Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


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Prone to Wander

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.

Those words come from a line in an old hymn written in 1757 by a 22-year-old named Robert Robinson. They express an important biblical truth — we’re prone to wander away from God. Sometimes it happens without us even being aware of it. Psalm 119:10 says, With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. I’ve been thinking lately about why we’re so prone to wander. Four biblical characters come to mind, each having wandered for different reasons.

Abraham wandered because he failed to trust God in a crisis. God called Abraham to leave his home and travel hundreds of miles to arrive in an unknown land of promise. The first thing he did was build an altar to worship the God who brought him there. The journey was off to a great start. But no sooner had he arrived in Canaan that he encountered a crisis — a famine. This was his first opportunity in this new land to trust God. But instead we read, Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. There’s more going on here than Abraham running to the next town to buy groceries. God never told him to go to Egypt. He never consulted God about this. In the Old Testament, Egypt almost always represents a worldly response to a spiritual challenge. Instead of trusting God to provide in Canaan, he took matters into his own hands. The journey of faith isn’t easy. The moment you make a decision to follow God, you can count on something going wrong; some disappointment, setback, or temptation. God allows these things so he can meet us there and reveal his character and shape ours. So one of the ways to prevent wandering is to trust him when life throws you an unexpected challenge.

Solomon wandered because he made small compromises that set him on a bad trajectory. Another example is King Solomon of Israel. This guy was blessed with a great model in his father, David. Early on God offered to fulfill any request he made. Solomon asked for wisdom. God was so pleased that he asked for wisdom and not wealth that he gave him both. So he was not only the wisest man on the face of the earth, he was also one of the wealthiest and most powerful. But he wandered. It started when he made a small compromise: Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter.” That’s what kings did back then — they made political alliances thru marriage. But God had clearly said not to do that. We might say, “Okay, he slipped up. No big deal.” But a few chapters later it says this: King Solomon… loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter… As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God… All that started with a small compromise. Sin always has a trajectory. It almost always starts with a small compromise, a minor concession, a brief indulgence, but that can make a huge difference in your eventual destination.

Peter wandered because he was overconfident. Peter was one of the original apostles chosen by Jesus. He was the first one to discern that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. But the night before Jesus was crucified, something happened that forever changed Peter. At a meal with his twelve disciples, Jesus announced that he was going away.

Peter asked, Lord, where are you going?

Jesus replied, Where I am going you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.

Then Peter said,Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.

Then Jesus said, Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!

That very night, while Jesus was on trial, Peter denied three times knowing Jesus. It’s a classic case of overconfidence. One of the things that will make us vulnerable to wandering is thinking we could never wander! Because when we’re overconfident we let down our guard, and when we let down our guard, we’re sure to fall. We need to stay humble and dependent, knowing how prone to wander we really are!

Martha wandered because she was distracted with many things. Martha and her sister Mary were some of Jesus’ best friends. One night Jesus and his disciples were at their house for dinner. Here’s what happened: Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.You can understand why Martha is upset. They had to feed 16 people and her sister isn’t lifting a finger. But Jesus’ response may surprise you: “But the Lord answered her, Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her. It’s clear that Mary gets the high grade and Martha the low one. But why? It’s not that serving is bad and sitting around is good, but Martha was so distracted with serving she forgot about Jesus! Sometimes we wander from the Lord because we’re distracted with other things, even good things can become bad things if they cause us to take our eyes off of the Lord and stop listening to him, as Mary was doing.

What do you do when you’ve wandered away from the Lord? The first thing is simply to admit it. This sounds simple, but the further away you get, the harder it is to do. But you’ve got to admit it to the Lord. God just wants us to stop hiding and be honest with him. And when we do that, we can count on his grace. Ps. 51:17 says, A broken and contrite heart, you, God, will not despise.Second, take some time to reflect on what happened and why it happened. Do a kind of post mortem. What can you learn from it? How can you avoid making the same mistake twice? Finally, build some accountability into your life. Having others in your life that you give permission to ask you the hard questions will keep you accountable. As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.


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Do-Gooders

For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 1 Peter 2:15

There are a lot of negative things said about followers of Christ these days. We’re labeled as narrow and intolerant, compassionless, hateful, hypocritical, archaic in our beliefs. Sometimes those accusations are accurate. But, I must tell you, I think most of the time they are flat out wrong.

