MINISTRY HIGHLIGHTS – Third Quarter 2015

Networking Leaders/Impacting Our Community

American Bible Society (ABS) This is, perhaps, the most significant opportunity and assignment I’ve had since leaving my lead pastor position at Word of Grace. The American Bible Society, two hundred years old and founded by such notables as our second president, John Adams, have made a 21st Century commitment to reverse the alarming trend of Bible illiteracy in America. They have chosen three cities to ‘test-market’ their efforts: New York, Philadelphia, and yes, Phoenix. ABS has reached out to me to lead their efforts in Phoenix, which according to the Barna Group, placed a shameful 92nd in biblical literacy among American’s 100 largest cities. We will be working with local churches and city movements in the Valley, in partnership with ABS and the Barna Group, which means I have the opportunity to serve in ministry with my son, David. As most of you know, David is the principal owner and President of the Barna Group (www.barna.org and www.cities.barna.org).

  • Catholics. Since the first of May, God has been opening one door after another. As you likely know, God has given me unusual favor with the Catholic Community. In a personal meeting with Bishop Olmstead, I encouraged him to launch a Bible engagement movement in the Phoenix dioceses. Here is his response:

Gary,

Thank you for following up with my secretary about the Bible Engagement initiative of the American Bible Society. I appreciate our recent conversation about this and other matters, and I assure you of our interest in this ecumenical initiative to promote the Word of God.

The individual from the diocesan offices that has agreed to serve as the point person for the Diocese of Phoenix is Angela Gaetano, Director of Parish Leadership Support in Family Catechesis. I am sure that you will find her most capable of working with you on this project.

May the Lord bless you and these efforts to make Him better known and loved.

+Thomas J. Olmsted

P.S. Thank you for the books by your son David on what the new generation thinks about Christianity. I find Chapter 6 of UnChristian to be especially thought-provoking

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  • Veterans. We are also reaching out to the veterans’ community in the Valley. Did you know that 1 out of 10 adults in Phoenix is a veteran! We’ve established a team of top-tier leaders to form a faith-based team to work through local churches to reach and empower vets and active military. See www.arizonacoalition.org and www.armedservicesministry.org.
  • Trauma Healing. Interested in serving others like Jesus, setting the captives free? Consider attending the Trauma Healing Institute in December. I’ve been assisting key leaders in the Valley to organize and implement this movement. See http://thi.americanbible.org/.

John 17 Movement. We had over 2000 people attend our John 17 special event at the Phoenix Convention Center on Pentecost weekend (see photo below). Worship was extraordinary, both Phoenix Bishops attended, I spoke on “Nothing but Jesus” and Pope Francis shared a personal nine-minute video with us. You can read more about this on our website www.john17movement.com.

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Chair of Congressman Matt Salmon’s Council on Faith and Community. Congressman Salmon wrote to me, “I wanted to take a moment and express my appreciation to you for accepting my invitation to serve as Chairman of the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership Advisory Council. Your service will not only be of great benefit to me and my office, but also the constituents of Arizona’s 5th Congressional District.” Our Council is focusing its efforts on mental health issues—and personal and community trauma.

Personal

image2The best times of our lives. Our nine grandchildren together mid-summer at our son David’s home. Annika made the sign: WELCOME TO CAMP KINNAMAN

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L. Our son Matt (far left) with the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, at the dedication of the keel laying of the newest US submarine. R. Our second grandchild Annika graduating from 8th Grade at her Christian school. Where does the time go???

image5At Glacier Point in Yosemite last spring. We camped a night here on our honeymoon in another century.

Your Continued Financial Support

Help us! Invest in the amazing things God is doing through Nothing But Grace! Thank you for your regular and generous financial support. We can receive tax-deductible donations directly to Nothing But Grace LLC, 3769 E Morrison Ranch Pkwy, Gilbert AZ 85296. We’re also set up to receive contributions through PayPal:  http://v2.garykinnaman.com/?page_id=8

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Mark’s Story

Dr. Tim Hampton
Commander
Phoenix Police Department

Commander Tim was a high school student and a regular in my youth ministry in the early 70s. He lost his son tragically last summer. Mark took his own life. Tim currently serves with me on Congressman Salmon’s Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, where our primary focus is addressing the mental health care crisis in Arizona.

On June 7, 2015 Mark ended his life. He was 30 years old. The horror of mental illness is never more real than when the medical examiner’s office removes your son’s remains from your home. The reality is never clearer than when your brother, brother-in-law and stepson remove blood soaked bedding, mattress, and carpet from your son’s room. Finality of death is never more acute than when you make arrangements at a funeral home to honor your son’s life. Pain is never more overwhelming when you realize your son is never coming home.

Mark suffered from severe bipolar disorder. It is difficult to describe his mental illness without using terms of hopelessness, helplessness, guilt, shame, self-loathing, severe depression, anger, and insignificance of life. For Mark, death was always an option, and he eventually chose death because he would rather die than continue in his tortured life. Mark did not give up; he was exhausted from fighting his bipolar disorder. Mark’s psychiatrist described bipolar disorder as living with postpartum depression every day of your life. The disease creates an exaggerated irrational distortion of internal feelings which intensely distort cognitive associations and beliefs often rendering the patient incapable of sustaining a functioning life.

