Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


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HELP!

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.

There comes a time when all of us must realize we need help. Perhaps really macho men exist who have enough “true grit” never to shed a tear or cry out in fear. But I suspect that image has far more to do with fantasy than with reality. Of course there have been great men and women who’ve shown us the extent to which the human spirit can face adversity and come through on the other side, but when you read the biographies of many great men and women, it isn’t so much that they didn’t need help, but that when they needed help they found it.

Where do you go when you need help? Perhaps you harbor a secret suspicion it’s not quite Christian or mature to admit you even need help. It was Ben Franklin who said, God helps those who help themselves. But the psalmist is crying out, “Help!” This psalm is meant to show us how to find help when we need it. It’s been called The Traveler’s Psalm because it’s often been used to bless those who are going on a journey to assure them of God’s watching care.

One of the pitfalls that often comes on our spiritual journey is being unwilling to ask for help. I love the determination in Franklin’s quote about God helping those who help themselves. But the reality is God doesn’t help those who help themselves. God helps those who know they need help. That’s what the psalmist does — he looks up for help. Counselors tell us this is the most important step to take — to acknowledge there’s something beyond our personal resources that we need help with. The idea we can always fix everything ourself has caused the breakdown of more marriages, the heartbreak of more people, and the disaster of more businesses than any other idea on the face of the planet. Pride might be the first casualty of failure, but pride is also failure’s common cause. Pride goes before destruction…

But if it’s important to admit we all need help from time to time, then it’s also important we go to the right place to find help. The psalmist lifts up his eyes to the mountains and asks, Where does my help come from? There’s a natural tendency for all of us to glance skyward when we need assistance. The psalmist looks up to the mountains. But he doesn’t stop at the mountains. The mountains don’t offer the solution; they point to the solution. The help isn’t in the mountains; it is found in God, who made the mountains; in fact, he’s the maker of heaven and earth.

In one sense you may think this is just saying, when you need help, ask God. But telling someone to “just trust God,” can be painfully trite; like a plaster applied to a hemorrhage. This psalm does far more than offer simplistic answers. It says this God is the maker of everything. So when you say, “Trust God,” you’re referencing the rock-solid Creator of heaven and earth, of all reality.

The psalm goes on to say he’s not only our Creator, but he’s the one who watches over us in every circumstance. The psalmist draws a vivid picture. Often our imagination needs to be reframed when we need help; we need to be able to see how God can help and picture that real help is possible. So the psalm says, God is your watcher. The word for “watch over” runs through the rest of the psalm. The idea is God is keeping you, he’s watching over you, he’s looking after you. The picture is of God standing guard, eyes open, never sleeping — a powerful image.

One of the difficulties of trusting God enough to ask him for help is we can’t see him. But what if he sees us? We must live by faith, not by sight. But not God; he sees. Like a parent who says to a child who’s afraid to go to sleep, “Don’t worry. I’ll stay in the room tonight and watch over you.” God says, “I’m watching over you. I’m keeping you.” We can sleep because God does not. We can travel because God knows the way. We can take another step forward because God will not let our foot slip. He’s constantly watching, caring, keeping.


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Happy Eastertide!

Yesterday we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on what we call Easter. One of my favorite things we do at Easter at our church is baptize new believers. This tradition of Easter Sunday baptisms goes way back. In the early church, Lent was a season for new believers to learn about the faith and prepare for baptism on Easter Sunday. All Christians also prepared for Easter by fasting. At first, the fasting lasted one day; later it was extended to 40 hours, to symbolize the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness.

By the early 200s, baptism often included renouncing Satan and all his works, making a statement of faith, being baptized (naked) in water, being clothed in a white robe, receiving anointing with oil, and immediately celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

Here is something I learned just this week: According to the liturgical church calendar Easter is not just one day, but rather a 50-day period. The season of Easter, or Eastertide, begins at sunset on the eve of Easter and ends on Pentecost, the day Christians traditionally celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church (see Acts 2).

So let’s celebrate Easter for the next 50 days! To me, Easter is a season of joy because we celebrate our new life in Christ. He is alive, not just “up there” but in each one of us who believes! This extended season gives us more time to rejoice and experience what it means when we say Christ is risen. It’s the season when we remember our baptisms and how we’re “in Christ.” As “Easter people,” we also look forward to the birth of the Church and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), and how we are to live as faithful followers of Christ.

Happy Eastertide!


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Reflections of a Major League Baseball Chaplain

I am entering into my third year as chaplain for an organization called Baseball Chapel and assigned to serve with the San Francisco Giants. Needless to say, it has been quite a ride! Every Sunday home game, I do four separate chapels for the following groups: visiting team, home team, umpires, and wives/girlfriends of players and coaches. I also do a Bible Study on Tuesday home games.

Here are five things I have learned about myself and ministry to professional baseball players.

It’s good to be a rookie again.
I have served at my church for thirty years. The more you do something the more comfortable you become. This can be good or bad. Ministry should never be done in our own strength. There should always be a sense of desperate inadequacy. Being thrown into an entirely new environment with professional baseball players who are half my age has been humbling and challenging. I am out of my comfort zone and have spent far more time on my knees than usual. This is good!

I must earn the right to be heard.
Professional baseball players are very guarded — for good reason. Everyone wants something from them, and so they are very careful about letting anyone into their lives. Can they trust that person or is he just another fan who wants an autograph, a photograph, or has an investment opportunity? When I served in Young Life ministry we used to say, “You have to earn the right to be heard.” It’s true!

