Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


Train up a Child

In my last post I mentioned Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This is the best known of all the Proverbs on parenting, but it’s also one of the most difficult to understand, so I want to unpack this verse. There are three parts to look at here.

First, it says that we are to “train up a child…” The word for “train” here means to inaugurate or to dedicate. The word was used most often in the OT to describe something that was dedicated to God. The Jewish feast of Hanukkah is the noun form of this word because it involves the dedication of the altar. So to train a child in this way can mean to dedicate him to God. It can also mean to start him or to inaugurate him or to prepare him to go in a certain direction. HOW we’re to do that is something I’ll come back to in a minute.

The second thing to notice is that it says we should train a child “in the way he should go.” This is where the verse really gets ambiguous. Literally, this should read, “according to his way.” Some take this to mean that we should train up a child according to the proper or right way to live. This is how both the NIV and the NASB take it. But, the text does say, “his way,” i.e., the child’s way. For this reason, many scholars take this to mean that a child should be trained according to his own unique personality and stage in life. The emphasis here is on really knowing your child well and training him accordingly.

This means that before we can train our kids we have to be students of our kids. We have to know their stage of life as well as their unique characteristics. I have three kids who are each about five years apart. Growing up, they were always at very different stages of life. That means I treated each one differently. They’re also very different in their temperament and personality. Among the three we have an extrovert and an introvert. We have a mercy giver and a truth teller. We have a morning person and a night person. Recognizing these differences kept us from making the all too frequent mistake of comparing them with each other, “Why can’t you bring home the same grades as your sister?” Because they’re different we expected different things from them and taught them and disciplined them in different ways. Two went to a Christian school and the other to a public school. These are the kinds of things that go into knowing your children.

The third thing to notice about this verse is the last line, “…even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Does this mean that after a period of rebellion they will come around and find the right path? Although that might be true, that’s not what it means. Notice that it says, “EVEN when he is old…” The idea here is that, not only in his youth, but even in his old age he’ll not stray from the right path. The beginning determines the end. It’s as if the writer is saying that raising children is like pouring cement. The way you mold it and shape it when it’s newly poured, before it sets, will determine its shape for the rest of its life. Although it’s not a guarantee, this is what child development experts have been telling us for quite some time now: the first five years of life seem to determine so much of what that child is like. Proverbs has been saying that for a few thousand years!

Years ago there was a family in the San Francisco Bay Area. The father was a well known pastor and his son was named David. David grew up in a family where he was “trained up in the way he should go.” He grew up to love the Lord, felt a call into ministry, and went to seminary. David was a big, athletic young man. He was six feet two and 200 pounds. He worked with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. At age 32 he was diagnosed with cancer. It wracked his body and over time he went from 200 pounds to 80 pounds. When he was about ready to die he asked if his father could be brought to the hospital room. Lying there in bed, he looked up at his father and said, “Dad, do you remember when I was little how you used to hold me in your arms close to your chest?  Do you think you could do that again, Dad, one last time?” His father nodded and he picked up his 32—year—old son and held him close to his chest so that their faces were right next to each other. They were eyeball to eyeball, tears running down both faces, and the son looked up at his father and said to him, “Thank you for building the kind of character into my life that has enabled me to face even a moment like this.

It’s this kind of character that every parent wants for his child; the kind that will carry them through even the darkest storms. God, in his grace, can do that with or without us. But the fact is, he has entrusted us parents with the privilege of being a part of that process, a very important part. “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” By God’s grace we can do just that. In my next post, I will write about three skills parents must learn to do this well.


Parenting with Grace

Whenever I talk about parenting I feel a little bit like how Charlie Shedd describes himself in his book, Promises to Peter. Shedd tells how the title of his messages on parenting changed with his own experience of fatherhood. In his early years as a preacher before he was a father he entitled his message, “How to Raise Your Children.”  People came in droves to hear it. Then he had a child of his own, and it was a while before he gave that message again. When he did, he gave it a new name: “Some Suggestions to Parents.” Then he had two more children, and a number of years later he called it, “Feeble Hints to Fellow Strugglers.” Several years and children later, he seldom gave that talk, but when he did his title was, “Anyone got a Few Words of Wisdom?”