The last words from my son:
I’m going to kill myself tonight. I’m sorry dad. Please don’t blame yourself for this. I just can’t take it anymore. Please forgive me. I love you dad with all my heart.
Challenges Associated to Mental Health Issues in Arizona:
During 2015 Mental Health America (MHA), formerly known as the National Mental Health Association published Parity or Disparity: The State of Mental Health in America. The association was founded in 1909 and continues to be a guiding light for mental health treatment in the United States. image1Contributors to the study include the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ), Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (CAHMI), Strategic Policy Analyst Theresa Nguyen, and many other mental health experts. Their findings are summarized below.

Overall Ranking for Mental Health Care and Access in the United States Based on 15 Measures:
According to research, 42.5 million Americans (18.19%) suffer from mental illness, and Tufts University places the percentage of mental health subjects in the U.S. at 25%. MHA provides the listed statistical data concerning Arizona. Excluded from the study were the homeless who do not stay in shelters, active duty military personnel, and subjects in jails or prison.

  • Arizona is rated 51 of 51 for overall care for mental illness.
  • Arizona is rated 50th for states with the highest prevalence of mental illness and lowest rates of access to care for adults.
  • Arizona is rated 46th for states with the highest prevalence of mental illness and lowest rates of access to care for youth.
  • The population of mentally ill in Arizona faces significant barriers to recovery.
  • More than 900,000 people in Arizona suffer from a form of any mental illness, which is 18.19% of the total population.
  • More than 435,000 (9.09%) of the adult population in Arizona are dependent or abuse illegal drugs or alcohol.
  • More than 193,000 (4%) of adults in Arizona had serious thoughts of suicide.
  • More than 143,570 (10%) of children in Arizona are diagnosed with Emotional Behavioral Developmental Issues (EBD).
  • More than 40,000 (7.5%) of Arizona youth are dependent or abuse illicit drugs or alcohol.
  • Ten percent of Arizona youth have attempted suicide.
  • Service providers for SMI patients in Maricopa County generally fall under the umbrella of AHCCCS and Magellan. Maricopa County served 20,257 patients with SMI, expending $11,232.52 per capita (Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) FY 2013 Annual Report).

The Treatment Advocacy Center published More Mentally Ill Persons are in Jails and Prisons than Hospitals: A Survey of the States in 2010, and the report provides significant detail concerning the criminalization of mental illness in America, the state of mental health treatment, and information regarding Arizona’s attempt to meet the needs of the Arizona population. The findings are provided below.

  • In the United States there are now more than three times more seriously mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals.
  • Twenty-four percent of inmates in jails and prisons have a serious mental illness (SMI). In 1983, only 6.4% of the prison and jail population were SMI.
  • Forty percent of individuals with serious mental illness have been in jail or prison at some time in their lives.
  • In 1955 there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans. In 2005 there was one psychiatric bed for every 3,000 Americans.
  • Our current behavioral health model in the United States now parallels the conditions of the 1840s by putting large numbers of mentally ill persons back into jails and prisons.
  • In Arizona and Nevada, there are 10 times more mentally ill persons in jail and prison than in hospitals. Arizona and Nevada are far behind the times in dealing with mental illness and their ranking is at 49 and 50 across the United States.
  • Arizona allocates a significant amount of budget to meet the needs of the mentally ill, but continues to provide inadequate care, which is evidenced in Arizona’s 51 of 51 rating in the United States for overall care of the mentally ill.
  • Recent inspection of the Arizona State Hospital (ASH) by Federal inspectors resulted in allegations of cover ups, sexual abuse, deaths, misconduct, mismanagement and little or no accountability.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

  • In the United States suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for all ages in 2013; seventh leading cause of death for males, and 14th leading cause of death of females.
  • There were 41,149 suicides in 2013.
  • Suicide occurs at more than twice the rate as homicide in the United States.
  • 77.2% of suicides occur when the subject is impaired by alcohol (33.4%), antidepressants (23.8%), and opiates (20.0%). Mental health and substance abuse are linked as causal factors for suicide.
  • Suicide results in an estimated $51 billion in combined medical and work loss costs annually – annual prison costs in the United States is $70 – $80 billion.
  • In 2013, 494,169 people were treated in emergency rooms for non-fatal, self-inflicted injuries resulting in an estimated $10.4 billion in combined medical and work loss costs.

