Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


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Is Retirement in the Bible?

I have often heard that retirement isn’t in the Bible. I agree with that insofar as we should all press on to serve Christ until the very end. I love what the Apostle Paul said about this. In the very last New Testament letter he wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). It sure sounds to me like he broke a sweat until the very end!

But recently I ran across a verse that indicates the Levites who were called to serve the Lord at the Temple were supposed retire at age 50. In Numbers 8:24-26 we read:

The Lord said to Moses, “This applies to the Levites: Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work.”

Hmmm…sounds like retirement to me. Okay, not complete retirement but at least semi-retirement. A helpful book for me has been, Transition Plan by Bob Russell. Bob was pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky for over 30 years. In his book, he offers five reasons every leader should think about what he calls “transitioning” (a much better word than retirement).

  1. We’re all going to die and therefore it’s wise to think of the next generation.
  2. We all lose a certain amount of energy and imagination as we age.
  3. Older leaders eventually lose the ability to inspire younger people.
  4. When a proper transition is made, the one stepping aside has another chapter of meaningful life to live and is respected in that role.
  5. Every leader should put the good of the organization above his own interests.

 
I am 56 years old and I have served at my church for almost 27 years. I am NOT ready for retirement, but it is on my radar screen in the sense that I want to transition well when the time comes. I have been around long enough to see many pastors transition poorly, and I have seen a few transition well. I think this is a subject that churches should be talking about more, especially as baby boomers creep up to what is traditionally considered retirement age.

If we could all finish like John Wooden, who retired after winning another NCAA title at age 65. Until the day he died at age 99, he stayed involved at UCLA and was often quoted and consulted. The opposite of that can be seen in some famous coaches who hang onto their positions into their eighties, lose young recruits and are always looking behind them to see who is trying to get them to step aside.


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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.


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Seven “I am’s” in John: A Responsive Reading

Every so often we do a responsive reading in the worship gatherings at our church. This week we will recite the following reading which I wrote for our series called, ‘Come and See’ from the Gospel of John. This reading focuses on the seven “I Am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. I hope you enjoy it.

Leader: “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Jn 4:25

People: “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”  Jn 4:26

Leader: “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jn 6:31

People: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jn 6:41

Leader: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” Jn 3:19

People: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Jn 8:12

Leader: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” Is 40:11

People: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jn 10:11

Leader: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” Jn 1:4

People: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”  Jn 11:25-26

Leader: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jn 14:5

People: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. Jn 14:6

Leader: “You transplanted a vine from Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.” Ps 80:8

People: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  Jn 15:5

All: “We have now heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” Jn 4:42


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A Saint Goes Home

Yesterday the Lord brought home a saint named Howard Hendricks at the age of 88. Howard was a longtime professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and a popular speaker at events like Promise Keepers. He was considered a mentor and friend to many of today’s prominent Christian leaders. Despite authoring 18 books and preaching around the world in more than 80 countries, Hendricks was perhaps best known for his influence on other Christian leaders such as Charles Swindoll, Tony Evans, Joseph Stowell and David Jeremiah.

My own connection with Howard came as result of the biography I wrote on Ray Stedman, A Portrait of Integrity. As I was doing research for the book, my wife and I were able to spend a weekend with Howard and his wife Jeanne on the Oregon coast. I found him to be humble, gracious and very witty. I learned that Ray and Howard were the best of friends. They used to sit under a grove of pecan trees at Dallas Seminary and talk about what they called “Nutty Theology.” They lived on campus in an area Howard called “Trailerville.” Howard was quick to name Ray the Mayor of Trailerville after Ray failed to show up at a board meeting. From that time on, Howard could call Ray whenever anything went wrong! Not only did Howard have a great sense of humor, but he was an incredibly loyal friend. He showed up unexpectedly at Ray’s 25-year anniversary at Peninsula Bible Church, interrupting Ray after he had just begun preaching, and announced, “Sit down, Stedman. It’s my turn.” He was also there at Ray’s side when Ray was in his final days. Ray’s last words to Howard were, “Carry on, Howie.”

And he did! Howard carried on for two more decades, faithfully serving the Lord he loved so dearly. We will miss Howard Hendricks. He is another member of the greatest generation that we have lost. I leave you with one great quote from Howard that sums up the kind of man he was: “I’m not what everybody in the world says is great. I’m just a servant of Christ, that’s all.”


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How to Preach on Marriage, Divorce and Singleness

Marriage, divorce and singleness can be some of the most difficult but rewarding subjects we cover in our preaching and teaching. I generally preach through books of the Bible, and these subjects come up quite often as I do so. At other times, I have chosen to specifically address these subjects as part of a topical series. Either way, these messages always seem to draw more attention and scrutiny than others. The following are ten things I have learned about preaching on these subjects.

