Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

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Confessions of X

You have probably heard of St. Augustine. He wrote what is considered by church historians the first Christian autobiography called Confessions of St. Augustine. Augustine also had a famous mother, Monica, who prayed for many years for her son to come to Christ.

What you may not have known is that there was another women in Augustine’s life. Before he became a Christian, while a professor of rhetoric, he began a love affair with a young woman whose name has been lost to history. They were together for over thirteen years, and she bore him a son.

Confessions of X, by Suzanne Wolfe, is her story.

This book of historical fiction describes how X met Augustine in Carthage when she was seventeen years old. She was the daughter of a tile-layer. He was a brilliant student and the heir to a fortune. They fell in love, despite her being from a lower class. According to the custom of the day, the only position in his life that was available to her was as his concubine. In the fifth century Roman world, “concubinage” was a monogamous relationship suited for those who because of societal reasons couldn’t get married. Years later, when Augustine’s ambition and family compelled him to disown his relationship with her, X was ripped from Augustine and her son and sent away to her native Africa. Later, Augustine became a follower of Christ through his mother’s prayers and the ministry of St. Ambrose.

Wolfe is a skilled writer who reveals in rich detail what life was like in North Africa and Rome in the fifth century, especially for forgotten women like X. One quote, describing X much later in life, shows her deft writing:

Old age approaches slowly step by step, at first so distant as to be unseen, unheard then, one day, it is there. Thus did my old age come upon me, the sudden pains in my limbs when I awoke each morning, the silver strands appearing in my hair until the dark turned wholly gray, then white. My hands so used to hard work, the wringing out of clothes in the icy stream behind the house, the beating of the olives from the trees at harvest, the punching down of dough upon the kitchen board, grew stiff and gnarled like the branches of an ancient apple tree long since barren. At first I was angry my body would not obey my mind, thinking it a recalcitrant child who refused to do his share of labors, but I grew more tolerant and mild, preferring more and more to sit in the shade of the orchard and watch the chickens pecking at my feet, watch the swelling of a pear upon the branch until—nature’s amphora, brimful with juice and sweetness—it was ready to be plucked. The rhythmic chanting of the laborers at harvest would pulse across the fields, reminding me of my childhood with my father, our solitary travels, their singing a signal it was time to return to Carthage for the winter.

Another quote, from the mouth of Augustine himself, shows Wolfe’s knowledge of Augustine’s thinking: “Paradox,” he said, “is the space God gives us for the exercise of the will. And our attraction to beauty is what He gives us to draw the will. We desire what is beautiful and restlessly seek it out. When we find it, we find God.”

I read this book because Christianity Today awarded it the best fictional novel of 2017, saying, “In this gripping, beautifully written historical novel, Wolfe brings the ancient city of Carthage to life, immersing readers in the experiences that shaped the theology of Augustine of Hippo. In her deftly told and well-researched story, the unnamed woman whom Augustine loved and lived with for 13 years rises from the footnotes of history to become a dynamic, fully-fleshed character.”

I couldn’t agree more and I hope you will read this short but memorable book.

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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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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.


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.