Suicide – Leading Cause of Death by Age Group

  • Ages 10 – 14 Third leading cause of death
  • Ages 15 – 34 Second leading cause of death
  • Ages 35 – 44 Fourth leading cause of death
  • Ages 45 – 54 Fifth leading cause of death
  • Ages 55 – 64 Eighth leading cause of death

Findings
Arizona continues to fail the residents of Arizona in providing adequate care for the mentally ill; a continual assessment since the 1960s. In 2015, Arizona ranked 51 of 51 in the United States for overall care for mental illness (MHA, 2015). In 2014 the State of Arizona settled a class action lawsuit for failure to provide adequate services for the SMI; a case originating from 1983. Interestingly, Arizona is at the top of the list for allocation of monies toward mental health care, but continues to miss the mark in providing adequate treatment for the SMI population. We spend more money without improving the system. Either Arizona is unable to locate the right personnel having the expertise to fix the problem, or cannot induce radical change at the policy and structural level to enhance evidenced-based treatment programs. Either way, the results remain constant; unacceptable.
Proposed Solutions
Much of the material provided below originates from the work of Deborah Geesling, founder of MOMI of AZ (Mothers of Seriously Mentally Ill), and President of P82 Project Restoration, Inc. Proposed solutions to enhance mental health treatment in Arizona are provided below.
Background

  • A gap exists in the Arizona mental health system to meet the needs of the seriously mentally ill (SMI) – the 4% most likely to be incarcerated, homeless, indigent, and least likely to be welcomed into community programs.
  • We acknowledge that Arizona is attempting to improve mental health care to less severe mental health patients through “Recovery Model” methods, the SMI population is pretty much left to defend for themselves.
  • Possible solutions to attend the needs of the SMI

Support the Expansion of Residential Group Homes with 24-hour Supervision

  • Current state model leans toward a “Recovery Model” that requires people to manage their own care leaving the most vulnerable (SMI) to fall through the cracks.
  • SMI patients require constant supervision, do not recover quickly, and generally cannot live independently.
  • Influence from the Olmstead Decision has caused the state to move too quickly in moving the SMI to independent housing without considering the patients’ needs and capabilities to survive.

Explore the Creation of “Charter Homes”

  • This concept explores the possibility of creating innovative partnerships between charity, non-profits, and the state.
  • The creation of Charter Homes would also foster alternative options of evidence-based care for families and patients who cannot afford high quality private residential institutions.

Create a Parent/Caregiver Bill of Rights

  • Parents and caregivers must be involved in communication and treatment discussions during initial intake and creation of treatment plans. Obviously, the patient must consent, but the treatment outcomes could be greatly enhanced from valuable information the parent or caregiver may provide.
  • Require physicians to make a reasonable effort to gather relevant information from the family of admitted patients. Physicians may be unaware of substance abuse, past medications, behaviors, and episodes of the patient because the patient does not reveal the information.

Provide Greater Scrutiny and Evaluation of Patients Involuntarily admitted to Hospitals before Discharge

  • Patients admitted involuntarily have been adjudicated as a ‘danger to self or others.’ These patients are high risk.
  • Improve evaluation and treatment plans prior to discharge, and document the findings and strategies. If the patient has failed to meet Court Ordered Treatment, document and forward to the case manager or Adult Probation Officer. The state often orders treatment, but fails to provide the funds to pay for treatment. Finally, many patients are discharged before they are stabilized.

Gap between Hospital Discharge and Community Care

  • The hospital’s responsibility for the patient ends at discharge and the community program’s responsibility does not start until intake. Many patients do not make it from discharge to intake.
  • Create mobile teams that ensure the patient transitions from hospital discharge to community care intake.
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GETTING USED TO THE BLISTERS

Matthew 16:13-26

In one of the best-known passages in the Bible, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is? What are you hearing about me?”

Today his disciples might have said, “Let’s Google it.”

I just did that, and in 3.4 seconds I got about 668,000,000 results. Two-thirds of a billion! But the disciples didn’t have cell phones and social networking. Just word of mouth, and they replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

In others words, there have always been opinions about Jesus, and most would agree that he was a great man who taught great things, a man of influence, a religious man, a prophet.

But here’s the real question: “What about you? Who do you say I am?” And Simon Peter blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Where did that come from?!

Jesus responded, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” In other words, Jesus wasn’t just one more notable guy. He was and is the son of the living God, and everyone who believes in him—not just follows his teachings—will have everlasting life. And that’s not just an idea you’ve thought about. Knowing Christ is a work of grace, a transcendent moment in which your need for Jesus and his forgiving presence come together to change you forever.

Jesus is the God-man. Jesus is God, man. He’s not just another religious option, or the bearer of some really good, really helpful teaching about life. Jesus is a Person we encounter, we enter, and he enters us.

I was listening to a devotional on www.pray-as-you-go.org, and this narrative of Jesus and Peter was the text of the day. I’ve been a Christian my entire life. Been in full-time ministry for decades, and I’d never thought about Jesus’ question so personally. The narrator asked the question to his listeners, to me: “Who do you say Jesus is?”

It took my breath away.

Pause. Reflect. Search your soul: “Who is Jesus to me?”

Who do you say Jesus is?

Jesus is many things to many people. Just ask around. Everybody has an opinion. Some would be clear. Some would be muddy. Some might be heretical. But you? What do you think? When I say, “Jesus Christ,” what comes to your mind? To your heart? An idea? An opinion?

Or is Jesus the Son of the Living God, the One whom you’ve met personally and to whom you’ve given your life?