So did the Apostle Peter. His readers were being slandered and bullied. They were being publicly shamed because they rejected emperor worship and excused themselves from family gatherings at pagan temples. I’m sure this felt like social suicide to them. At times it was these believers who felt like ignorant fools. But Peter reminds them that their critics are the ones who are ignorant and foolish; they don’t know what they’re talking about.

But how do we fight back? How do we overcome the negative stereotypes? We live in an age where Facebook and Twitter practically hand us megaphones to shout our opinions, hoping our voice will be louder than all the other megaphones competing for attention. But adding to the noise with our words isn’t going to change people’s opinions or hearts. Peter says doing good is what makes a difference.

I think of the many ways the people in my church are doing good. A group of women just put together “bags of love” for women in unintended pregnancies. A man in our body collects jackets for the homeless, brings them to the city and passes them out to those in need. Another man leads a ministry to homeless veterans who need help getting back on their feet. A woman leads a ministry at an elementary school in Redwood City helping Hispanic children learn how to read in English. A Community Group serves at Shelter Network bringing food and birthday celebrations to those living at the shelter. CPCers are feeding and providing bible study for day laborers at a Worker Resource Center where immigrants go to wait and look for work for the day. This church is delivering practical help to impoverished families suffering in Ukraine, to women trying to escape the sex trade in Thailand, and to orphans in Honduras.

Can we do more? Can we do better? Of course we can. But those are the kinds of things people notice; those are the kinds of things that silence critics — not talking, not tweeting, but DOING! That’s what Peter is talking about: Let your Christ-like lives in the community earn favor and silence your critics. That’s how we make a difference, not just through our words but through doing good.


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Is Grace Common?

Do you know what an oxymoron is? An example of an oxymoron is the phrase “jumbo shrimp.” With an oxymoron, the words that are used to describe a particular thing seem to be self-contradictory, or at least they are two things that don’t seem to go together. From this perspective, one might say that the phrase “common grace” is such an oxymoron. How can God’s grace be deemed “common?” Though God’s grace in one sense is commonplace, it is always something that He gives that is undeserved by us. That God bestows any grace at all upon us is an uncommon manifestation of His kindness. We don’t earn or deserve such benefits.

Common grace is a term used to describe the goodness of God to all people universally. Common grace restrains sin and the effects of sin on the human race. Common grace is what keeps humanity from descending into the depths of evil that we’d see if the full expression of our sinful nature were allowed to have free reign.

We’re totally depraved—tainted with sin in every aspect of our being (Rom. 3:10–18). People who doubt this ask, “How can people who are totally depraved enjoy beauty, have a sense of right and wrong, perform acts of goodness, know the pangs of a wounded conscience, or produce great works of art and literature? Aren’t these accomplishments of humanity proof that the human race is essentially good? Don’t these things testify to the basic goodness of human nature?”

The answer is no. Human nature is utterly corrupt. “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10). But common grace is what restrains the full expression of human sinfulness. God has graciously given us a conscience, which enables us to know the difference between right and wrong (Rom. 2:15). He maintains order in human society through government (Rom. 13:1–5). He allows us to admire beauty and goodness (Ps. 50:2). He gives tokens of His kindness on both the good and the evil (Matt. 5:45). All of those things are the result of God’s goodness to people in general.

Common grace does not pardon sin or redeem sinners, but it is still a sincere token of God’s goodwill to mankind in general. The apostle Paul said, “In Him we live and move and exist … for we also are His offspring” (Acts 17:28). That includes everyone on earth, not just those God saves. God deals with us all as His offspring, people made in His image. “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works” (Ps. 145:9).

Acts 14 contains a nice description of common grace. Paul and Barnabas were ministering at Lystra, and Paul healed a lame man. The crowds saw it and someone began saying that Paul was Zeus and Barnabas was Hermes. The priest at the local temple of Zeus wanted to organize a sacrifice to Zeus. But when Paul and Barnabas heard about it, they said, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them. And in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

That is a fine description of common grace. While allowing sinners to “go their own ways,” God nevertheless bestows on them tokens of His goodness and kindness. It is not saving grace. But it is a genuine manifestation of God’s love to all people.


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An Ode to Romance

We’re all sometimes a bit skeptical about this business of romance or falling in love. We sometimes hear that true love isn’t something we can “fall” into. We all know Hollywood has distorted our view of love to make it more about romantic feelings than true commitment. But, if we are not careful, we will miss out on something wonderful and mysterious.

