IV

The fourth skill is the most difficult skill of all—forgiveness. Ray Stedman used to say that there three things that we must do for a friendship to last—forgive, forgive and forgive! Proverbs says the same thing. Look at 17:9: He who covers a transgression seeks love, But he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends. Look also at 10:12: Hatred stirs up strife, But love covers all transgressions. Both of these proverbs speak of forgiveness in an unusual way. They speak of “covering a transgression.” That doesn’t mean we ignore it; it means we see it and acknowledge it for what it is and by an act of our will we choose to forgive that person and not to make it public. We don’t repeat it; we don’t stir it up so that every angle of the scandal is exposed and every last drop of shame is drawn from the offender. A good friend will try to contain the damage of our sin. She will see all of our quirks and idiosyncrasies and be willing to stay with us and cover them.

Every close friendship progresses to a point where a decision has to be made. Will we cover the offensive actions and annoying traits of that person, and will the relationship then move to a deeper level, or will those things cause us to move away from our friend? Since we’re all sinners every friendship will have to deal with the reality of sin, weakness, failure and conflict. Any friendship that hasn’t had to deal with those things can’t be considered close. Many people get to that point in the friendship and because they’re unwilling to endure through the sin they bail out and move on to the next relationship. But, unless we’re willing to love someone at their very worst we can’t have the very best of friendship.

How are you doing in the skill of friendship? It’s not easy, is it? As a matter of fact, when we start talking about the kind of loyalty and forgiveness described here I would say its virtually impossible in our own strength. But all of this was meant to be a picture of the kind of love God has for us. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves, but I call you friends.” Jesus has given to each one of us the promise of friendship. A friendship in which he displays every one of the skills we’ve talked about this morning—sensitivity, truth, loyalty, and forgiveness. The old hymn says, “I’ve found a friend, O such a friend, he bled, he died, to save me. And not alone the gift of life, but his own self he gave me. Naught that I have my own I call, I hold it for the giver; my heart, my strength, my life, my all are his and his forever.” And here lies the real key to being a friend. To be this kind of friend, we have to know the friendship of God in our hearts.

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The Skill of Friendship: Part III

A third skill that’s needed in friendship is loyalty. By the way, we’re progressively moving to a deeper level, and as we do it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder. Proverbs 17:17: A friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity. This is a very simple but profound verse. Both lines say essentially the same thing in a different way. A true friend is one who loves us at all times, in every circumstance of life. There is a hint here that the true colors of friendship are seen in the midst of adversity. When our lives are falling apart a true friend will stand with us. Or when our friend has failed, we’ll be their to pick them up.

We have many examples of this kind of loyalty in Scripture. I think of how Jonathan was a friend for David in a time of need. He went out of his way to help when David was in danger of being killed by King Saul, who happened to be Jonathan’s father! I think of Barnabas who proved to be a friend to the apostle Paul after his conversion when the rest of the apostles were ready to turn him away. It’s not easy to be a friend like that and it’s not easy to find a friend like that. It means moving beyond friendship that’s rooted in enjoyment or convenience to one that’s rooted in the raw will to love. It requires tenacity to stay with someone when there isn’t anything left in it for you.

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The Skill of Friendship: Part II

The second skill is truth-telling. Healthy friendships are based on truth, even if it hurts. Proverbs 27:5-6: Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy. These two proverbs speak of the need for truth-telling that’s sometimes painful in a genuine friendship. An open rebuke is better than concealed love. Concealed love refuses to show itself by saying something that’s needed but possibly hurtful, and that really isn’t love at all. It’s soft love; it’s morally useless love; it’s love that isn’t tuff enough to say something to a person when their behavior is destroying themselves and everyone around them. But “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” A friend who will tell you the truth, even when it might wound you, is precious. Their willingness to wound you is born out of faithfulness to you. It doesn’t always feel that way. Nobody likes to be wounded. But, it’s true.

This is an aspect of friendship that we have to be willing to both give and receive. If you have a friend in your life who cares for you and comes to you and tells you something about yourself that’s hard for you to hear then thank God for that person and take what they say seriously. We say we want to grow in our faith; we want God to direct us; this is often how God does it. He puts a friend in our path who loves us enough to reflect back to us some of the things about ourselves, some of the choices we’re making, that are unwise. Sure, sometimes we have to consider the source, but more often we should consider the criticism, and if we hear it from more than one person, consider it even more. An old Yiddish proverb says, “If one man calls you an ass, pay him no mind. But if two men call you an ass, put on a saddle.”

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The Skill of Friendship: Part I

Friendship is crucial for us to be the people God has called us to be. But what does it take to be a friend? I have over 600 “friends” on Facebook, but what does that mean? Studies show we have less people we can really confide in than past generations. Our society does very little to help us in this area. Fifteen year-olds spend months learning how to drive but rarely learn how to be a friend. College students spend years learning the skills of engineering or business but the skill of friendship is left up to osmosis. We have a generation of people who aren’t succeeding in this area and it affects everything. How can we learn the skill of friendship? There is no better place to learn about friendship than the book of Proverbs. Proverbs has taught me at least four skills that are required to be a friend.

