Note: A shortened version of this essay was given as an address at Living Waters Lutheran Church in Peoria, Illinois on November 19, 2016. The audio, along with a speech and interview with the EMT who was present at Rich Mullins' death, will soon be available as a podcast.
Late in his life, Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval scholastic theologian, author of the towering three volume Summa Theologica (that is, the "sum" of all theology) had a divine encounter with the living God. If you ever happen to pick up one of the volumes of the Summa and read it you will find it an immensely dense work full of meticulously reasoned arguments on (among many things) the creation of the world, the character of God, the moral life required of the faithful, and the importance of the work of Christ. In reading the Summa you get the impression that its author must have contained worlds of knowledge within himself and that his intellect was beyond compare. Aquinas was a true and rare genius.
And yet, after his encounter with God, he ceased working completely on the Summa, leaving it unfinished. When prompted by his assistant to keep working on it he said "The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me." He had written and exposited and reasoned on all manner and aspects of God, Christ, and creation, and yet when God came close he was left without speech and in fact, all his previous words seemed so thin to him, so fragile, so prone to wither away and be forgotten. Dry straw, when set on fire, burns away in a quick burst, and the dusty black ashes immediately scatter to oblivion when the wind blows. Aquinas, for all his great achievements, received the revelation that they were all so temporary and transient compared to the everlasting glory and all consuming love of God.
Also towards the end of his life, the great singer-songwriter and thinker Rich Mullins, said in an interview regarding his most iconic and well-known song "I think everyone will be surprised 20 years from now that "Awesome God" will have completely fallen out of use." To which the interviewer replied, with a certain amount of "aww shucks" sympathy "I will not be surprised if 20 years from now to hear "Awesome God" being sung at our church. To this Mullins gave an unconvinced "Either way you go..."
What do you think of Mullins' dour prophecy regarding the possible longevity of his music? About how many churches across America and the world do you think sung "Awesome God" last week? Actually, I think it would probably be more beneficial to ask worship and song leaders "When was the last time you sang "Awesome God" during worship?" In my own church we still sing "Sometimes By Step" (or "Oh God you are my God", which was actually written by Mullins' friend Beaker), but I would not be able to tell you the last time I sang "Awesome God."
Not too long ago if you brought up Mullins' name as a great artist and someone said "Who's that? I've never heard of him?" you could easily reply "He's the guy who wrote "Awesome God," and they would say "Oh yeah, that's right." But now Mullins' memory is fading from our collective conscience. The residue of his life and work certainly lives on, but you have to first know he even existed and then know where to look for his music in order to be introduced to it. Therefore, what is needed is for someone to tell you about him, introduce you to him, and let you borrow some of his music or point you to the right places on the internet to find it. What the world needs are more Rich Mullins apologists.
But this is how all great works of art and influential people come to be remembered by future generations. It requires people moved enough in their spirits to re-tell the story of their encounter with the work or with the person. Over and over again we must say to each other "This is worth remembering! This is important! This will change everything!" Otherwise our greatest paintings and persons and songs and books will soon be forgotten. It does not take much for our memories to be buried under the rubble of history or to be discarded in pursuit of the frenzy of the Next Best Thing.
One of my earliest lingering memories is of me jubilantly dancing around my house to a Rich Mullins song. It was to "With the Wonder", a little known song of his but off of Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth, the same album with "Awesome God" on it. I remember being caught up in pure joy. The end of the song contains an ebullient extended instrumental section and I spun in circles and pranced around my living room in the kind of unself-conscious expression afforded to children in that precious time of life before we realize people are watching us. The album wasn't mine but my older brother's and it was one of the first compact discs my family owned. I quickly claimed the album as my own and put it on constant replay for a season. It was magic. The music transfigured my existence. I could write a book about every song on that album (and maybe someday I will) and how they shaped the way I see the world but I'll refrain for now. Suffice to say, with Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth Rich Mullins became my artist for life, he became my teacher. In fact, you might say he became my patron saint, even though he was still living at the time. He was someone whose greatness I wished to bask in and whose feet I wished to sit under.
"With the Wonder" finds Mullins postulating while lost in the beauty of God's creation. At the end of each verse he cannot help himself but burst out in rapturous praise "We live together in a world, where it's good to be alive," "And you fill this world with wonders and I'm filled with the wonders of your world," and "And while we live in the world that you have made we hear a whisper of a world, of a world that is to come." But of course I understood none of this at the time. As I grew older I began to see and then learn about the depth of Mullins' words, but as a kid I found myself simply caught up in the wonder of it all. The music itself brought me joy and made me want to dance.
Rich Mullins is my artist and thinker but who is yours? What writer or speaker or singer or whoever were you partaking of when reality shifted and you saw the whole world in a new light? Was there a work of art or a person that brought you to God? In those moments as a child Mullins became my patron saint. He guided me in my faith, taught me the pillars of wisdom, and stood in the doorway of God's brilliant glory, beckoning me, saying "You can come in too."
