I recently had the honor of interviewing Jim Palmer, author of Divine Nobodies Shedding Religion to Find God (and the unlikely people who help you), and the upcoming book WIDEOPEN SPACES Beyond Paint by Number Christianity. There were a number of things that came up in the interview that somewhat surprised me.
Jim like I had survived an abusive childhood and has worked with abused children and non profits. In fact it got stranger as I discovered he attended East Tennessee State University in Johnson City Tennessee. A school my wife had graduated from, a town I was from, and attended college there one summer. I attended High School at University High on the Campus of East Tennessee State University. It wasn’t long before I realized there was a reason I liked Jim Palmer so much, he was a kindred spirit who had experienced many of the same things I had. There were more similarities like his once being a pastor at Willow Creek Community Church and me almost becoming one there. When I had read his words in Divine Nobodies, and reading his words and blogs at MySpace, I knew Jim would be one God would use to touch and help me in the areas of life I needed help.
I could say a lot more about my friend Jim, but will simply say check him out at http://www.divinenobodies.com/ or at http://www.myspace.com/divinenobodies. Now on to the interview that started off with a tricky phone connection.
Mike Furches (MF): Hey you there?
Jim Palmer (JP): Yea
MF: Didn’t know if I had lost you or not.
JP: Lately this land line phone has been having the batteries changed or get some new batteries.
MF: I don’t know if you know but I used to live down near Nashville. I actually lived in Gordonsville and my aunt; she had a shop in Nashville I think off of Gallatin Road. I still have a number of relatives that live there. It has grown a lot over the last few years I know.
JP: Man, the next time your down here call and we’ll like have some coffee somewhere or something.
MF: I’m always looking for churches to minister at.
MF: Won’t take real long, but I have been reading the book you sent me, Divine Nobodies. First of all my interviews are a little bit different. I don’t know if you read any of my interviews with Billy Bob or anyone else,
JP: Yea a little bit.
MF: I try to make them a little more personable and not too preachy or anything like that. That’s not my calling.
JP: I’m with you.
MF: A couple of things, can you tell us about Jim Palmer, maybe for folks who don’t know that much about you, tell us about your background.
JP: Well I grew up in Southwest Virginia where Blacksburg is. I’m a big Hokie fan and was sort of devastated by the tragedy not too long ago. I grew up having a very troubled childhood. I kind of emerged as a young adult as a kid who was not knowing of any sort of direction to go in, what I was good at, what I wanted to do in life. I didn’t really have much of a meaningful connection with God through my childhood youth and so on.
I went to college at East Tennessee State University and got involved in a little campus ministry there and begin to discover a little bit about a relationship with God and one thing led to the next and I built a friendship with a guy who was a pastor in town. I decided I wanted to go into ministry myself. I went to a seminary up in Chicago at Trinity Seminary and got involved in church ministry. I did that for a number of years. I begin to realize that despite my God degree, my positions in Christian leadership and so on, deep down inside I knew there had to be more than this whole God thing that I was experiencing. I left professional ministry all together and outside of the Christian subculture and outside of Christian ministry God begin to sort of stream some interesting people into my life that kind of awakened me to a number of possibilities to what it could mean to really know God. That is what Divine Nobodies is about. It is that story of shedding my religious mentality in order to know God in deeper ways. That is actually a little bit of the journey that I’ve been on. I’m pretty much just a nobody here in Nashville, growing in terms of knowing God more deeply, and that’s just kind of the path I’m on.
MF: It is amazing how God puts people together. Do you want me to give you an example of that?
MF: Do you know where I went to school at?
MF: University High
MF: On the campus of East Tennessee State University
JP: Man, isn’t that wild?
MF: My wife is a graduate of ETSU. I got saved at I think it’s Memorial Gym, Robinson, not the Mini Dome but what’s the name of that gym?
JP: I can’t even remember the name of it.
MF: I think it’s Brookes Gym or something like that. David Wilkerson was doing a crusade and that is where I got saved at.