Ministry takes place in a team.
One of the things I have loved about serving the Giants is that my wife, Lynn, serves with me. Lynn is our chaplain to the wives and girlfriends of our players and coaches. She joins me on Sunday home games for our wives and girlfriends chapel, and she leads a Bible Study for wives and girlfriends on Tuesday nights at the ball bark. In addition to Lynn, I have a great Spanish chaplain named Rigo Lopez. There are tons of Spanish—speaking players in MLB, and Rigo does a chapel for them on Sunday home games as well.

It’s a long season!
Spring Training starts in late February and the last game of the World Series is not played until November. The 162 game schedule is grueling, to say the least. We all tend to think the life of a professional athlete is glamorous, but it is anything but! These guys work hard, endure tons of travel and time away from their families, and suffer through countless aches, pains, and injuries. Yes, they love the game, but it is not an easy life.

It’s about more than just the players.
One of the most fun things about serving as chaplain is that I get to develop relationships with not just the players, but coaches, club house personnel (“clubbies”), field crews, concession workers, etc. There is so much more that goes on at the ball park than just what happens on the field, and some of the nicest and hardest working people in the world serve in these support capacities.

The bottom line is I have loved serving as a chaplain. It helps that I get to serve a world class organization like the Giants.


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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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I Don’t Get It

A couple of weeks ago I had a challenging week of travel and speaking. One of my engagements was in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was scheduled to speak at a conference for those involved in sports ministry at the high school, collegiate and professional levels. I had agreed to speak at this conference almost a year ago and had worked hard on my two keynote messages.

It all started out fine. I spent time on the plane going over my messages and praying that God would use them. My flight took me through Chicago where I boarded a new plane bound for Knoxville. But then we proceeded to sit on the runway for about 90 minutes. Frustrating! Even more frustrating was the fact that the pilot finally announced that the flight was cancelled due to weather.

By now it was about 8:00 pm and there’s was no way I was going to make it to Knoxville that night, or even the next day for the conference. I tried everything, but in the end I had to call the host of the conference and tell him I wasn’t going to make it. I then hopped on a flight that got me to Sacramento. I spent the night there at my sister and brother-in-law’s house, and the next day I rented a car to drive home.

It’s hard to describe how I felt. As you can imagine, I was exhausted. But disappointment, discouragement and even confusion haunted me. It struck me that this was the first time in 35 years of ministry that I had missed a speaking engagement. Why did this happen? Did God not want me to give these messages? Was there something wrong with me?

Some would say this is just the reality of living in a fallen world. Others would say this was the work of the enemy. Still others might try to find a reason for what happened, like maybe the plane would have crashed if it had tried to make it to Knoxville. Or maybe he wanted me to spend that time with my sister and brother-in-law (it was a sweet time as we remembered a good friend who had just passed on to glory).

I really don’t have the answers to these questions. I trust God’s sovereignty, but I don’t always get it. Without trying to compare myself to the apostle Paul, I am somewhat comforted that scripture says he was “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.” And then, when he and his friends tried to enter Bithynia, “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to” (Acts 16:6,7). I wonder if Paul had the same questions I did.

Life is full of confusing things. We don’t have to even like what happens to us, and we don’t always get answers to our questions. We walk by faith and not by sight. In the end, we just have to live with what the writer of Proverbs wrote, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps” (Proverbs 16:9).


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Does God Heal?

I think most of us who call ourselves followers of Christ would affirm that God can heal. Certainly if God could raise His own Son up from the grave, He can also heal any of our infirmities.

But the real question that often divides believers is not can God heal, but does God heal? Some claim that God will always heal if we just have enough faith. Others claim that every once in a while God might choose in His sovereignty to heal someone, but this is rare.

I have always been in the latter camp. I suppose I still am, but recently I have become much more open to the idea that not only can God heal but He does heal.

For some time now I have struggled with a bad knee. About ten years ago, I had knee surgery, and then about five years ago the same knee flared up again. I went to the doctor and he said I needed more surgery. I had to wait to have the surgery until after I returned from the Philippines where I was speaking at a pastors conference. While there, a fellow pastor saw me limping and asked if he could pray for my knee. Of course,” I said, thinking this is one of those kinds of pastors. He grasped my knee and prayed for healing. I walked away, not thinking a whole lot about it, but within a few days my knee pain was mostly gone, and I never returned to my doctor for his prescribed surgery.

Okay, I was convinced that sometimes, in rare cases, God does heal.

Fast forward five years. My knee pain was back and I am thinking that it is time to see the doctor again. After preaching one Sunday, I was standing in our church lobby. A woman I had recently met approached me and asked if she could pray for me.

Of course,” I said.

Then she said, I think it’s your knee.”

There is no reason she would have known about my knee. So, I thought, Lord, again? What is it about this knee that you care so much about? There are far worse problems you could fix besides my knee!”

She prayed for my knee right then and there. With so much to do that day, I completely forgot about her prayer until two days later. While descending a stairway (something that had been hard to do for a while with knee pain), I stopped dead in my tracks and thought, My knee pain is gone!”

Again, my knee is not perfect, but it is way better.

It’s quite interesting that the “spiritual gift” of healing found in 1 Corinthians 12:9 is actually plural in the Greek. It is literally translated “gifts of healings.” So, it is not like someone has the “gift” of healing with a guarantee that he or she will always be able to heal anyone they desire. But God does distribute gifts of healing—individual instances where He chooses to use someone to heal.

I am not sure what to make of all this, but I am convinced of a few things:

  1. God really does care about my knee.
  2. Not only can God heal, but He does.
  3. I have often limited God.
  4. I am thankful for people who listen to the Lord and step out in faith.
  5. Healing doesn’t always mean perfection.


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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.