Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

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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.”


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.

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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).


Faith, Baseball, and the SF Giants

I’ve been a Giant fan my entire life. I was weaned on Mays, McCovey, Cepeda and hot dog wrappers flying in the gusts of wind at Candlestick Park. Growing up, it seemed like we always came in second, but now we’ve won another World Series title. These are good days to be a Giant fan.

Walt Whitman said, “The game of ball is glorious,” and I think he was onto something. There are so many parallels between faith and baseball. Maybe that’s why we love it so much.

Baseball has its cathedrals – amazing ballparks, hallowed grounds, two of which were featured this past week: Comerica Park and our own blessed AT&T! The first time I walked into a big league ballpark as a boy what I felt was akin to worship.

Baseball has its saints – e.g. Lou Gehrig (the Iron Horse) and Jackie Robinson (the first African-American player of the modern era) – and sinners – e.g. “Pete Rose (who made a bet) and Barry Bonds (who took steroids). It has its Suffering Servant – the Chicago Cubs, a team “like a sheep led to the slaughter.” There is even the Great Satan: the Los Angeles Dodgers (at least for those of us in the Bay Area).

Baseball always brings out the child in you, and draws you back to your childhood, indeed makes your childhood present. “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all.” (Mark 10:15)

Baseball is all about TEAM. The Giants epitomized that this year. There was a lack of ego; a willingness to play whatever role contributed to the team’s success. “As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Corinthians 12:20-21) Even in the broadcast booth this was evident as Hall of Famer, John Miller, handed the mic to young Dave Fleming to make the historic call in the 10th inning!

Baseball abounds in hope (Rom. 15:13). Even when a team is down two games to none, or three games to one, there is still hope. Even when the last out of the season is made there is always, “Next year!” Maranatha!

Finally, even our sometimes idolatrous love of our team can teach us about our salvation. So many of us in the Bay Area identify with the Giants. It’s like we’re connected to them. This is a small picture of the way we must identify with Jesus. In the Old Testament, when you brought an offering to God, you laid your hands on the head of the animal and confessed your sins. The laying of the hands on the animal showed that you identified yourself with the animal. In salvation, we identify ourselves with Jesus: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6:5) For us, in a small way, when the Giants win, we feel like we win. When they lose, we feel like we lose. In a way, that’s also true of our relationship with Jesus. When He died, we died. When He rose, we rose. The new life He has, we have in Him.

The best part of this whole deal is that Jesus can’t really lose; as long as we identify ourselves in Him, we always win. Even in seeming defeat (the cross), dare I say, especially in seeming defeat, we have the sure hope of the resurrection. The Giants will eventually disappoint, but He never will disappoint.

Congratulations, San Francisco Giants! You’ve made me a true believer!