I can relate! As time has passed and my own kids have grown up I feel in many ways like I have less and less to say about parenting. Because of that, I give parenting advice with a certain amount of fear and trepidation. The Bible has a lot to say about parenting. Without embarrassment, it offers us some very pointed and specific wisdom on how to raise our kids. But, having been at this business of raising kids for a while, I know how difficult it can be to really do these things, and I’m very aware of areas in which I’ve failed to live up to these standards.

For this reason we should approach what the Bible says about parenting in the larger context of what we know about the gospel of Jesus Christ and specifically the grace of God. Before we DO anything as parents we need to know something of God’s grace at the core of our being. We need to know He loves us unconditionally; he’s not keeping score of our performance. We need to know that we’re very much in process as people, and that we need God’s love and grace every day of our lives.

If grace is not at the very core of our lives as individuals, then we’ll not be able to parent with grace; we won’t be able to parent without our issues getting in the way. Our relationship with our kids will be tainted with our own insecurities. We’ll place them on the performance treadmill we ourselves are on. We’ll look to them to fill the holes in our lives that only God can fill. Everything the Bible says presupposes a relationship with your kids that is rooted in grace and unconditional love. It presupposes an authenticity that flows from grace where you can laugh together and cry together and forgive together.

Part of this foundation of grace means that we recognize that we need God’s grace in our parenting. There is a pervasive lie floating around the Christian community that places all the responsibility for what our kids become on the shoulders of the parent. Often, a verse from Proverbs is used to support this myth. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” We take that as a blanket promise that if we just train our kids right they will turn out to be model Christians. But, Proverbs were never intended to be blanket promises. They were intended to be general statements of what happens most of the time. The fact is, we can’t do anything to guarantee the outcome of our child’s life.

Depending on how you look at it, that’s either very good news or very bad news. The bad news is that you can’t do anything that will absolutely determine the outcome of your child’s life. The good news is you can’t do anything that will absolutely determine the outcome of your child’s life. Do you catch my drift? If you’re a parent in need of grace, this is very good news. It frees us up as parents to know that everything does NOT depend upon us. That’s the law. But we don’t live under the law, we live under grace. As parents who’ve experienced the grace of God in our own lives, we’re free to live with the expectation that He’ll act in grace in our children’s lives as well! That’s very good news because none of us feel we have it all together; none of us want it all to depend on us.

With that foundation of grace intact, it’s true that God has entrusted parents with a tremendous responsibility.  And He offers us some very helpful instruction on how to be effective parents.  I will talk about that in an upcoming post.

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A Sad but Hopeful Anniversary

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision we know of as Roe v. Wade, in which a woman’s right to privacy was ruled to be broad enough to encompass a woman’s choice to end her pregnancy. The decision was hailed as the decisive victory for advocates of the “pro-choice” cause. Since Roe, more than 55 million unborn lives have been terminated in this country with government approval. As Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time to mourn…”

But there is some good news. I recently read a BreakPoint Commentary that explains how the counter movement to the Roe decision is making significant progress. Last year, the abortion rate was down 5 percent. Recently, that counter movement succeeded in restricting access to abortion through state laws and offering viable alternatives for women in need. And, the mood of the country has shifted. For the first time since Roe, most Americans describe themselves as “pro-life,” and those that don’t favor at least some restrictions on abortion.

But there is still much work to do. The church in which I serve is careful not to get involved in many political issues, but we believe this isn’t as much a political issue as a moral issue. We try to embrace and “love on” those women who have made the choice in the past to have an abortion, or are making the choice now to keep their baby. I’ve seen God’s healing grace poured out on these women through the love and support of the body of Christ. We also actively support First Resort, a Pregnancy Counseling Women’s Health Clinic that provides counseling and medical care to women of all ages who are making decisions about unplanned pregnancies.

