Touched by a Drummer ("Saint Kit")

Knowing God

HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN A STRONG PREMONITION PULLING you toward an unknown place to meet someone you don’t know? Oddly enough, I was always just one person away from Saint Kit, but it took a midlife collapse to bring us face-to-face. The summit of significance was finally in view after years of maneuvering the challenges of leadership in Christian ministry. With one final push to the top left to go, an unexpected snowstorm blew in, and I was forced to abort the mission. In a matter of moments, my ascent to greatness became a brutal struggle to survive. It was clear I wasn’t going to safely get off that mountain without some help. From Nashville, I landed in New Haven late Friday afternoon, driving a two-lane highway all the way to West Simsbury.

A light dusting of snow covered the roadside, with silvery flakes continuing to drop gently from the dusk-filled sky. Following directions, I veered right at the fork and continued crawling along, finding my left turn past an old, round, stone barn. A meandering gravel driveway led through spacious, pine-covered land to an old New England farmhouse. The scent of burning wood accompanied a coal-black Labrador announcing my arrival, both tail and tongue vigorously engaged.

Contrasting the external magnificence of the Connecticut surroundings was the hemorrhaging man behind the wheel. My zero-to-hero story, the one where I take my place between Frodo and Sam to be counted among the fellowship of “somebodies” winning great victories for humankind (or at least invited to speak at a church-growth conference), wasn’t quite going as planned. On the brink of reaching coveted guru status, I discovered my wife of ten years had entered into a relationship with another man.

This revelation sent our marriage plummeting, and after failed attempts in counseling to save it, it ended in divorce. Other than the consolation of having no children of our own to put through the nightmare of a broken marriage, I could not imagine any scenario where this could “work out for the good.” At first I tried dodging any personal responsibility and strived to save face by emphasizing the technicality that she was the one who filed for divorce, but ultimately I could not escape the cruel truth that our marriage failed in part because I failed.

Soon after, I resigned as pastor of the church I’d started, which was widely known, having once been a Sunday morning front-page story in the city paper. In the dead of winter, I packed my belongings and moved in with a single guy from our church, living in an ancient house without heat. News traveled fast and far, reaching the mega mother church up north where I’d been trained and commissioned.

Becoming a marked man is an abrupt and rude awakening for someone on the rise toward greatness. No explanation sufficed, and any way you sliced it, folks saw a promising ministry star who had crashed and burned. You can get away with quite a bit in career Christendom, but divorce is on the taboo black list of ultimate no-no’s. Stripped of my superherominister mask and exposed as a mere mortal, I became unnecessary among people who once hung on my every word. I surmised heaven had me marked too, no longer just a child of God, but now a divorced one. My sense of value and usefulness crashed, and I shamefully assumed my place in the land of misfit toys on the outskirts of God’s kingdom. At least there was the promise of Christ’s return and my making it into eternal paradise, if even by the back door.

Perhaps everyone finds him or herself a time or two sifting through the rubble and ruins of a devastated life, wondering whether or not it’s worth rebuilding or even salvageable. Somehow surviving the day, the night hours slowly passed in anguish as I lay awake feeling abandoned by everyone (mostly God), unable to envision a life worth living. Ŕ la Forrest Gump, one day I just started running. Dark, light, morning, afternoon, evening, rain, shine, heat, cold, seven days a week, sometimes two times a day, I strapped on my Reeboks, hit the door, and ran. I ran until my waistline and body fat dwindled to a jeans size I can only dream of now. At first it was three miles, then five miles, then nine, then twelve, seventeen, twenty-two, until one day I collapsed, unconscious, and awoke inside an ambulance.

Eventually realizing I couldn’t outrun my problems, I began paying a counselor more than I could afford to sit and listen to my rambling for an hour. It was money well spent, since no one else cared to hear what I needed to say. My shrink mentioned hearing about some guy in Connecticut who provided a place for people to get away by themselves for rest and to “listen to God.” It was worth a shot. I was doing plenty of blathering; maybe it was time for listening. So I called this dude in Connecticut, and after an hour of spilling my guts, I decided to go. Maybe he would have some answers (or a magic wand) to piece my shattered life back together.

