G. Scott Morris

The Rev. Dr. G. Scott Morris, M.D., is founder and chief executive officer of Church Health.

Remembering John Kilzer: 'The theme of his songs was always love'

By Updated: March 20, 2019 10:38 AM CT | Published: March 17, 2019 12:53 PM CT

John Kilzer, who died March 12, taught me about cardiognosis (I hope I spelled that right). He explained what we all know intuitively: It is a long journey from the head to the heart. John defined cardiognosis as “thinking with the heart.”

People knew John as a Memphis Tiger, an iconic Memphis musician, and a Methodist minister committed to matters of recovery. In his essence, he was a poet who struggled to make sense of the pain of life. He used music as his vehicle, but the words mattered.

When I look back over his songs from his first hit, “Memory in the Making,” to his iconic “Red Blue Jeans” to his more recent work, the theme of his songs was always love. Heartbreaking love. Love for justice. Love for those whom no one is loving. Romantic, hopeful love.

John described his own journey as going from “the love of wisdom to the wisdom of love.”

John had planned to be an academic after finishing his basketball career at Memphis State. He intended to study William Butler Yeats at Emory University, but Teenie Hodges taught him how to play the guitar, and Geffen Records offered him a tour bus and a chance to tour the world with the Moody Blues and Lightfoot. What kid from Jackson, Tennessee, wouldn’t say yes? Even though it almost destroyed him.

He spiraled into the world of addiction. He was in and out of jail nine times. He had a regular place for his wife, Stacey, to pick him up when he got out: the KFC on Poplar. He would laugh and say, “It’s pretty bad when you have a regular place to be picked up from jail.”

His last time in jail, after Judge Tim Dwyer in Drug Court gave him “an extended stay,” a man John only knew as “Seven” preached to him and told him he would become a minister. John had what he called “a real and mystical experience of God.”

He told his wife that he had found Christ while in jail. She skeptically replied, “You can’t find your car keys but you found Christ.”

He took Seven seriously and began studying at Memphis Theological Seminary. There he learned words, sometimes attributed to Augustine, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” His life began making more sense and he again started writing songs and performing, and he put himself out there every Friday in a service of recovery he called The Way.

It was at The Way that I learned from John that we are all in recovery from something. For some people alcohol or drugs are debilitating; for others we are recovering how we live into love because of the wounds of life. When life becomes dysfunctional, John would say, “You have a living problem.”

My favorite Kilzer song is titled “Planet Love.” He played it for my wife and me over and over. His most recent album’s cover song is “Scars.” He speaks of how all the scars in his life have led him to endure the agonies of life. It is a song of hope.

John’s death has shaken me to my core. But I know his death is not how he will be remembered by me or the thousands who loved him. His lived angst was ultimately expressed in a profound belief that love rules the day. Every Friday at The Way, he would greet those who were new to recovery, who were afraid and alone, with these words: “We are going to love you, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.”

At his memorial service on Monday morning, hundreds of people will be there to tell John how much we love him. And there ain’t nothing he can do about it. We’ll love him for a long time.

The memorial service for the Rev. Dr. John T. Kilzer, associate pastor for Recovery Ministries at St. John’s United Methodist Church, will be held Monday, March 18, at 11 a.m., in the St. John’s sanctuary at 1207 Peabody Ave.

Related stories:

GEOFF CALKINS: Calkins: John Kilzer — former Tiger, musician, minister — lived a life of recovery and grace

BILL DRIES: Memphis singer, songwriter John Kilzer dies

YOLANDA JONES: John Kilzer's death ruled suicide 

ELLE PERRY: Mourners recall John Kilzer’s message of 'hope, love and recovery'

MARK WINBORN: Reflections on the death of John Kilzer

DONNA DICLEMENTI: For John Kilzer's mourners: Remember 'shared sorrow is half sorrow' 



John Kilzer

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