I’ve done that, but I’ve also drifted. I think that most of the moments in my life are godless. No, I’m not bad person. I just live so much of life with my eyes fixed on other things. In black and white contrast, the writer of Hebrews tells us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”

A couple things here stand out to me. First, others have lived the life. We are surrounded by witnesses, that is, all the men and women who’ve made the faith journey before us. They were faithful when their prayers were answered—and when they weren’t.

Second, two things always stand in our way. Between us and God. Between now and our future: the everyday things that hinder us and the spider web of all the stupid and sinful stuff we do to ourselves and others. It’s “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”

Jesus himself put it this way, “The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” Sounds like the Mall of America.

Years ago I heard a Chinese pastor tell a group of American students, “I’ve only been in your country for two weeks, but I’ve found that it’s very hard to be a Christian here.”

What? A Chinese pastor, for whom at that time living for Christ was a daily risk of persecution and imprisonment, told us that it was difficult to be Christian in America?

After pausing for effect, he told us why: “You have so many distractions here.”

So many things to turn our eyes away from Jesus.

Getting use to the blisters

My adorable grandniece just celebrated her sixth birthday. She left a voicemail for her grandma. We laughed till we cried as we listened over and over: “Hi grandma. I got some pretty awesome presents for my birthday. Thank you, grandma, for the shoes you gave me. I love them. I’m getting used to the blisters. Goodbye grandma. Amen.”

Goodbye. Amen.

It made me think maybe we should end our prayers like that. Instead of saying “amen,” it might be more accurate to say “goodbye.” After all, at the end of every prayer we just get on to other things and often don’t give another thought to God for the rest of the day.

So many distractions. Everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things. Here’s the only alternative: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

And the Rock of Ages.

“You are the Christ, the son of the Living God,” declared Peter. “Yes,” said Jesus, “and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

To know Jesus is to receive life—and the power and perspective to live it well and forever. But life is never easy: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

God the Father revealed to Peter the exact identity of his Son. But when Jesus started talking about sacrifice and death, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Can you imagine?! Rebuking Jesus?!

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Not the Jesus we thought he was

So who do you say Jesus is? Who is Jesus to you? Is he ever someone other than who you thought he was? Has Jesus ever troubled you? Disappointed you? Angered you? Has he ever taken you beyond what you thought about him, believed about him?

He gives us children, but they’re not the kinds of children we asked for. He gives us a job we prayed for, but we didn’t ask for the difficult people we have to work with. He provides a new home but kept silent about the dysfunctional neighbors. He gives us new shoes, but now we have blisters.

In the last book of the Bible, the apostle John wrote, “I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour.”

After rebuking Peter, Jesus turned to his disciples and said, and I paraphrase, “Most of life is pretty much out of your control, and when you face the death of your dreams, or worse, the death of your child, you have to give up on yourself and totally trust God.” Actually, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”

In dying we find the resurrection life of Jesus.

Who do you say Jesus is? Is he enough? Can you pause for a few moments of prayer and ponder that question?

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Ministry Highlights January – April 2015

God has given me three essential purposes in this season of my life: (1) preaching and teaching; (2) consulting and coaching—helping pastors and their churches professionally and personally; and (3) building collaborative relationships between and among key leaders. My theme for this season in my life: Getting pastors into relationships with one another—and churches together leading efforts to transform our communities.

Networking Leaders/Impacting Our Community

American Bible Society (ABS) This is, perhaps, the most significant opportunity and assignment I’ve had since leaving my lead pastor position at Word of Grace. The American Bible Society, two hundred years old and founded by such notables as our second president, John Adams, had made a 21st Century commitment to reverse the alarming trend of Bible illiteracy in America. They have chosen three cities to ‘test-market’ their efforts: New York, Philadelphia, and yes, Phoenix. ABS has reached out to me to lead their efforts in Phoenix, which according to the Barna Group, placed a shameful 92nd in biblical literacy among American’s 100 largest cities. We will be working with local churches and city movements in the Valley, in partnership with ABS and the Barna Group, which means I have the opportunity to serve in ministry with my son David. As most of you know, David is the principal owner and President of the Barna Group (www.barna.org and www.cities.barna.org).

John 17 Movement Historic unity meetings with Catholics continue. I had another first. In January I was a keynote speaker for the Catholic Renewal Ministry annual conference at Xavier High School. Hundreds of “Spirit-filled” Catholics were there praising God with contemporary worship choruses. They were lively! I spoke on images of the Holy Spirit: fire, wind, and river of life. At the end of the service I was surprised by a foot washing, a first for me. I was profoundly moved: Bishop Nevares washed my feet (below). And in response I washed his. On the right is a photo from last month of Bishop Nevares greeting Pope Francis—and giving him greetings from Phoenix and our John 17 Movement.

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In March we had a beautiful service of worship and repentance for division in the church at Living Streams Church in north Phoenix. Our team here in Phoenix consists of my ministry friend Joe Tosini, the principal catalyst for the John 17 Movement, Phoenix Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Nevares, and Peter Poppleton, Director of The City of the Lord, the Catholic charismatic community in Tempe. Visit our website, www.john17movement.com, and sign up for email updates.