It was a little odd on the phone. All he wanted to talk about was “silence,” “solitude,” and “meditation.” I began envisioning Kit as one of those yoga fanatics or some gaunt monastic sage wandering the countryside in a robe and sandals, feeding birds and chipmunks or making fruitcakes by candlelight while chanting and burning incense. Neither was I sure my psyche could handle being that far north while Atlanta faced New York in the World Series. How could a red-state Bible Belt Baptist Braves fan possibly fraternize with a blue-state Catholic Yankees fanatic? Isn’t that sleeping with the enemy? Nonetheless, desperate times called for desperate measures, so off I went.

So here I was in Connecticut, and at the end of that long driveway, a burly man in grungy jeans and a rust-colored sweater appeared on the front steps waving me in, an ecstatic grin on his face. Bypassing my outstretched hand, he embraced me solidly, paralyzing me. I am not a touchy-feely kind of guy.This was Kit? He sure didn’t resemble the solemn monks in my church history books. He grabbed my bags and ushered me inside to the savory smell of chow and his lovely wife, Trish.

Over dinner it became clear that Kit wasn’t the friar I expected. A gifted jazz drummer, music is his passion and genius. In addition to playing and listening to it, he somehow introduced the topic into most conversations. He would mention names of renowned musicians, and I would nod my head as if I knew whom he was talking about. At some point, I was going to have to break it to him that my music tastes weren’t quite so sophisticated. He hadn’t said anything yet about Alabama or Hootie and the Blowfish. We did have a chat later about Genesis—not the Bible one, but the Phil Collins one.

Physically unassuming, Kit has a quietly calm presence that mysteriously draws you. He comes to mind as what must be meant when people refer to someone as being “centered.” He listened twice as much as he spoke, which worked well since I talked twice as much as I listened. It wasn’t long before I realized Kit had no intention of offering advice or counseling me on the trauma precipitating my pilgrimage to see him. Some sage! To him, nature provided a breathtaking backdrop, and they supplied a bed, three square meals, and quiet, and it was up to God to do the rest. He and Trish lived upstairs in the retreat house they made available to people worn down and weary, or somehow lost due north. My being there was starting to make more sense—maybe there was something more to this God thing than I had experienced thus far.

Speaking of God, reading between the lines, it seemed Kit had this silly notion that God just talks to people. To him, “prayer” was a kind of real-time instant-messaging soul conversation with God. It figures that a freewheeling, inventive musician type would come up with something so rightbrained as that. Didn’t Kit know the Bible made all that unnecessary? God has already spoken, his love letter to all of humankind is in print, there is nothing left to say, and those claiming to hear God “speak” are usually cult leaders stockpiling weapons and planning their own armageddon.

I was tired, and Kit showed me the sleeping quarters. Surrounded by silent wintry woods, a wall of windows clothed in sheer curtains let moonlight wash over the entire room. Lingering at the window, I watched the snowflakes float effortlessly around bare branches reaching quietly toward the light. I finally pulled myself away from the window and closed my bedroom door, making sure it was securely locked. The safety of a locked door helped me sleep as a child and was comforting in unfamiliar places. I slipped into bed, pulled up the extra blanket, and swiftly drifted off.

The clock read 2:00 a.m. when I was sharply roused from the dead of sleep. Sitting up on the side of my bed, I carefully surveyed the softly lit room and was startled to find my locked bedroom door now standing half open. Someone was there. I could feel it. What words can be used to describe what is beyond speech? The next moment I was swept away by the awareness of a vast and powerful presence before me. At first I was anxious before its immensity, yet just an instant later, I was delighting in its beauty and love. It was like I had been opened from within, and in the depths of my being, an indescribable joy, a kind of gusto, filled me and set me afloat on a sea of happiness so freeing and complete that it remains in my memory to this day as perfect peace.

A glowing intimacy such as I had never felt before was turned upon me, and finite language cannot express the intoxicating pleasure I felt as emanating waves of tender affection washed over me. I responded by accepting it, even more, wanting it. Whoever or whatever this was I did not care, glad to leave behind everything in life that was less than this. Slowly swaying back and forth, basking in the ecstasy and rapture of this encounter, I closed my eyes and began patting my heart. There was nothing to think, say, or do, so totally was I caught up in receiving. Completely absorbed in the fullness and significance of the moment, it was like the clouds of my soul had parted and warm rays of divine love were streaming in. Lingering in delight, a sweet drowsiness slowly began claiming me, which I first fought, not wanting to let go of the moment. The last thing I remember was snowflakes quietly and more steadily dropping outside the window before falling back off to sleep.