Listen to what the Bible says about this in Proverbs 30:18-19:

There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
Yes, four which I don’t understand:
The way of an eagle in the air,
The way of a serpent on a rock,
The way of a ship in the midst of the sea,
And the way of a man with a maiden.

In this ancient proverb, the high point is found in the final line: the venturesome and mysterious ways of the soaring eagle, the slithering serpent, the sailing ship – these build to a climax in the mystery, adventure and attraction between a young man and woman.

It’s hard to fathom! How does an eagle soar through the air? How does a snake slither on a rock? How does a ship glide through the sea? Think of each of these images. Each portrays a seeming ease of movement with no trace being left behind. It seems so natural, but when you try to explain it, words cannot be found. How does an eagle handle invisible air? How does a snake handle unforgiving rock? How does a ship handle unpredictable sea? It’s not easy to negotiate air, rock and sea, much less a young woman! How does it happen? How does he capture her invisible and unpredictable heart? I don’t know, but I’m glad God created a world where there’s something as unpredictable, surprising and wonderful as this. Aren’t you?

This is the mystery of a man and woman in love. The first glance of the eye. The rush of the heart. The conversations that flow long into the night. The scary revelation of mutual admiration. The moving towards greater commitment. How does it happen? I don’t know, but I’m glad it does.

There’s one more thing that’s even more wonderful than the way of a man with a maiden. It’s the way of a man with his wife of twenty, thirty, or forty plus years. It’s the way of love which grows deeper and stronger and even more wild as the years go by.


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ISRAEL BOUND!

As you read my Monday morning blog today, I will be arriving in Israel with 20 friends, most of whom are part of our staff at Central Peninsula Church, along with their spouses. For a long time I’ve dreamed of making such a trip. Being a pastor, I’ve felt incomplete not having been there. I’ve spent over 35 years teaching people about the Bible. I’ve talked about places like Kiriath-Arba, Beersheba, Capernaum and Bethany. I’ve tried to have a handle on the geography of Palestine. I’ve seen many photos and heard many stories, but having never been there I’ve always felt a bit lacking. Now, finally, Lord willing, as you read this, I have arrived.

I’ve always been intrigued by the connection God’s people have had to this land, and now I will be able to discover why. The stories of the Bible are deeply embedded by geography and can’t help but be enhanced by actually being in the places they took place. The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, the crossing of the Jordan River, and Jesus asleep in the boat on the Sea of Galilee during a massive storm should take on new meanings by visiting their settings. In Judaism, the traditional process of analyzing Scripture is called midrash, from the Hebrew term meaning to investigate; in Christianity, we call it exegesis. I’ve done a lot of textual exegesis over the years, but now I get to do what, in effect, is  geographical exegesis.

I am grateful to our church for allowing this to happen. Prayers for a safe and rewarding trip are much appreciated!


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Ordinary Grace

Every once in a while you run across a book that surprises you. It isn’t by any author you’ve heard of in the past, and there have been no rave reviews that prompt you to give it a try. You’re not even sure how you heard about the book, but something about it intrigues you. Maybe it’s the cover, maybe it’s the title, maybe somewhere in the recesses of your mind you’ve heard of the author. For whatever reason, you decide to give it a try. You pick it up and read the first page, and then the second, and pretty soon you’re hooked. Such a book is Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger.

The story takes place in Minnesota in the early 1960’s. It is narrated by Frank Drum, who tells of a summer forty years earlier, when, at age 13, a child in his town was killed by a train. It’s a summer that will change his life forever, and his story will resonate with you for a long time. The child’s death becomes the catalyst for a series of tragic events that brought his family to their knees, baptizing them in the “awful grace of God” where “people search for answers but in truth it all comes down to one’s ability to go forward. God’s grace allows us to question, to grieve and to heal.”

Frank’s family includes his father, a pastor and World War II veteran, who still harbors secrets and regrets from the war. Frank’s mother is a rebel against the strict confines of the church. She’s disappointed in her life as a pastor’s wife, but has an artistic side and enjoys leading the choir. Frank also has an older and talented sister who is headed for Juilliard and a younger brother, Jake, who chronically stutters.

I won’t spoil any more of the story for you. Instead I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all.… That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven.”


