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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


Beloved minister, a former rock star, found triumph and tragedy in the music

John Kilzer sang for fans, for the faithful, and for himself

The Rev. Dr. John Kilzer had big plans this year.

He was scheduled to speak Thursday with his musical and spiritual brother Kirk Whalum at Calvary Church’s Lenten preaching series.

Instead, Whalum played “What the World Needs Now” at John’s memorial service Monday.

My heart is overcast, my soul is raining

Don’t know how long I can last till I start complaining

John was scheduled to play May 5 with his band The Scars at the Beale Street Music Festival.

Instead, band members sang and played some of John’s songs at his memorial.

In the eyes of love, in the heart of pain

In the skies above in the pouring rain

If the darkness falls and you’re all alone

Reach for me, reach for me and I’ll take you, take you home

John was teaching a class on Monday evenings this semester at Memphis Theological Seminary, and he was planning to teach again in the fall.

Instead, many of his fellow seminary students and teachers on Monday morning were celebrating his life and mourning his death by suicide last week at the Hazelden Betty Ford treatment center in Minnesota.

And it only goes to show you

Sometimes you don’t even know you

You’re just a ghost in a castle

That’s my destiny to wrestle

The name of John’s seminary class was “Cardiognosis — a knowing of the heart.” It was a class designed to help seminary students learn more about addiction and recovery.

Cardiognosis is the sort of high-dollar word John — who earned advanced degrees in English lit and theology — would know and use.

In Christian theology, cardiognosis is a special charism that God confers on some saints. John would have been the first to say he was no saint.

When he played basketball for the Memphis State Tigers in the 1970s, he drained more tequila shots than jump shots.

When he became an overnight rock ‘n’ roll sensation in the 1980s, he had a Top 10 hit (“Red Blue Jeans”), an MTV video, and a raging addiction to alcohol and drugs.

By the time he crawled back to Memphis in the 1990s, he was a train wreck, a hopeless drunk who was arrested nine times for alcohol-related traffic offenses.

I don’t drink because I want to

I just drink for the pain

And it keeps me warm at night 

While I’m sleeping in the rain

John’s pain — physical and spiritual — was chronic, bone-deep, soul-deep.

He could articulate it in the past tense, autobiographically.

“I hit the bottom and slid sideways for a while,” he’d often say.

He could express it in the conditional past, present or future, vicariously, through his music and his ministry.

“If I didn’t have the sanctuary of the music, I’d crumble in two days,” he told The Best Times’ Chris Hardaway last June. “If I didn’t have this anchor of faith, I’d be like a kite with no tail.”

He could sit for hours with people in their pain, comforting and encouraging them, kindly and gently illuminating a path for their minds, hearts or souls to follow.

You may swing on burning ropes straight through the gates of heaven

It don’t matter how gracefully you land

All you got to do is open up your hands

‘Cause love wants to give its heart to you

John gave a part of his heart to everyone he met. He was unfailingly kind, always encouraging, forgiving of everyone. In the end, he couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive himself.

“As someone who relieved pain for so many of us, how could we know how deep his pain was?” Rev. Dr. Scott Morris, his friend and colleague, said at John’s memorial service.

“He believed in praying for those who no one else was praying for, because he felt he’d been there himself. But John felt shame in his relapse, and he believed that we would not have understood. He was wrong.”

Dead wrong.

John should be at St. John’s United Methodist Church this Friday evening, welcoming fellow travelers to The Way, the recovery service he launched in 2010.

He should be standing at the front of the sanctuary, asking who was there for the first time, then telling them, “We’re gonna love ya’ and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.”

He should be talking about one of the 12 Steps, about his own relapse after nearly 20 years of sobriety, about the endless mercy and infinite grace of God.

Instead, he will be lamented and loved as a survivor and casualty of addiction, a saint and sinner, a gentle and tormented soul whose life and death, head and heart, darkness and light were a parable, a revelation, a psalm.

“It’s all there in the music: love and lust, sorrow and joy, triumph and tragedy, confession and repentance, brokenness and healing,” Rev. Dr. Brad Thomas, John’s friend and colleague, said at his memorial service Monday.

“Like the psalmists of old, who wrote songs that cried out for the fulfillment of hope in the midst of disappointed dreams and broken hearts, John’s songs do the same.

“So If there’s one of John’s psalms I could sing back to him today in that vein, it would be this.

‘You may roll snake-eyes

You may roll sevens

You may swing on burning ropes

Straight through the gates of heaven.’

“But, John, remember what you said:

‘It don’t matter how gracefully you land

All you gotta do is open up your hands

‘Cause love wants to give its heart to you.'”

(This story first appeared at under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.)

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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