(Okay, the last few paragraphs sound like something out of one of those sappy paperback romance novels with Joe Stud passionately embracing little Miss Helpless on the cover. I almost didn’t include this section, imagining the horrified faces of my gym buddies reading it. Guys, if you’re reading this, how ’bout those White Sox!)

I’m not a big paranormal kind of guy, though I once saw what looked like a UFO flying over my apartment building, but I promised Pam not to get into that here. (Yet another publishing world insight: The real editor is your spouse, who must continue living with you after the book comes out.)

Based on the nighttime visitation, I was half expecting to find Kit levitating over his music gear with drumsticks in hand at the breakfast table. What kind of music was this guy into (or smoking while listening)? Whatever my encounter was, it certainly was a leap attributing this craziness to God, at least the Judeo-Christian one I knew. He was still packed in my bag between Genesis and Revelation.

Like summoning a genie in a bottle, I was familiar with summoning God for life application through proper inductive Bible study methods. I wasn’t well acquainted with the one who shows up bedside like your lover. Though my New Age friends spoke of being in deep accord with a “quantum essence,” my Christian spirituality didn’t leave room for knowing God so intimately, so personally. I learned all about God’s “omnipresence” in seminary and didn’t need to “feel” God to know that he was with me. My faith was much more sophisticated.

Over breakfast, Kit sat listening for the better part of an hour to my sharing what seemed the most relevant facts of my life story. Navigating like a brain surgeon around people and circumstances dangerously near tender scars, I suddenly fell speechless upon accidentally puncturing a painful wound and could not continue. Not quick to intervene, Kit offered a concerned smile and after a long, uncomfortable silence said, “Perhaps it’s time for quiet.” In the stillness, there was no escaping my brokenness. Perhaps this was why solitude was so threatening. With the noise of my frenetic activity silenced, the muffled voices of emptiness and despair then demanded to be heard.

As conversation resumed, he asked me to describe where I was with God. Rambling off a heap of words, it sure didn’t seem to be adding up to much. I was a born-again, inerrancydefending, seeker-targeted pastor, steamrolled by life, trying to figure out, What now? After a moment or two of wallowing in my woes, he responded with, “Jim, could you describe what you know of God?” An inner sigh of relief (like the classroom discovery of knowing the right answer) came, remembering all I knew about God. God is eternal, infinite, holy, just, sovereign, wise, atemporal, omniscient, omnipresent, all-powerful, majestic, unchanging, merciful, and loving. I had a few Gospel stories about Jesus to back it up, a couple of examples of how God “blessed” me, and I expected to earn extra credit upon citing the beauty of the New England winter as proof of virtually every attribute of God.

Kit was unmoved by my theological competence. He rephrased his request this time by emphasizing, “Jim, describe what you know of God from personal experience.” He clarified this further by saying, “Jim, how would you answer the question, ‘Who is God?’ if you could not use any information you’ve learned about God from the Bible? Describe for me who you have experienced God to be through your personal interaction with him.” Yikes! When’s the soonest flight back to Nashville? I wondered. Every good evangelical knows that for all practical purposes, the Bible is God, and you don’t rely on something as subjective as personal experience. Heck, I knew people who slept with their Bible beneath their pillow to keep God close. Perhaps Kit should stick to playing drums and leave religion to trained professionals.

Seeing I was getting a bit fidgety and defensive, Kit suggested spending the rest of the afternoon in quiet “listening.” For what, I didn’t know. Expecting Kit’s guidance for determining my next move in life, I was now going to blow an entire day listening to birds chirp. I bundled up, grabbed a notebook and a pen, and we headed out into the frigid Connecticut winter. Kit led me along a wooded trail to an old dairy barn and escorted me upstairs to the hayloft, which had been converted into a sitting room. Pulling from his pocket a box of matches, he lit the single candle on a small wooden table, motioning me to take a seat. Kit stood gazing out the window while I watched the small flame in the middle of the room.

A few moments had passed when he began speaking to God on my behalf as if I weren’t even there. Appealing to Jesus for my worn-out soul to find rest in him, he was seeing more deeply into my need than I could see myself. Maybe he knew something I didn’t. I went to Connecticut expecting a list of things to do in order to get my life back on track but, come to think of it, Kit had not asked one thing of me since arriving. He and Trish provided for my every practical need and wouldn’t even let me pour my own coffee refill. Was there a message in this? I came to Connecticut anxiously seeking answers, direction, and an action plan, and felt an elephant-sized burden of successfully obtaining at least one; but the more the merrier, right? Maybe instead I was there to receive, and the burden was really on God to provide whatever I needed. Perhaps that is what Kit meant by listening—an openness to receiving.