Chair of the Arizona Council on Faith and Community… which I’ve led for the last several years. We network faith leaders from the Valley and around the state at a monthly meeting at Catholic Charities in Phoenix. You can read about us at www.godenriches.org.

Chair of Congressman Matt Salmon’s Council on Faith and Community Congressman Salmon wrote to me, “I wanted to take a moment and express my appreciation to you for accepting my invitation to serve as Chairman of the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership Advisory Council. Your service will not only be of great benefit to me and my office, but also the constituents of Arizona’s 5th Congressional District.” Our Council is focusing its efforts on mental health issues—and personal and community trauma.

The Souper Bowl I was a member of the steering committee for a statewide campaign against hunger, using the Super Bowl here in Arizona as a center point for this effort. Arizona efforts raised approximately a half million dollars to fight hunger. See souperbowl.org.

Ordination of Anglican Bishop Keith Andrews In January our Pastors in Covenant group traveled to Newport Beach, CA for the ordination of our friend and covenant group guy, Keith Andrews, who has been appointed a bishop in the Anglican movement in North America. In the photo from left to right are: Pastor Mark DiBernardo (Word Alive, Gilbert), Rich Hendrix (formerly of Bethany Community, now a teaching pastor at New Life in Peoria), ME, Bishop Keith, Pastor Rick Thiemke (Red Mountain CC/Via Church, Mesa) and Pastor Mark Leuning (The Springs Foursquare Church, Chandler).

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Mike Huckabee I had a chance to meet him at a reception at Phoenix Country Club.

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Governor Doug Ducey At the inauguration and at a luncheon for Christian Hispanic leaders organized by friend and ministry partner Jose Gonzalez.

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KPXQ Faith Talk 1360 Once a month I have the privilege of hosting “Koinonia,” an hour-long, live talk show. In March, I hosted and interviewed Brian Steele, Executive Director of The Phoenix Dream Center and a couple graduates of their life program (below). They service over 1000 people!

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Preaching

Interim Pastor @ One Community Church, San Tan Valley For the fourth time since I stepped aside as lead pastor at Word of Grace, I’ve had the joy of serving a church that’s between pastors. I’ve been preaching and providing pastoral leadership and care to One Community, a small fellowship in San Tan Valley (below).

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And in Safford, Arizona Finally, my name on a marquis! But can you find it???

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And on TV Watch “Just Jesus” on “My New Day” with Bob and Audrey Meisner: http://www.mynewday.tv/shows/honey-i-shrunk-jesus

Personal

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Oliver Kinnaman, our youngest of nine grandchildren.

 

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Marilyn and our daughter Shari, who teaches English at Arapaho CC in Denver.

 

Your Continued Financial Support

Help us! Invest in the amazing things God is doing through Nothing But Grace! Thank you for your regular and generous financial support. We can receive tax-deductible donations directly to Nothing But Grace LLC, 3769 E Morrison Ranch Pkwy, Gilbert AZ 85296. We’re also set up to receive contributions through PayPal.

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Plenty of Nothin’

How to know God deeply, get along with yourself, and love like Jesus the people you can’t stand

At a unity service with Roman Catholics recently, I was asked to share what’s on my heart, what I hear God saying to me.

And I said, “Nothing. Nothing is in my heart, because nothing is really important.”

Years ago I heard Richard Wurmbrandt, author of Tortured for Christ, talk about celebrating the Eucharist in solitary confinement. He had no bread. No wine. So he served himself the Lord’s Table with nothing. “Nothing,” he said, “is really something, because God made everything out of nothing.” Ex nihilo is what we call it in theological circles.

Nothing mattered to Jesus, too. In Philippians 2, Paul describes the incarnation of Christ this way: “He made himself nothing.” This has been called the doctrine of the kenosis, the Greek term used in this passage and which means “emptied out.”

Maybe you recall this rhyme:

Nothing in my hand I bring.

Simply to thy Cross I cling.

In fact, nothing is a master key to life.

When I say, Jesus is everything, it means nothing else matters. Only God. Only my relationship with him. But for you and me, more often than not, those are empty words. Jesus isn’t always everything to us, because in our distraction-filled world Jesus is usually just one other thing. Yeah, we like to say he’s the most important thing, but so many other things are just as important. Which is why losing a thing or two, or maybe losing everything, is necessary to get us back to the only thing that matters.

The ancient Psalmist wrote, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, and that will I seek after: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of his presence” (Psalm 27:4).

Just one thing.

What’s your thing?

Whatever happened to the dinosaurs?

We just spent the Easter week with our son Matt, his wife Kate, and their two children. He’s in the Navy band, but on Easter Sunday he had a solo trumpet gig, a piece from Handel’s Messiah at a historic Presbyterian church in Norfolk.

I sent a video of Matt’s performance to my brother Tom, who was a high school band director for many years. He emailed me back, “I really get emotional listening to that. I picture how our Dad [Matt’s grandfather] would have reacted to his grandson performing like that.”