JP: Man, that’s so funny. I remember seeing University High all of the time.
MF: I went back when it was more of a college prep school which is kind of strange. I don’t know how much you know about Johnson City but I grew up and lived in Keystone.
JP: I don’t know much, pretty much my whole knowledge of that Tri-Cities area is like the campus of ETSU. I didn’t grow up in that area. I was on campus when I was there so I didn’t get out and around a whole lot.
MF: It’s built up in such a way now that you can do that. Actually for quite a few years you could do that. A lot of students just stay on campus or in that general area.
JP: This is cool.
MF: Yea it is a small world.
JP: Yea I know, isn’t that wild.
MF: Can you tell us about the book, Divine Nobodies?
JP: The subtitle of the book gives a pretty good picture of what it’s about. That subtitle is Shedding Religion to Find God (and the unlikely people who help you.) Essentially, those quote, unquote divine nobodies are those unlikely people like a Waffle House waitress, a auto mechanic, a hip hop musician, a tire salesman and other people that God begin to use in my life out of Christian subculture, away from Christian ministry just a guy living his life knowing there has to be more to God than what I was experiencing. Through these encounters with these people was the process that God used to help me shed some of my religious mentality that was hindering my knowing God in a way that he really wanted me to know him. You know having gone through seminary, having been in professional Christian ministry you kind of create these certain boxes that you put God in and you relate to God based upon certain religious rules, formulas, principles and that kind of a thing. In all of my great theology, my years in professional Christian ministry I realized that there was a lot to God that I really didn’t know and it kind of took bumping into these people on the everyday path of life for me to begin to recognize that there was a whole lot more to God than what I was experiencing. So each chapter is the story of one of those unsuspecting people that God sent into my life, how they impacted me, how that person sort of confronted a belief that I had, that was a shallow way of thinking about God or a sort of a misguided notion I might have picked up along the way that was influencing how I related to God, and how that person kind of confronted that in some way or got me to thinking or pressed me deeper into myself to discover God ways in ways that I had not experienced him before.
MF: Part of what you’re talking about, at least in the way I see it is that people are actively living out their faith and having an impact on others. Would that be a fair assessment?
JP: Yea that would be assessment. An example might be that in this process. What’s happened is that in these last few years I’ve been going through this process of separating God from religion, separating Christ from Christianity, separating community from organized church to kind of really get down to the essence and the core of what it means to know God. Somehow I got all of these things confused and muddled up and it’s required me to kind of separate these things out in my mind to determine what is true, and to experience what God wants for me. Each of these individuals have been a part of the process that is helping me separate those things so that I can truly come to know God in ways that I hadn’t really before. You’re right these are people that didn’t have a God degree or a position in a church but they were just people living out the ways of Christ along the everyday path of life and I would just bust into them. God used those little encounters and those friendships and relationships to help transform my own life.
MF: What’s Jim Palmer doing now?
JP: I’m doing some writing; I’m continuing to finish the next book that is coming out in October. I am doing a few more after that. I’m continuing to talk about the culture and about separating God and religion and kind of working my way through all of that. I’ve started something called the Pilgrimage Project which is an initiative giving people permission to really think and breathe outside of the traditional boundaries of organized church and I meet a lot of people who are very interested in Jesus Christ as a person and who want to connect with others and have relationships that encourage one another on their spiritual journey. These are people who aren’t necessarily interested in Christianity as a religion or in organized church in any form. We’ve kind of been developing a social network of people for whom church is these relationships we have with each other. That is something else I have gotten involved in here in the Nashville area. I do a little bit of teaching on the side. I teach a little bit of world history and I have my hand in a few different things. We just live here in a neighborhood in our city and really involved in our neighborhood and love our neighbors and are involved in the lives of our neighbors. We really try to connect with the people God places in our lives and create community and coming through life together, trying to cultivate those relationships. So that’s a little bit of what goes on with me.
MF: Any websites or links that would be good for people to check out that wants to get more information about you and your ministry?