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How to Pray for Our Nation

Much like our nation as a whole, the Church is divided over our new President. One of the things we can all agree on is the need to pray for him and for our nation. Yesterday, in view of both President Trump’s inauguration and Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, many churches prayed for our nation. Adam Darbonne, High School Director at Central Peninsula Church’s North Campus, led us in prayer and I believe this is a fine example of how to pray for our nation at such a time as this.

Almighty God, Creator, Redeemer, Ancient of Days, we bow before you this morning, our only King, and the sovereign God, who rules with perfect justice and love. 

You have commanded us to pray for all those in authority, and as we have prayed for President Obama over the last eight years, we now pray for President Trump. First and foremost we pray that he would repent and believe in your resurrected son. We ask that you would convict him of sin, and bring him to his knees in repentance. That you would humble him under your mighty hand, and lead him by your glorious light. Until then, we pray that your will be done in the government. Surround our leaders with your wisdom. We ask that you would use the government to restrain evil, bring justice in our country, especially to the downtrodden, hurting, and vulnerable.

We also pray that you would use us, your church, to be salt and light in the world, that we would be a voice and force for justice and love in our country and around the world. And as Paul says, teach us to lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and holy in every way, for this is pleasing to you. As we pray for justice for the vulnerable give us the courage and compassion we need to live as faithful advocates for human life—in all its expressions. How we long for the Day when “death shall be no more”—when life will flourish in the new heaven and new earth. Today we especially think about the lives of unborn children and the constant threat to those lives—even as we cry out to you on behalf of all kinds of women in all kinds of situations who are carrying those children in their wombs. Lord Jesus, we pray for the courage to stand up and care for the voiceless and vulnerable—those whom you are knitting together in their mother’s womb. Lord Jesus, may those here today whose stories are marked by abortion know your love, compassion and forgiveness this morning.

Finally, Lord, make us a compassionate church. Jesus, show us how to love and care for those women and men whose stories are marked by abortion. May we be a church who cares extravagantly for women in crisis. Lord, we long for your justice, compassion, forgiveness, and love. In the name of Jesus, Amen.


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7 Takeaways from the Book of Joshua

We’re all familiar with the well-worn acronym TGIF. Personally, I’ve never been able to relate. Why? Because I’m a pastor and my work week is just ramping up on Friday. For over 30 years my Sabbath has been on Monday, so Thank God It’s Monday fits much better for my life. Monday is a day of rest and refreshment for me. Often you will find me down at my favorite coffee place on Monday afternoon just hanging out and reading a good book.

I also like to write. For this reason, I am calling this new blog TGIM. I hope to write a bit each Monday and share my musings. It may not be anything profound, but more and more I find God shows up in the ordinary. Here is my first blog post with a few thoughts on a recent sermon series we did in the book of Joshua last fall at CPC.

Our teaching team at CPC just finished a series we started back in September on the book of Joshua. It was called “Ventures in Faith.” Here are my seven take-aways from the book of Joshua:

  1. Leadership matters: Joshua was a great leader who God commissioned to lead his people. He led with faith and determination from start to finish. At the end of the book he dies and he is given the highest honor—being called “the servant of God.” In what ways is God grooming you as a servant-leader?
  2. God calls us into situations that are over our heads so we will trust in Him: Throughout the book of Joshua, God calls his people to be strong and courageous because God is with them and he will fight for them. Israel was in way over their heads but God came through when they trusted in him. What is God calling you to that seems way over your head?
  3. God works in surprising ways through surprising people: Who could have predicted that God would use the faith of a harlot named Rahab to help deliver his people? Who could have predicted that Israel would defeat Jericho by marching around the city blowing horns? Do you underestimate God’s ability to surprise you in how he works and who he uses?
  4. God’s faithfulness in the past should fuel our faith for today: Over and over again God rehearses his past faithfulness to Israel to give them a foundation for faith and obedience in the present and the future. He even makes them set up stones of remembrance so they won’t forget. How well do you remember God’s faithfulness to you?
  5. We must not compromise in our obedience to God: Israel had to learn this the hard way as they watched Achan and his family stoned to death because he disobeyed God’s explicit instructions and hid some of the devoted things in his tent. Are you compromising in your obedience God?
  6. Pursue unity through truth and love: I love the story in chapter 21 of how a misunderstanding between God’s people that could have ended badly was worked out by practicing both truth and love. Do you pursue unity through truth and love?
  7. It’s never too late: Who can forget Caleb, as an old man, asking Joshua to let him take more land and defeat the giants that remained there? Are you letting your age limit your determination to make a difference for God?