When I read Tom’s email to my wife Marilyn, she said, “Maybe God let him hear Matt.” It’s a common hope, that dad, who passed away, is with his son as he plays in a championship basketball game. If, indeed, that’s the case, the Bible is certainly not clear on what exactly we know or don’t know in heaven about our families back here on earth.

My son Matt kinda laughed when he heard his mom’s comment. He said he had friends say something like this: “I can’t wait to get to heaven, because I have a whole of questions. Why this? Why that?” Or even, “What ever happened to the dinosaurs?”

“Heaven,” Matt declared, “is about experiencing fully the incredible presence of God. So when I see God face to face for the first time, I’m gonna ask him what happened to the dinosaurs? I think not. I think the only thing I’ll be thinking about is God. Nothing else will matter.”

God plus nothing.

Just give me Jesus

Jesus’ friend Martha had him over for a meal. Her sister Mary was sitting there talking to Jesus, and busy Martha was annoyed. Mary is doing nothing, she thought. “Hey sister, help me in the kitchen,” she demanded.

Jesus gently intervened, “Martha, Martha, you are troubled and anxious about many things. Only one is needful, and Mary has chosen this better thing.” And what was that? To do nothing, except to spend time with Jesus (Luke 10:38-42).

In his Gospel, John calls this abiding in Christ, remaining in his life giving presence like a fruit-bearing branch abides in the vine. But the ancient temptation of another tree is ever present: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We hear its siren song: “Know what’s good, and do it. Know what’s evil and don’t do that. Work on being a better person, and you’ll become more and more like God.”

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is, simply, religion. It’s all the things you should do. Have to do. It’s the endless and hopeless self-effort in the pursuit of the person you will never be. Religion says do. Grace says done.

On the other hand, the tree of life is an ancient symbol of the presence of God in Christ, of his perfect life and sacrifice to love us, to make us his own, to sustain us. “Come to

me,” Jesus said to simple people living in a culture of religious rules and demands, “Come to me, all of you who are carrying the burdens of life, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In other words, Jesus was telling them, “I am your Sabbath. Let go of yourself. Stop working for the perfect righteousness that I will give you out of my perfect sacrifice and infinite grace.”

A life worth nothing

This brings me around to my persistence about Jesus plus nothing. If nothing matters but God’s presence and our shared life with him in heaven forever, what could possibly matter to you in the here and now? This is why the Apostle Paul writes, “We look not to the things which can be seen, but to the things which cannot be seen, because the things which can be seen are transient, but the things which cannot be seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). It’s why we live by faith and not by sight. Why faith is the evidence of things not seen.

It’s why nothing is so important. The more we empty ourselves like Jesus, who made himself nothing, the more room we have in us for God.

Don’t you just hate it when people are full of themselves? Don’t you just love it when people have died to themselves and are full of God? We have a treasure in jars of clay, Paul wrote, to show the world that it’s not about us. The apostle used cruder terms to describe all his former rigorous efforts to be religious: a heap of dung. In fact, the Greek term he uses is more vulgar. Why? So that he could know Christ deeply, fully, freely, to abide in him, lacking nothing.

So how much is all the stuff in your life worth? Your things, your identity, your dreams, your absolutely correct doctrinal statement which pretty much makes everybody else’s doctrinal statement incorrect?

Man, is it ever hard to live out this scripture: “I [Paul] consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24 NIV).

It’s the grand irony. The closer you live to nothing, the more you are emptied of yourself, the more open you are to God, who is everything! Yet I have to confess: I hate this because I love myself so darn much.

Good for nothin’

Ok, so what on earth is all this good for? Well, of course, nothing is good for you. You get the peace of God that passes all understanding. You get to trade elusive happiness for priceless contentment. The joy of the Lord becomes your sustaining strength. To put it another way, you’ll find yourself getting along with yourself!

You’ll also find yourself getting along with others. Even loving your enemies. Because it’s not about you anymore. It’s about Jesus in you. Totally. And Jesus in you loves the people you hate more than you love the people you love.

My wife and I wrote our wedding vows. Shallow me included Colossians 1:15-20 (NIV).

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that [ponder this] in everything he might have the supremacy.

Everything in this world, everything in this life is lost in the shadow of the One by whom all things were created. But there’s more:

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], 20 and through him [ponder this too] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

As Jesus becomes the center of the universe, everything is reconciled to him, and as everything and everyone gets closer and closer to Jesus, everyone gets closer to one another. When Jesus is fully Lord over us, nothing can come between us.

Jesus plus nothing is why Christians of every persuasion are able to enter into the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Jews and Gentiles. Men and women. Rich and poor. African, Asian, Anglo, and Latino. Catholics and Protestants. To be one. Because we are all one in Christ Jesus, as he and the Heavenly Father are one.

What?!

Jesus prayed for us to be as one with one another, and the Triune God is one with himself? Yes, the perfect union of the Persons of the Trinity is our model for Christian unity, absolutely nothing between us. In fact, perfect community is the very image of God in and among us. And God (Elohim, plural) said, “Let us create human persons in our image.” So in the image God (Elohim) made he them, male and female, made he them (Gen. 1:26-27).