  1. Don’t avoid the subject. Preaching on marriage, divorce and singleness can feel like entering a minefield. Besides creating controversy, few of us really enjoy offending people. But these are issues that are immensely significant in people’s lives and the Word of God has lots to say about them. We are called to preach the whole counsel of God. If we avoid the subject we fail to fulfill our calling.
  2. Don’t compromise or apologize. God’s Word has some very clear—cut things to say about marriage, divorce and singleness. We dare not compromise his Word and we need not apologize for it. For example, when it comes to marriage, it is good to remind people that God invented it. It was his idea! Therefore, it stands to reason that we should listen to what he has to say in this area.
  3. Understand the culture. As preachers, we should not have our heads in the sand. We should study our culture and communicate to our people as one who knows how people think in this area and why it makes sense to them. For example, many single adults live together before marriage because of the financial pressures of maintaining two homes. We may not agree with that decision, but at least we can acknowledge the reality of their dilemma.
  4. Show compassion and empathy. There is a great deal of pain, hurt and brokenness in this area, either in people’s family of origin or their current family. Some of that pain has resulted from their own sin and some from the sin of others. If you want people to listen to some of the more challenging things God has to say in this area, it is crucial that you come across as a person who identifies with their brokenness and cares.
  5. Be real. One of the ways you can show that you understand their pain and brokenness is by sharing your own personal struggles and failures in this area. Obviously, you need to exercise discernment as you do that. The pulpit is not your own confessional, but there is a place for appropriate transparency and vulnerability.
  6. Don’t betray confidences. If you are going to share anything about your own family, be sure that they know what you plan to say and give you their permission to share it. Whether it is family or friends, never betray a person’s confidence when using examples or illustrations.
  7. Acknowledge unique scenarios. One of the biggest challenges of preaching on these subjects is there are so many unique scenarios that don’t have easy answers. For example, the Bible seems clear that the only two legitimate reasons for divorce are infidelity or abandonment. But what about physical abuse? Does this constitute a form of abandonment? While you cannot possibly address all of the issues, you should at least acknowledge that they exist and try to give people a wise framework for making hard decisions.
  8. Point them to additional resources. Since you cannot address every situation, you should point people to other resources that can help them, such as counselors, mentors, books and conferences.
  9. Don’t glorify being married or being single. Some believers want to glorify marriage while others want to glorify being single. The fact is, both are legitimate callings and both have their own challenges. While marriage does seem to be the norm for people, we should never forget that both Jesus and Paul were single adults!
  10. Preach that no one is beyond God’s grace. You will preach to people who have experienced failed marriages. You will preach to single adults who are involved in inappropriate relationships. But they are listening to you because in some way God is at work in their life. You must proclaim God’s grace to them through the work of Jesus on the cross. You must give them hope for both forgiveness and change. Think of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV).


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The Greatest Story Never Read

It was the perfect comedy routine. Jay Leno roved through the audience of his late night talk show and asked people how much they knew about the Bible. “Name one of the Ten Commandments,” he asked. A hand went up: “God helps those who help themselves?” Leno went on: “Name one of the apostles.” No answer. But when he asked his audience to name the four Beatles, the names “George, John, Paul, and Ringo” sprang from the crowd.

Obviously, we live in a post-biblical age where a general knowledge of the Bible cannot be assumed. As a book, the Bible has been removed from most reading lists of secular schools long ago. We lament that fact. But what about the church? Is biblical illiteracy as commonplace in the evangelical churches as it is in secular schools? There is evidence that it is.

For several years, the Bible and theology department at a leading evangelical liberal arts college, Wheaton College in Illinois, studied the biblical literacy of incoming freshmen. Wheaton’s students represent the “best and the brightest” of Bible-believing churches around the country. What they discovered was disturbing. Only one-third of the students could put the following in order: Abraham, the Old Testament prophets, the death of Christ, and Pentecost. One-third could not identify Matthew  as an apostle from a list of New Testament names. Half did not know the Christmas story was in Matthew or the Passover story was in Exodus. A similar survey of high school seniors in youth groups of strong evangelical churches showed similar results. On a simple 25-question test, these students averaged 50-55 percent. Fully 80 percent could not place Moses, Adam, David, Solomon, Abraham in chronological order. Only 20 percent knew to look in Acts to read about Paul’s travels. Only 33 percent could find the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament, and 80 percent did not know how to find the Lord’s Prayer.

Of course Bible knowledge does not guarantee a life of Christlikeness and obedience to his commands. But, is it possible to grow in Christlikeness and obedience without an understanding of his Word? Gary Burge puts it well, “To disregard the source— to neglect the Bible—is to remove the chief authority on which our faith is built. We are left vulnerable, unable to check the teachings of those who invite us to follow, incapable of charting a true course past siren voices calling from treacherous islands such as TV programs, popular books, and enchanting prophecies displayed on colorful Web sites.”