As I got older and started getting an allowance I began purchasing and devouring all of Mullins' music on cassette tape and then CD. One of the most profound musical experiences of my life was listening to A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band immediately after buying it at Berean Bookstore, in the car on my yellow Sony Sports Walkman as my mom ran errands around town. I was transfixed. I went to as many Mullins concerts as I could, got his autograph, got to shake his hand, and even got a picture with him. I had planned to go to another concert the autumn of 1997, but he died a couple of months before the scheduled date. In the wake of his death I began to dress like him as a memorial to my hero, going barefoot (or in sandals), and wanting only to wear a simple t-shirt and jeans. I learned to play guitar and aimed to write just as brilliant and heart-wrenching songs as him. When I learned to drive, instead of filling my car with icons of my saint, I instead filled it with his albums and thus his image was still an everpresent reminder to walk in the way of Jesus. Rich Mullins was my Kurt Cobain. I was emulating a music icon, but hardly anyone knew it or even knew who I could possibly be imitating. A website soon popped up featuring interviews and talks he gave. His words were holy writ delivered to me beyond the grave. They became my sacred writings.
I am now long since past the euphorias and obsessions of my youth. Can those brief glimpses into glory experienced in the song of Mullins sustain me through the monotonously plodding burdens of adult life or the shocking tragedies that befall me and my family?
Besides, as I changed with age, the way I viewed my saint began to change as well. Mullins was brilliant at telling stories, crafting songs, and speaking jarring truths, but in other areas of life he seemed incompetent, or at least tragically flawed, especially when it came to relationships (and most especially when it came to romantic relationships). I saw the bags under his eyes and the burden of whatever it was he carried around with him embedded on his worn out face. Was it his sin, his addictions, his own unceasing fallibility, his (somewhat) unsuccessful attempts at ministry, the ways of this corrupt world, or a laundry list of thoughts and experiences he hardly told anyone about? Rich Mullins dubbed himself a "ragamuffin", meaning he was far from perfect and could indeed often be quite "bad", but God's grace and undying love still sought him out. For the young version of me this would have been too much "earthiness" for me to handle. How exactly does one get through their saint being de-canonized, so to speak? Over the past few years I have had to get some distance from my patron saint. I have taken a bit of a sabbatical from his music (I know most of it so well I can play any time in my head when I want to anyway), have mostly listened to others talk about him, and even though there are countless hours of interviews and rare songs available on the internet I have listened to hardly any of it. Have I rejected my saint? No, instead my distance is a direct result of having become more like him, but not in the ways I desired to be like him when I was a child.
I've survived cancer, had three kids (which has proven to me more trying than I ever thought it would be), and am now dealing with my wife having a significant chronic illness (and it's a mystery illness at that!). I feel like nearly all of life is a struggle. I have committed myself to ministry but have seen very little "successes" over the years (at least if you are looking through the eyes of humanity). I feel like my family has been on the verge of financial ruin nearly the whole time we've been married. And besides all this...I have my own persisting set of sins. Life is hard and I am sure it now weighs on my own face.
I have no way of knowing if you have caught it yet, but all my previous words have presented dual temptations in regards to Rich Mullins (and therefore all saints): 1). at first I became too enraptured with his personality and his work. Personally, I fell in love with Mullins as a Christian music icon, as a charismatic, enigmatic figure and I also fell in love with his music. 2). After learning he was not as perfect as I once thought, I distanced myself from him and his work. Sometimes we reject our saints completely if we think they have failed us. We negate how God used them to share the Good News, to encourage us, teach us, and bring great beauty to the world. In other words, we will either be tempted to idealize our saints for their greatness or demonize them for their faults and wrongdoings. In either instance we fail to allow them to be the full humans God created them to be.
This would be missing the point altogether though, right? People don't really read Thomas Aquinas all that much anymore and as time goes on less and less people will listen to Rich Mullins. But our saints did not live their lives so we would remember them, did they? The saints of this world live as beacons in the night, pointing us to the Light. The reason Rich Mullins created art was so that we might be captivated by what he was captivated by and there was nothing more captivating about his music than how it points us to the love of God. For me, Rich Mullins was a conduit of God’s love and grace.
Even at his lowest, most despairing moments Mullins was still captivated with, some might say wrestling with God, as in his most difficult, enigmatic song "Hard to Get", one of the last songs he ever wrote:
"I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here
Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led
And so You've been here all along I guess
It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get"
Whether they write intricate theology, profound poetry, or simply teach us to pray, our saints lead us, invite us, and provoke us into the presence of God. Their lives and their work illuminate the way. Rich Mullins is my saint and you may have another, but the older I get, my earnest prayer is that I learn to allow the prominence of Mullins to fade and give way to God's rightful place as my Lord, my savior, my king, and my love. In many ways, forgetting Mullins is the best step I can take in remember him.
Related Rich Mullins Articles
Related Rich Mullins Podcast Episodes:
An Interview With Mitch McVicker
Caleb Kruse on Meeting Rich
Joe Cook of the Ragamuffin Archive
Related Articles on Rich Mullins:
1. So...They Made a Movie About Rich Mullins...
2. Interview--Reed Arvin: Recording Rich Mullins'
A Liturgy, A Legacy, and A Ragamuffin Band
My interview with Reed Arvin was originally published in a shorter form on
Christianity Today's website and can be found here:
The Legacy of Rich Mullins's Ragamuffin Band
3. Celebrating 20 Years of Rich Mullins'
A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band
4. The Theology of Rich Mullins
5. Movie Review: Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins
6. Take a look: The Vast Online Rich Mullins Music Library
7. Rich Mullins was weird, but he was also so good Christian radio had to play him
8. Rich Mullins and America as Promised Land
9. Interview: David Leo Schultz on
Directing the Rich Mullins Movie (text version)
10. The 20th Anniversary Rich Mullins "Be God's" Project is a Big Missed Opportunity