I’ve loved studying and preaching this book! For those of you who heard these messages at CPC from our teaching team, I hope you won’t forget either. If CPC is not your home church, you can find all the messages on our CPC website.


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DON’T GO!

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. 1 Corinthians 6:18-20

I haven’t read the book. I haven’t seen the movie. I won’t be doing either. I’ve read a few reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey just to know what we’re dealing with, but for a follower of Jesus, this should be a no-brainer: DON’T GO!

When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he was writing to people faced with many of the same choices we face. Immorality was rampant in Corinth. Paul offers two commands to Christ followers. First, he says, Flee immorality.” He doesn’t say to stop immorality. He uses much stronger words—flee from it, run from it. I like what Wayne Wright says: The best companion against immorality is geography.” In other words, get as far away as possible. Our sexual urges are so great and so powerful that we can’t afford to hang in there and duke it out with temptation because if we do, we’re going to lose.

One of the ways we can flee immorality is to be very careful with the kind of things we allow ourselves to be exposed to. If we’re feeding the flesh in the kind of books we read, the kind of movies we watch, the kind of websites we visit, then we’re just setting ourselves up for failure in this area. To flee immorality certainly means we stay away from movies and books like Fifty Shades of Grey.

While the first command is negative, the second command is positive. Paul says, For you were bought with a price: therefore honor God with your bodies.” We should honor God with our body because our body has been bought by God with the precious blood of his Son. If you pay good money for a beautiful book, you won’t tear the pages out to make a shopping list. If you fork out $30,000 for a nice car, you won’t spray paint silly patterns on the hood. In the same way, we who’ve been bought at tremendous cost have to remember not to throw our bodies in the mud of immorality, but rather to honor God with it. Our body is under new management. Use it in a way that honors the one who owns it. It’s hard to imagine that the abuse depicted in Fifty Shades of Grey is in any way a God-honoring use of our bodies.

Have you ever known someone who didn’t bother to buy a screwdriver? Instead of a screwdriver, they use a knife. And for some things a knife works just fine, but the problem is it’s not good for the knives. The ends get bent and they get harder and harder to use for their intended purpose. Not only that, if you’re not careful and use it on a very stubborn screw, the knife-blade can snap and you might even cut your hand and have a bloody mess to clean up.

That’s what happens when we use something for the wrong purpose. We need to use our body in the right way. God created the beauty of sex to be enjoyed within the lifelong covenant of marriage. Beyond that, our body was made for the Lord. It will be raised up into immortality. It’s the temple of the living God. It’s been bought at a very steep price. Now use it for what it was made for. Do as God’s Word says: Flee immorality and honor God in your body

In other words, don’t go!


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YOU’VE GOT (NO) MAIL

When was the last time you wrote a letter, I mean a real letter? When was the last time you received one?

I have been slowly reading a very fine book by C. John Miller called, The Heart of a Servant Leader. It is a series of letters that Miller wrote to various friends and ministry associates during his years as a pastor and leader of a mission organization. As I have read through these letters, I have been struck by the power of a personal letter to bring encouragement and counsel, especially when born out of a caring and humble heart of a true servant leader.

Another book that I have found intriguing of late is, Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Comprehensive Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience, by Shaun Usher. This is an amazing collection of some of the most famous letters ever written. There is a 10-year-old Fidel Castro’s letter to the President of the United States, and Mary Stuart’s letter to the brother of her ex-husband hours before she is to be beheaded: “Thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime.” Once again, the power of a letter!

It is rare these days for people to write real, handwritten letters. It takes time and it can be hard work. Most of our communication these days happens through the medium of technology: email, text, social media, cell phone, etc. I think we have lost some important things in all of this: the ability to express our ourselves carefully and intelligently, something to hold in our hands that is real and personal (just for me), as well as a physical record of our own communications for future generations to enjoy and learn from. Oh, and the skill of penmanship as well!

Is there no longer any practical use for letter writing? Has literary eloquence become relegated to the obsolete past? I hope not. I challenge you to sit down and write a real letter, with a real pen (get a really good one) and real paper. I’ll bet it will do you and someone you care about some good. Fifty years from now, maybe someone will even find your letter in an old, dusty box and read it. If it will make you feel better, you can still sign off with a B4N or LOL.