JP: Yea you can go to divinenobodies.com, I’m also on myspace at myspace.com/divinenobodies You can always shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org That kind of gets you connected to a couple of places where I hang out on line and blog a little bit.
MF: Your blogs are, well you have seen my work, I tend to be too long and I can be winded at times. Your stuff, I have been intrigued by the beauty of what you do and the simplicity of it. Usually what happens for the folks that are reading this is that usually Jim’s blogs will have a photograph and then usually just a sentence or a phrase to get you to reflect on that. Do you want to comment on why you blog in that way? It is very intriguing and some of your stuff in its simplicity. I marvel at your ability to say so much with so little. No way is this is any kind of a put down; it is just an amazing thing that you do. Can you comment because I am intrigued by that.
JP: I think in general there is this assumption that the more information that a person receives the better off they are particularly when it comes to their spiritual growth or their relationship with God. It’s kind of like the more you read the more you study it is just a matter or transferring large portions of information to your brain, and that is the primary thing to stimulate spiritual growth. What I have been finding is that in the last few years, is that for myself that the spiritual growth is not just a cerebral thing, it’s not just an intellectual mastering of quantities of information but it’s maybe going to a deeper part of a person and connecting with God and maybe receiving something on a deeper level. For example, I think it was Socrates who said one good question is better than a thousand answers. I think that when I blog I may throw out a question because I think ultimately a person needs to discover truth for themselves; it is more than just me passing along information. It has to be that the person comes to a truth themselves, and it connects to a deep place within them. Over time after going through seminary and being in ministry I was definitely one of those putting out large thoughts of information for people to consume, but now I am starting to see the incredible spiritual value of a good question, a photograph that maybe connects to a deeper place inside someone. I guess I do that in my blogs because that is the type of thing that has been really impacting me as time goes on. A simple picture, a good question, are just things that the Spirit uses to open up a place deep within me where I become aware of the presence of God or God can work inside of me at another level other than just that sort of that left brain intellectual side of it. That is kind of why I probably tend to go in that direction more in my blogs.
MF: For those reading this what, I would say is I subscribe to probably 200 blogs or more. The truth of it is I read, or at least try to read all of them as I can, but time is a precious commodity. The other truth is that there are probably 5 – 10 that I make sure that I read. Jim Palmers is one of those and every time that you put something up I read it. There are times that I will think and the question that you ask, or the photograph that you use, sometimes 15 – 20 words at most and then the photograph and sometimes I will think and contemplate about that through the day to come to a process of where God can teach me.
JP: You know one day somebody emailed me and said Jim, you ever noticed how often you will use a photograph of person’s eyes on your blog. I wasn’t really consciously aware that I did it so often but as I scrolled a number of my posts I noticed that I did. You know I don’t know, it is an interesting thing that one of the most common miracles that Jesus did in the Gospels was that he would restore people’s sight. One time Jesus said that if your eyesight is good your whole body is good. If you can see ok everything else is going to be good, but if you are blinded and you can’t see then it is going to create all of these other kinds of challenges for you. Even in that there is just that whole message that Christ came to open our eyes to truth, to restore a sense of spiritual vision and understanding, and if you can see the reality of what God wants to give with the eyes of your heart and the present reality of God’s kingdom that’s available within us and to live from day to day, then we’re tapping into that reality that God wants us to experience. I don’t know I think that God uses a lot of simple things, whether it’s nature or it’s art, or conversation with a person standing in a line, the more I’m open and aware of God and his presence in everyone and everything around me it just seems like it’s a continual opportunity for God to grow me spiritually.
MF: One of the beautiful things about God and Christ is that we are all different. He has created us all differently and he’ll use different means and approaches to reach people. To me it is amazing that someone like myself that can be real descriptive, not confrontational but almost sarcastic at times in getting people to think about certain points. God can use something simple like what you do to impact someone like me who’s in some ways different in the things I write about. I just did one on a recent political debate, I’m doing another today about a lady I ran into at Wal-Mart last night which will be more humorous. I’m just saying God uses different people to impact others in ways that we would never imagine sometimes.