And those two very different people, a man and a woman, became one flesh, one with each other, an image of the perfect, eternal oneness of the triune Being of God.

Through his work on the cross, Jesus not only forgives our sins, but he opens the door to a new creation, a new world where the lion lies down with the lamb, a new humanity where people with extraordinary differences become one in the One God who is One. Jesus has destroyed the dividing walls of hostility and made the two one: God and fallen humanity—and all the fragments of fallen humanity.

Next time you participate in Holy Communion, consider this: it’s not about just you ‘n God. It’s a celebration of our co-union with Christ. Every week around the globe, his body is broken into millions of fragments, bits of bread which each of us consume to heal our fractured lives and fragmented relationships. Jesus was broken so we can be put back together.

Nothin’ but Jesus

The Corinthian Christians are a case study of division in the church and how to bring the fragments of the body of Christ back together. God’s people in Corinth weren’t getting along. They had their reasons. You know, everyone always has their reasons. Some were following one apostle, other another. Like Luther. Or Calvin. Or Wesley. Or Pope Francis.

According to Paul, they were behaving like children, or worse, they were unspiritual, carnal (1 Corinthians 3:1-4).

What to do? Nothing!

Listen to Paul, “I am determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2 NASB). Nothing except Jesus. Jesus plus nothing. As we take up the cross, we become dead to the world and alive to God, dead to ourselves and alive to one another.

To me, this is the practical outworking of Jesus plus nothing. In contrast, when you add things to Jesus, when your life is about Jesus plus this or that, it’s the this-or-that which becomes, in effect, more important than Jesus himself. It’s the plus-something that becomes our point of division, misunderstanding, even hostility. It could be a doctrine. Our denomination. How we do church. Or in a marriage, a relationship, or at work, it’s the issue that divides us, never Jesus.

Ponder Paul’s approach to the problem of disunity in Corinth: nothing except Jesus, the introduction of the idea how we are all members of one another in the body of Christ, and the supremacy of love in the transcendent words of 1 Corinthians 13. God is love, and love does.

Nothin’ matters. Not spiritual gifts. Not knowing it all, like having several seminary degrees. Not faith to move mountains. Not giving away everything you have. Not even giving your life away in blazing martyrdom. Nothing. Nothing but love matters. If we don’t do everything in love, we’re just making a lot of noise. And the very best of religion can make the worst kind of noise.

Resolution or reconciliation?

You can always find Jesus plus something when someone is more concerned about resolution than they are about reconciliation. Resolution focuses on the problem, but reconciliation focuses on the person. God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not holding our sins against us. In fact, a study on forgiveness some years ago at UCLA found that there was no correlation between conflict resolution skills and long-term marriages. What was common? Empathy and forgiveness.

But Jesus plus the issue keeps the conflict—and the division that comes with it—alive. So what’s your thing? What’s your issue that’s putting Jesus in the shadows? The “irreconcilable difference” in your marriage? What marriage doesn’t have those?! Praying to Mary? If you don’t, is God going to think less of you? If you do, are you going to hell?

Who is anyone to speak for God and tell others that what they are doing or the way they are living their life is a breaking point for God? I don’t pray to Mary. It’s just that my soul venerates so many other things. And so does yours. Yes, things matter, but mostly nothing matters. Nothing has to be our starting point for everything.

I know this ain’t so religious, but why can’t we all sing this song from the musical “Porgy and Bess”?

I got plenty o’nothin’ and nothin’s plenty for me

I got no car, got no mule, I got no misery

Folks with plenty of plenty, they got a lock on the door

Afraid somebody’s gonna rob ’em while they’re out a’makin’ more

What for?

I got no lock on the door, that’s no way to be

They can steal the rug from the floor, that’s OK with me

’cause the things that I prize, like the stars in the skies, are all free

Say, I got plenty o’nothin’ and nothin’s plenty for me

I got my gal, got my song, got heaven the whole day long

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Is It Politics?

Or is it injustice, something God’s people should be concerned about?

Predatory lending. If it’s not one injustice, it’s another. A community leader pleaded with me to write an op-ed opposing the Arizona Senate passing legislation that would open the floodgates of predatory loans. The Arizona Republic published my letter!

Free Speech or Hate Speech? In January I participated on an interfaith panel hosted at the Jewish Historical Center in downtown Phoenix. The theme: “Holy Words or Hate Bait?”

Here’s the text of my presentation at the Faith Forum:

When Free Speech Becomes Hate Speech

The First Amendment of our constitution declares: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Sheldon Nahmod has written an online article entitled “Free Speech and Hate Speech.”

Mr. Nahmod is Distinguished Professor, Chicago-Kent College of Law

A Graduate: University of Chicago, Harvard Law School, and Chicago Divinity School

Specialties: Constitutional Law, the First Amendment, and Religion.

In the intro to his article, Mr. Nahmod makes some important preliminary observations:

  1. The First Amendment protects us from the government; it does not apply to relations between private persons.
  2. The First Amendment, like all individual rights in the Constitution, is not absolute.
  3. And three, freedom of speech has costs.