First, there is a need for sensitivity. We’re talking here about being sensitive to what’s appropriate or offensive. Proverbs 25:17 says, Let your foot be rarely in your neighbor’s house, Lest he become weary of you and hate you. Here is a warning against wearing out your welcome. Don’t be in your friend’s house too much because sooner or later he’ll get sick of you and loathe the sound of your voice at the door. It doesn’t say that we shouldn’t ever be in our friend’s house, but don’t overdo it. It helps to understand that culture. In that culture hosts were obligated to welcome and provide for guests, even if they resented it. It’s the same thing in many countries today. In my travels in Eastern Europe I’ve learned I have to be careful about staying in homes with families. In those cultures they’re expected to go overboard in extending hospitality even if they don’t want to. Often it’s very genuine, but since it’s a cultural expectation you have to be careful not to take advantage because they would NEVER say anything. That’s what this Proverb is talking about–being sensitive to those kinds of issues. Yes, we should show hospitality to one another, but that doesn’t give us the right to take advantage.

Sensitivity is also needed when a friend is hurting. Prov 25:20: Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar on soda, Is he who sings songs to a troubled heart. Two images are given and they both speak of actions which cause an immediate unpleasant reaction. One who takes a coat off on a cold day immediately reacts to the cold. And the acid in vinegar combined with the alkaline in soda immediately creates a bubbling reaction. When we sing songs to a troubled heart an unpleasant reaction takes place. When a person is hurting, the last thing they need is for someone to come along and try to get them to think positive or to look on the bright side. What they need is for someone to come along side of them and weep with them and be tender with them. George MacDonald writes, “Tears are often the only cure for weeping.”


Meet my Favorite Writer

Every now and then someone will ask me about my favorite writers. Almost always, the first name that comes to mind is Wendell Berry. And most of the time, when I say his name I get a look of confusion, like, who is Wendell Berry?

Wendell Berry is a conservationist, farmer, essayist, novelist, professor of English and poet. He was born in 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky where he now lives on a farm. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky in 1956. In 1958, he received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, which is just down the road from where I live. Berry has taught at Stanford and many other universities. He’s the author of more than 40 books. He’s won numerous awards and honors. Although he has written many nonfiction books, my favorites are his fictional Port William series. The New York Times has called Berry the “prophet of rural America.”

I first learned about Wendell Berry from fellow pastor, Eugene Peterson, who writes, “Wendell Berry is a writer from whom I have learned much of my pastoral theology. Berry is a farmer in Kentucky. On this farm, besides plowing fields, planting crops, and working horses, he writes novels and poems and essays. The importance of place is a recurrent theme — place embraced and loved, understood and honored. Whenever Berry writes the word ‘farm,’ I substitute ‘parish’: the sentence works for me every time” (Under the Unpredictable Plant).

Make no mistake, Berry is a farmer and not a pastor, although he does attend a Baptist church. I like Berry as a guide to being a pastor because of this commitment to place. Berry’s character Jayber Crow says, “To feel at home in a place, you have to have some prospect of staying there.” Berry committed to staying on the farm. Somewhere along the way I decided that I needed to do the same — commit to a particular church over the long haul (almost 27 years now). God knows there have been times I tried to leave, but now I would just like to pastor like Wendell Berry farms.

We live in what Berry calls the culture of “the one-night stands,” and pastors are often no different. I realize that God sometimes calls us to move to another church, but many of us will admit that occasionally we move because we’re climbing the evangelical success ladder. Furthermore, to really know how to love, serve and disciple a particular group of people takes awhile. You can’t just take what works somewhere else and use it in your church any more than you can use New England farming methods in California. The soil is just different.

So I encourage you to pick up a Wendell Berry book and give it a read. Whether you are a pastor, a writer or just a lover of good literature you will enjoy Wendell Berry. I suggest you start with Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter or A Place in Time.


The Church, the State and Gay Marriage

I’ve been thinking a bit about the decision before the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage. I recently read an article by Tony Campolo in which he asked, why is the government at all involved in marrying people? If marriage is a sacred institution, why is the government controlling it, especially in a nation where we believe in separation of church and state?

These are good questions. I’ve been officiating weddings for over 30 years. As part of the ceremony I’ve always said, “And now, by the authority given to me as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and according to the laws of this state, I do now pronounce you husband and wife.” As far as I know, that’s the only thing I do as a pastor (preaching, praying, leading, counseling, funerals) in which I am required to act as an agent of the state. Campolo asks, “Doesn’t it seem inconsistent that during such a highly religious ceremony, I should have to turn the church into a place where government business is conducted?”

I also fear that someday this could lead to the government dictating to ministers who they can and cannot marry. Recently, I sat with Evangelical believers in the Dominican Republic who have dealt with a similar problem. Historically, in the Dominican Republic, the government stated that only Catholic churches had the authority to officially marry couples. Evangelical Churches could only bless religious marriages after couples had been officially married elsewhere. As a result, many Evangelicals have been forced to live in “common law” marriages without the official sanction of the government. Do we really want the state deciding who can and cannot get married?

Campolo suggests a way out of this apparent conflict and the tough questions being raised about whether our nation should approve of gay marriages. He believes that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and just give legal status to civil unions. This would apply to both gay couples and straight couples, while marriage would be left in the hands of the church. So if a couple wants to be united in the eyes of the law, whether gay or straight, they go down to city hall and register, securing all the rights under the law. But, if the couple wants to be married, they go to a place of worship. Marriage is viewed as an institution ordained by God and is out of the state’s control.

Of course, gay couples could go to churches that support gay marriages and get married there, but those like myself who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman would go to places of worship where conservative beliefs about marriage are upheld. Marriage would be preserved as a sacred institution for all of us who want to view it as such, and nobody’s personal convictions about this controversial issue would need to be compromised.

Read Tony Campolo’s full article.