Kit remained a short while longer and indicated he’d be back to get whatever was left of me before sundown. The barn door creaked shut behind him as I sat listening to the slowly fading cadence of his footsteps in the snow. The steady flame of the candle kindled a heightened attentiveness, and I deciphered the sound of beads of water dripping outside from overhead icicles onto the front steps. A whistling winter wind gently rattled the windowpanes. Some distance away I could make out the sound of firewood being split and farther away still, the faint whistle of a train. It’s amazing what you hear when you’re listening.

My mind set to wandering in the quiet, and I found myself lost in memories as a young boy drawing pictures. There I was ripping pencil sketches and paintings, which had taken hours to create, into shreds. Despite the praise of elementary school teacher Miss Scott after once catching a glimpse of my artistic doodling, my eyes could see only flaws and defects in every work I created. With wadded-up paper piled across my bedroom floor, I would berate myself for the ugliness of my pictures. Now all grown up and sitting atop this barn in Connecticut, my self-hatred seemed to have come full circle.

Born again as a high school senior, I had been supplied by God with a fresh start and a clean page for creating a new life, but I had managed to turn it into a horrid splattering of dark blotches. Tears of shame trickled down my cheeks to the corners of my mouth, where I could taste the regretful reality that after all these years, the only picture I had to present to God seemed to be ugly and worthless. As I sat in silence at the rock bottom of myself, I noticed the candle suddenly flicker and immediately felt a peculiar stirring as if something had been altered within myself or in the room or both. A finely tuned attentiveness grew. I spoke into the silence, “Is that you, Jesus?” Where did that thought come from? The deeper I sank into my inner desolation, the stronger this presence became. Could this really be Jesus?

Why? How? Where was Kit when you needed him? My brain finally conceded to what my soul unmistakably knew; the risen Christ was knocking at the door of my broken heart with something to say. I opened my notebook and began writing out an unfolding conversation between Jesus and myself. Addressing me personally by name, he initiated his thoughts into my mind, which I recorded and then responded to in writing. I continued in this manner, filling several pages. The first brief exchange opened the eyes of my heart to see Jesus as never before and then myself through his eyes:

“Jim, the man I deeply love, may I come in? I want to be with you. You have not been hidden from me. I look upon you now in sadness; the one I love is broken.”

“Jesus, who am I?”

“Jim, I see that little boy and now grown man ashamed of his picture. When I came to you last night, I hurt over your disconnectedness and loneliness. These very sorrows I have felt myself. I was unwanted and undesirable. I know your lonely place. Jim, you are desired and wanted by me. You condemn yourself, but I want you to be free.”

“I am so tired, Jesus. My whole life is a failure.”

I take great delight in you, Jim. I want you to know that and rest in it. I look upon the picture of your life and smile. I know you now, who you are in the process of becoming day by day, and ultimately who you will fully be. I rejoice over you with singing.”

Perhaps the unknown man I was drawn to Connecticut to meet wasn’t Kit after all, but Jesus. Apparently, I had not mastered knowing God as my master of divinity degree implied. I prided myself in knowing what the Bible said about God, but I now was experiencing an aspect of encountering him directly. Putting two and two together, I realized it was Jesus pursuing me at my bedside as my smitten lover. He was letting me know that I am his greatest treasure and that he is determined for me to know this about myself.

The combination of the bedroom encounter and now this chat with God, especially given my UFO sighting, might raise suspicions with the reader of my having a shaky hold on reality. I feel your pain. Perhaps others imagine I’ve seen one too many episodes of Joan of Arcadia. To be honest, I probably could have passed the whole thing off as some psychological castle in the sky if it weren’t for this one thing—the conversation is continuing. Jesus keeps on talking. Or is it that I’ve finally started listening?

For years of my life, my approach to God was akin to the field of astronomy. God was this immense celestial phenomenon, and the Bible was my telescope through which I caught distant glimpses, recording my observations, calculations, and interpretations in Sunday school guides and fill-in-the-blank sermon notes. My understanding of how things worked was that an accurate knowledge of the composition of God and the spiritual laws for relating to him was the difference between being blessed or blighted by this divine juggernaut.