Which brings us to perhaps the most controversial free speech issue: hate speech.

I’m a Constitutional Law neophyte. So I accessed the American Bar Association website, which says,

Hate speech is speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.

Should hate speech be discouraged? The answer is easy—of course! However, developing such policies runs the risk of limiting an individual’s ability to exercise free speech.

When a conflict arises about which is more important—protecting community interests or safeguarding the rights of the individual—a balance must be found that protects the civil rights of all without limiting the civil liberties of the speaker.

Again, freedom of speech has costs.

The ABA website continues:

In this country there is no right to speak fighting words—words without social value, directed to a specific individual, that would provoke a reasonable member of the group about whom the words are spoken. For example, a person cannot utter a racial or ethnic epithet to another if those words are likely to cause the listener to react violently.

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In fact, you can be cited for antagonizing another driver with your middle finger.

Mr. Nahmod asks,

What does the First Amendment, through interpretations by the Supreme Court, have to say about hate speech? The short answer is that the First Amendment prohibits government from regulating such speech altogether. This is a very different approach from that of countries in Western Europe that often prohibit such speech, including denials of the Holocaust.

… or in Saudi Arabia, where they are flogging a citizen for blogging.

But why should that be? … One answer is that the First Amendment creates a marketplace of ideas in which everyone can participate. Everyone can try to sell his or her ideas to the marketplace and the buyers in the marketplace eventually decide which ideas have value and which do not, which ideas are truthful and which are not. We are all sellers and buyers in this marketplace.

What kinds of ideas are out there in the marketplace of ideas? Political ideas, artistic ideas, scientific ideas, social ideas of all kinds, whether smart, crazy, far-out, brilliant, dangerous.

What is the government’s role in this marketplace of ideas? Basically, the government must stay neutral; it must keep its hands off of the marketplace.

[Yet] there are some communications that are not allowed in the marketplace of ideas. Obscene speech, for one, carefully defined by the Supreme Court, is excluded from the marketplace of ideas. Another kind of communication, child pornography, is also not allowed because its production involves child abuse…

So … if there are some exceptions under the First Amendment … why not also include hate speech as an exception? … Why should government not be allowed to prohibit it?

The Supreme Court’s answer … is that even hate speech contains political ideas, however horrible these ideas may be. When you regulate such speech, you are also regulating ideas.

The Supreme Court has also made clear that just because speech offends people, this is never a justification under the First Amendment for punishing it.

Which brings the discussion today back to us … community leaders … faith leaders!

We, you and I, face two massive cultural influences: politics and media, both conservative and liberal. These share a similar need: politicians need votes and the media needs ratings. And you know this, of course, that the way politicians get votes and the way media gets ratings is to be controversial and sensational. They have to get us stirred up, fired up, and sometimes just plain mad as hell.

So when Arizona passed SB1070, Larry King hosted a special report. His guests? Sherriff Joe and Al Sharpton.

Solutions? No.

Ratings? Yes.

And come election season, why are there scandalously negative and slanderously inaccurate political ads? Because they work!

In a study published in The Journal of Politics, Ken Goldstein and Paul Freedman summarize their findings: We find unambiguous evidence that exposure to negative campaign ads actually stimulates voter turnout.

Politics thrive on polarization and hostility.

So does Twitter.

Here’s what Jesus said about politics and Twitter. Sort of. In what is called the Sermon on the Mount, he says:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22 NIV)

Jesus is talking here about name calling … mudslinging … reacting to an offense with equal or greater invective and insult.

Sometimes, you’re so angry you just want to kill somebody.

And yet ironically … sadly … extremists in every religion use their holy books to justify their rage and violence. In the name of God.

In our hostile, polarized world, we – you and I – have to be a voice of sanity. A voice for civil discourse. A voice for a God of reconciliation, forgiveness, healing and peace.

A God-calling in this season of my life is to defrag the Christian community … to build bridges of friendship and partnerships among Christians and with those of other faith traditions. We have too much to lose if we don’t.

In the last week, I attended a Catholic mass at St. Mary’s, on Sunday my wife and I were at a Mormon service with our neighbors in Gilbert, and later in the morning I preached at a Church of God in San Tan Valley where I am an interim pastor.

And today, I’m here with you!

Here’s how the Apostle Paul writes about reconciliation to Christian believers in the ancient city of Ephesus:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace … to reconcile both of them to God through the cross by which he put to death their hostility (Ephesians 2:14-16 NIV).

Who are “the two”?

Jews and Gentiles

Blacks and whites

Men and women

Rich and poor

Catholics and Protestants

Democrats and Republicans

Is it possible?

I’m in disbelief that any deeply religious person could embrace hostility and worse, violence, as an important element of their faith.

Listen to something else Paul writes to a seriously divided Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth:

[The] love [of God] is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…. [T]hese three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7,13 NIV)

And consider these other extraordinary appeals.

Also from Paul: Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Philippians 4:5 NIV)

In another place he writes: If anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted (Galatians 6:1 NASB).

And this: [Speak] the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15 NLT).

And I close with this from the Epistle of James:

[E]veryone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20 NASB).

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