JP: I tend to think we are all teachers and all students and if we come to every interaction, every conversation, every relationship, every blog and realize that there’s something here for me to learn and something here for me to offer. I think it just that we check out, kind of have the God switch we turn on for church, or some spiritual activity, or whatever and we expect God then then we kind of turn that God switch off when we’re in the everyday aspects of living life. We are kind of just walking through life, kind of tuned out, eyes closed, spiritual eyes closed and we lack that conscious awareness of all of the ways God is wanting to animate his life in us, or live his life through us, or stimulate our awareness of his kingdom within us. It is always happening.
MF: That gets us back to the circle of Divine Nobodies. In reality when we open up our eyes, God can use all kinds of people, and we ourselves can be used to touch other people.
Another question, maybe a little controversial; regarding the association you have had with the Emerging Church Movement? I run into this a lot. The Virtual Pew is a ministry that attempts to reach out to people who are unchurched or have been disenfranchised or hurt by the church. The reality of it is that the Virtual Pew is in its essence and its form is a type of Emergent Church in what we are attempting to do because we are trying to do things differently and share Christ with people in different ways. Would you speak some about the controversy? One of the things I am pleased with is that you have spoken a lot about Christ. One of the things the Emergent Church is often criticized for is that it leaves Christ out of the equation. Do you want to comment on that?
JP: Yea, with the way I kind of got connected into the Emergent movement, Emergent church or whatever, there are different ways of expressing it, is that outside of Christian subculture, I started stumbling upon some different ways of thinking about my Christian faith, what it means to be the Church, so on and so forth. As I continued down that road, I begin thinking; you know I wonder if I’m going off the deep end. If nobody else I am around seems to be thinking these things, maybe I’m just going crazy. I met with a friend of mine who I knew who would shoot straight with me so I just laid it all out and shared with him where I was at, what I was thinking, what I was questioning and so on. His basic response was well, you’re not alone because there is this sort of emergent conversation is going on where a lot of people are asking similar questions or trying to rethink some things the way you are describing. There is a couple of people you might try to hook up with and get to know or that kind of thing. That is how I got connected into Emergent and for me what it had given me permission to do which I think you seldom find, is it creates the opportunity to do those things I mentioned, separating God from religion, separating the person of Christ from Pop Christianity, separating the community and body of Christ from institutional church and essence to kind of deconstruct and pull a part and examine your theology, your beliefs and practices and so on and be engaged in a conversation where you’re not going to be hammered for raising the questions you have about your faith and how to put all of that back together. For me the Emergent Movement has been a kind of permission slip to ask all of those questions to kind of deconstruct it all. It provided the freedom to put all of the pieces back together in ways that seem unconventional to folks who are more accustomed to a more traditional way of doing things.
I think the challenge for the Emergent Church is sometime I feel like the people on the ends are too focused on forms of church. It seems to me it kind of put rivals into this new worship style or something. Sometimes I feel like the core of the Emergent movement or conversation it’s not just introducing a new form church where you put people in the round, light candles and pass out clay for people to manipulate during a sermon, it’s not a form of church, at least for me it has been an opportunity to pull a part the pieces of my faith and reexamine what it really means to be a follower of Christ. To be able to separate the person Christ from the religion that we slap his name on and our church practices we tend to equate with being Christians. I think the problem is that there is so much variety within the Emergent Church that I think people are concerned about some of the theology in the Emergent Church and there is the side of it where the focus is on that style of worship, and so on and so forth. Again, my experience has been that it allows everybody to pull their feet up to the table and talk about Christ, to talk about spirituality, to talk about God. Everyone has a place at that table and can talk through their struggles and questions, their concerns. I think that is such a healthy thing.