A problem such as this requires that the entire church family take a hard look at itself. The problem is not just with the secular culture in which we live; it’s within the church. Elders, pastors, youth leaders, Sunday School teachers, parents and children all need to find ways to simply read the Bible. This is why it is so crucial that the Scriptures are taught at weekend services instead of just offering timeless principles from random tidbits of God’s word. This is why Sunday Schools should use curriculums focused on systematically teaching kids the Scripture from the time they enter Kindergarten to the time they leave fifth grade. But listening to Sunday morning teaching is not enough. Every believer should make an effort to engage in a systematic Bible reading program. If you have never read through the Bible from cover to cover, start now. “Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the Word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:1).


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A Stranger in the House of God

Have you ever felt like a stranger in the house of God? If you have, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.

His name is John Koessler. John is the chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He’s the author of several books, including True Discipleship and the award winning Folly, Grace and Power.  John also writes a regular column for Moody called Theology Matters. I am stoked because John will be our Men’s Retreat speaker this year at Mt. Hermon on February 22-24. He will speak on The Surprising Grace of Disappointment.

I discovered John about 18 months ago while on sabbatical. A friend suggested I read John’s memoir, A Stranger in the House of God. In this well-written book, John shares his own coming-of-age and coming-to-faith story. He’s disarmingly transparent and humorous, at first curiously observing people of faith as an outsider, then eventually sharing spiritual insights while never positioning himself above his readers.  A Stranger in the House of God addresses basic questions and struggles faced by seekers and believers alike, tracing the author’s journey through Catholicism and various tribes within evangelical Christianity. It also describes his transformation from religious outsider to pastor and professor.

I’m excited that John will be with us not only for the Men’s Retreat but also on February 21-22 to address our pastors and directors at CPC about cultivating the life of the mind. If you would like to find out more about John you can go to his website.


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Lessons from the Life of Solomon

I just completed a three—month study of the life of King Solomon of Israel. We called this series “The Wisest Fool” because that describes Solomon to a tee—he was incredibly wise but squandered his wisdom on foolish living. There are several lessons from his life that stand out for me. Here are just a few:

1. Wisdom is an infinitely valuable gift from God. As a young man, Solomon asked God for a “wise and discerning (listening) heart.” God was pleased with this request and granted him unsurpassed wisdom. How important to me is the pursuit of Godly wisdom? We don’t acquire wisdom innately; no one is born wise. We don’t acquire it by reading a lot of books and having a lot of knowledge. We don’t acquire wisdom just by getting older. We get it by asking God for a heart that listens and heeds His Word. James wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”

2. It’s not what you have that matters, it’s what you do with what you have. Solomon had so much going for him. Besides wisdom, God granted him wealth and fame. He also had a Godly father who did everything he could to set him up to succeed. But Solomon demonstrates that being blessed by God in these ways will not keep us away from sin if our hearts turn away from God. Solomon’s wisdom, wealth and fame did not keep him holy, and neither will ours.

3. God graciously and relentlessly pursues us even when our hearts are divided. God showed up in a very personal way three times to Solomon. The first time he offered to grant any request. The second time was more ominous—God presented him with a choice: “If you walk before me faithfully, I’ll bless you, but if you turn away from me, there’ll be consequences for you.” The third time he presented Solomon with the consequences of his action. God raised up three adversaries against Solomon, but even in that there was an opportunity to come clean. I’m so glad I have a God who pursues me and even disciplines me when I am headed in the wrong direction!

4. Disobeying God’s clear commands sets us on a trajectory in which our hearts turn away from Him. Solomon started falling into sin far before he fell into disgrace. As a young man he made an alliance with the king of Egypt and married his daughter. No big deal, right? I mean, he didn’t really love her. It was just the politically expedient thing to do. But it was a big deal. Sin is always a big deal. Before long, Solomon made more and greater compromises until towards the end of his life it says “he loved many foreign women” and built worship centers for their gods! It’s a lesson for us that we need to tend to the little things in our lives. Sin almost always starts with a small compromise, a minor concession, a brief indulgence, but that can make a huge difference in your eventual destination. There’s no telling what we might do if our hearts turn away from God.

5. Solomon gets us ready for another King. Solomon ruled over Israel in what was really the apex of her existence. But as great as his kingdom was, it eventually crumbled. But Solomon prepares us for another King whose kingdom will last forever. Spurgeon wrote, “The kingdom of Israel under the sway of Solomon was a fair type of the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ. The present state of the church may be compared to the reign of David: splendid with victories but disturbed with battles. But there are better days to come, days in which the kingdom shall be extended and become more manifest, and then the Lord Jesus Christ shall be even more conspicuously seen as the Solomon of the kingdom.”


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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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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!