On this anniversary, it’s important that we mourn for lost lives, and it’s important that we continue the fight.

Read the BreakPoint Commentary.


When Tragedy Strikes

I’m so sad about the tragedy that took place in Connecticut today. I can’t imagine the pain those families are experiencing. In our humanity, it’s normal for us to ask “Why?”. In our humanity, it’s normal for us to wonder how God could allow such a thing to happen. I really don’t have any answers, but I’m comforted to know that in the midst of such pain, God understands and offers Himself.

John Stott once wrote, “I could never believe in God if it weren’t for the cross.” His short story, The Long Silence, explains:

At the end of time billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back but some near the front talked heatedly with belligerence.

“Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?” snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured horror…beatings…torture…death.”

In another group, an African-American young man lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn, “Lynched for no crime but being black!”

Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in this world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, hunger or hatred. “What did God know of all people had been forced to endure in this world? God leads a pretty sheltered life,” they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered most. A Jew, an African-American, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed child. In the center of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case and it was rather clever.

Before God could qualify to be their judge he must endure what they endured. Their decision was that God would be sentenced to live on earth as a man.

“Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him work to do that even his family will think he is out of his mind to try to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury, and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died.”

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. And when the last had finished pronouncing the sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No one moved. Suddenly they all knew that God had served his sentence.

At times like this, we can come to Him with our fear, our grief, our confusion and even our anger. He may not give us a list of answers, but He will give us Himself.

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One of the things my wife Lynn and I have a passion for is helping young couples establish a healthy marriage. Three months ago, we started a new ministry at CPC called Converge. Converge is an informal, once-a-month meeting, open to any young couple in their 20’s and 30’s. We meet in a home, hang out, have a potluck style dinner, and take some time as a group to discuss different aspects of marriage and family. Our desire is to provide a setting where young couples can connect and build community with one another, as well as learn from a “mature” (that’s a nice word for “older”) couple who shares a bit about their own marriage.

Last Saturday night we squeezed 52 people into our house in San Carlos. We had a great discussion about how to handle the holidays as a young couple. This is an area that can often be a source of struggle for young marrieds and it was great to learn from one another some of the ways we have handled this, especially as it relates to in-laws. I found a decent article on the Focus on the Family website that deals with this very issue. Here is the link:

If you would like to attend Converge, or you know a young couple who might benefit from this ministry, contact my assistant, Mike Northcote at Mike is the ”go to” guy for this ministry and he and his wife, Megan, have done an amazing job at organizing it. We are taking the month of December off but will reconvene on January 25, 2013.


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.


Qoheleth: Preacher, Teacher, Gatherer

Qoheleth (ko-HEHL-ehth) may seem like a strange name for a blog. It’s actually the name of a book in the Bible (you may know it as Ecclesiastes). The book is named after its protagonist. Often, it is translated as Preacher or Teacher. The name actually comes from a Hebrew word that means to assemble or gather.

I resonate a lot with Qoheleth. Like him, I am a preacher and a teacher. I have served as such for over 25 years at the same church on the San Francisco Peninsula. Like Qoheleth, I see a lot of people (myself included!) seeking for meaning in life in ways that make me cry out, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Finally, like Qoheleth, deep down I actually believe that meaning can be found in fearing God, working hard and enjoying the simple pleasures of daily life, which are all gifts from the hand of God.

I would like this blog to be a place where I gather meaningful thoughts on life, love and leadership as a human being and a follower of Jesus. These thoughts will represent an assembling of my own reflections, teachings, readings and writings. Besides being a pastor, I am a writer, a husband and a father. From time to time, I will share stories and reflections of my family, my friends, my church and my Lord. They are all very important to me. I am not sure if what I have to say is all that important, but I know that it is important for me to say it. I hope you enjoy Qoheleth!