MF: I don’t want to interject words here, so if I am wrong here, interject your thoughts here. Part of being emergent does not mean that you deny Christ, it does not mean that you deny the need for church, does not mean that you deny scripture, it’s just that you are looking at new ways of conversation where you can talk about things and with people who maybe have issues and maybe have the need to find their own identity to some extent. It’s not a denial of Christ, the need for church or anything of that nature?
JP: Yea. In fact, this is based just on my own personal experience and I am sure it is somewhat limited, but speaking of the Emergent Churches I am aware of and the Emergent leaders and some of the central people in the Emergent Movement and their ministry. My experience is that if anything it has really elevated and intensified a focus of Christ in all sorts of different ways. In terms of taking on the heart of Christ of missions, in issues of social justice, in returning to the Gospels and intently studying and discovering not only the message Jesus taught but the life he demonstrated and wanting to walk in the ways Jesus walked in and taking that into our own lives. The same thing with church, again, my experience has been that the church communities are stronger because it encourages things like freedom to ask those questions that everybody is thinking but not everybody feels the freedom to ask and discuss. There is a focus on church not being a building, meeting, program or a service, but it is a community of relationships where people practice one anothering, love one another, encourage one another, teach one another, bear one another’s burdens. From what I see it has done a great deal to really strengthen and focus on the person of Christ and a deeper appreciation in terms of what it means to be in the world. That is what I’m seeing.
MF: I don’t know if you have done the study of when the times Jesus just starts to teach versus the times he was asked questions? By and far, most all of Jesus teachings took place after Jesus was asked questions. It kind of shows the importance of relationship and I think something that the Emergent Church is trying to do is opening up to questions, allowing people to ask those questions and express their feelings without fear of being threatened.
JP: Yea, I think that in the end, that really promotes a stronger faith because people will naturally grow and have a more solid faith if they can be honest about their struggles and raise the questions, the difficult questions, not just the simple easy questions. All of the way down to the core of Christianity there are fairly difficult questions and to wrestle through them I think develops a stronger faith in people who know Christ. An important part to the scripture is that you want to pay attention to the fruit. I’ve seen that some of that fruit has seen people growing in areas like love, becoming people of love, extending unconditional love of God to all people, the fruit of engaging our world at its most desperate places. With people who are victims of oppression, people in great need, not just a suburban mentality but a desire to go into a deeper world and see an inner strength of the reality of Christ with the marginal people of our society, the people who are typically disconnected from a lot of the organized church. The fruit I see is that a good thing. Not everybody is going to agree, it is a pretty wide spectrum in terms of the theology of it. I am not sure the Emergent Church is a particular theology. So whatever Brian McClaren may or may not believe theologically, a Tony Jones, or any number of others is trying to identify and create some standard theology that everyone else will buy into or accept. I think there is a lot of diversity there. The way it normally goes is that the world will pick one or two people and sort of associate the whole group with some of those most popular people when in reality it is so much broader than that.
MF: It’s not like the Emergent Church has a set doctrinal statement that organizes and brings everybody together say like a Baptist or Methodist church?
MF: Last thing, would be anything that you would want to say. I always leave it open for folks to share something if they want and haven’t had the chance.
JP: I think the thing I would share and encourage people to realize is that there is a sort of spiritual message that Jesus had that unique to religion. An example, religious leaders came to Jesus wanting to know when the Kingdom of God is going to get here, when should we be looking for it. Jesus responded that the Kingdom of God is within you, another translation says that the Kingdom of God is among you. I think that Jesus was constantly through out the Gospel to see beyond the typical mentality of religion. The Kingdom of God for example is within us. I would just encourage people to look at the things Jesus had to say. Many of those things may sound kind of crazy, maybe even heretical when compared to the typical reason of religion. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of love, and peace, and joy, and freedom, and the reality of that kingdom is inside of us and we can experience that reality and we can live out of it day by day. I am finding so many examples of that message of Jesus which is sometimes is dismissed which is I think of kind of the link to help people move beyond the religious concept of Christianity into a deeper spirituality with God. Just keep your eyes wide open to the full message and reality that Jesus wants people to experience.
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