With a seminary degree and a lifetime of studying the Bible, I was considered an expert on God, and people drove from miles away to hear me explain him. Kit was instrumental in opening my eyes to the fact that God wants me to know him in a way beyond how you know French or geometry (curious choice, since I don’t know French and failed geometry, but you get the point). Admittedly, my purely intellectual approach to God was inconsistent with my evangelical jargon that often referred to a “personal relationship” with God. I had the rhetoric down but did not really experience God this way in everyday life. I did have a sort of relationship with my Bible, as much as one can have a relationship with a book.

I had a wide range of motivations for making the Bible the center of my life. Sometimes I read the Bible because it was drilled into me that I should, a God-won’t-like-me-if-I-don’t kind of should. At other times, I came to the Bible as God’s little instruction book for improving my life and fixing my problems. I searched the Scriptures for promises to claim and principles to apply in achieving a successful life (including financial independence, vocational achievement, and cured depression). Reading the Bible was also a checklist item I could easily mark off in order to feel good about myself, kind of like exercising daily and taking my vitamins.

Referring to the Bible, Jesus once said, “These Scriptures point to me.” Pondering Jesus’ words, I was a little startled by the implication that the written Word and the Living Word are not one and the same. On one level, this is patently obvious. When Jesus returns, he will not be a book falling out of the sky. Yet, on another level, somehow I became dependent on the Bible independent of Jesus. Many world religions have sacred writings (e.g., Torah, Koran, Book of Mormon, and others), but I’m beginning to see that Christianity is centered in a Person, not a book. The written Word was given to draw us into relationship with the Living Word. Relationships revolve around the intimate interaction of two. I don’t study and memorize information about my wife. Pam and I live in the same house and can relate any time and way we choose. Likewise, God dwells in me, and he is present and accessible 24/7. Now consider, if Pam is inspired to write me a love letter as part of our relationship, is her letter the totality of Pam? Will she never express those same sentiments in other ways as our relationship unfolds?

Being honest with myself, I was making the Bible God out of the need for safety and predictability. I could read any Scripture in the Bible and come back to it weeks later, and it would say the same thing. That is comforting, something solid, unchanging, controllable, and certain. Listening to and interacting with God in the moment in relational ways is messier and evokes fear. What if I fail? What if I hear wrong? What about those crazies who claim God “told them” to commit murder or the guy who believes God said to change jobs and it all falls to hell? But aren’t all relationships like this, exposing us to risk and vulnerability? Can growing, vibrant relationships be predictable and controllable, and aren’t they a process of trial and error as we get to know the other? Maybe knowing God is less a science and more an art.

Kit’s love for music finds expression through several avenues, including concerts, recording projects, and teaching. During one of our conversations, Kit explained to me that as a musician he is trained to improvise and doesn’t fear the moment. I experienced this firsthand in the way he responded during my visit. With no preplanned agenda, he improvised with the Holy Spirit as he observed what God was doing with me. Both within his music and within his relationship with God, he has learned there are wonders to explore if you can live in the existing tension, mystery, and unpredictability.

Now I knew why I had to visit Kit. God put me with someone who had enough confidence in the Spirit to let my visit play out as God directed. I’ve received a lot of “ministry training” from some of the best and brightest megastars in Christendom, but I learned my most valuable lesson from Kit: Sometimes it’s just best to get out of God’s way. Plenty of people were willing to offer “biblical counsel” concerning my continuing career and ministry, which would have served only as distractions from listening to and knowing God himself up close and personal in real time. I was one of those people Jesus referred to who had their nose buried in the written Word but somehow missed the Living Word. Arriving in Connecticut, I wanted a five-point plan for putting my life back together, but Kit’s unplanned agenda allowed for moments where I experienced God in ways I never had.

Maybe getting there requires coming to the end of yourself and the things and people you’re depending on, even if they are inherently good, like the Bible. My striving couldn’t get me any closer to knowing God. He had always been there, waiting for me to give up and listen. Though those dramatic encounters don’t happen every day, I’m starting to become more familiar with his voice. In all Kit’s improvising, I got a taste of God, making me hungry for more of him. He is what I’m looking for. The risks are worth it. I can’t control or predict God, but I trust him enough to allow this journey of knowing him to take me wherever it may lead, even if I don’t know where that is until I get there.

Guess that’s like marching to the beat of a different drummer, huh?

 

Chapter One of Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God (and the unlikely people who help you)

By Jim Palmer (Thomas Nelson Publishers)