This month marks the seventeenth anniversary of Rich Mullins’s death.
I stood in the kitchen, sixteen years old, absentmindedly wiping wet dishes with a damp towel as I listened to the radio station. The news that night was full of singer-songwriter Rich Mullins: the day before, he’d been in his Jeep with Mitch McVicker, traveling southbound on I-39 when they lost control of the car. Thrown onto the road, Rich had been killed almost immediately by another truck. McVicker was in critical condition in the hospital. Had Rich fallen asleep at the wheel? I wondered. Hadn’t he been wearing a seatbelt?
Dad came into the kitchen, and I turned the radio volume down.
“Dad, why do you think God let Rich Mullins die?” I asked. Rich had been 41 years old.
“I don’t know,” my dad said, shaking his head.
“But why do you think?” I persisted.
He picked up a towel and joined me in finishing the dishes.
People gave all kinds of hypotheses back then: was it because he had been thinking of converting to Catholicism? Was it because his growing fame and popularity had ruined him? Had he somehow lost his usefulness to God? Or — that old standby — maybe God had just loved Rich so much that God had to bring him Home.
All those answers made me angry.
* * *
Mention Rich Mullins to people who grew up in conservative evangelical circles in the 1980s and 1990s, and you’ll get one of two responses. Either a bemused Wasn’t he the guy who wrote “Awesome God”? or the gushing praise of a devoted follower. As musician and writer Andrew Peterson put it, “Rich’s music has a finely tuned resonance. Some people hear his songs and miss the vibration completely, while others, like myself, are rattled to the bone.” For a whole swath of us, Rich Mullins was the Holden Caulfield of our faith: the one guy who refused to be phony. The one guy who refused to play the game. The one guy who questioned the status quo in a music industry often driven by image and sales. The one guy who made faith seem real rather than cliché to Gen-Xers hungry for something authentic.
In my early teen years, when other girls were pinning posters of New Kids on the Block above their beds, I was stashing copies of Release Magazine under mine, rereading the monthly columns Rich wrote in them. Which is to say I was uncool but also that I sensed in Rich a kindred spirit, someone as lonely and passionate as I was.
I’d been listening to his music since Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth (1988), a cassette Dad brought home from the radio station he managed. “Awesome God” debuted on this album, but it was never my favorite. It was the song with mass appeal, the low-hanging fruit, the easy anthem for the youth group. It lacked the poetry of “If I Stand,” the wonder of “The Other Side of the World” and “Such a Thing as Glory.”
When I try to explain him to people who’ve only heard “Awesome God” (and thus have missed the real Rich Mullins completely), I tell them about his poetry, his hammer dulcimer. I tell them about lyrics like this:
And her sky is just a bandit
Swinging at the end of a hangman's noose
'Cause he stole the moon and must be made to pay for it
And her friends say, ‘My, that's tragic’
She says, ‘Especially for the moon’
And this is the world as best as I can remember it
I tell them that Rich taught me to love the world. Because of the way he wrote about the beauty of the earth, I began to believe that the physical world had spiritual value.
Well the moon moved past Nebraska
and spilled laughter on them cold Dakota plains
If I were a painter I do not know which I’d paint
the calling of the ancient stars
or assembling of the saints
there’s so much beauty around us
for just two eyes to see
everywhere I go, I’m looking.
I tell them that he taught me to avoid the hypocrisy of having a manufactured image that was different than a real self. Rich would come onto stage barefoot, long hair still wet from the shower; I liked that kind of authenticity. He usually refused to wear makeup and often chose to wear a white V-neck T-shirt rather than something more fashion-forward.
But most of all, I explain that he believed in a Christianity that wasn’t just the American Dream with a moralistic twist. “Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in your beautiful little house,” Rich said. Instead, he believed that identifying with Christ meant following him to the margins of society. “Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these my brothers you’ve done it to me. And this is what I’ve come to think. That if I want to identify fully with Jesus Christ, who I claim to be my Savior and Lord, the best way that I can do that is to identify with the poor. This I know will go against the teachings of all the popular evangelical preachers. But they’re just wrong. They’re not bad, they’re just wrong . . . Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken-hearted.”
Rich taught me to look to the people on the margins, those crushed under empire; he opened my eyes to social issues beyond the ones often talked about. “I'm very hurt at the apathy in the church,” he wrote. “I'm very hurt over the determination of the government to destroy life, and it’s not simply over the abortion issue. Anyone who has any awareness at all of Wounded Knee, not only the first Wounded Knee but what happened there 20 years ago [ought to be angry].”
Rich left fame for obscurity, finding that his life flourished on a Navajo reservation where he taught kids how to play music. He left wealth for an average income, instructing his accountant to pay him whatever the average American salary was and to give the rest to churches and charities. I wanted to be like him. I started giving 40% of the earnings from my part-time job to my church.
Rich’s life tested the promises of God: was it true that the poor would inherit the kingdom of heaven, that the meek would inherit the earth? Would those who mourned be comforted? Would love never fail?
After Rich died, hungry for whatever had shaped his radical life to shape mine too, I began reading the books he read. I adored the wit of G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (which had directly inspired several of Rich’s songs, from “Growing Young” to “Creed”). But Rich’s biggest spiritual influence was probably Brennan Manning. He described his first encounter with Manning’s preaching this way:
We practice silence in the truck a lot of times, so we hardly ever have a tape on or anything like that. But we don't have any rules — you can do what you want. But Beaker put in a Brennan Manning tape and I really didn't want to hear it because I didn't know who he was and don't ordinarily like preaching. I went "Argh, great." Well, I think about five minutes into it I think I had to pull off the road because I was just bawling my eyes out. I thought, what I am experiencing here is that I have gone to church ever since I was wee little, probably from when I was a week old, and this is the first sermon in my memory that is the preaching of the Good News of the Gospel of Christ. He's not preaching about an issue. He's not preaching about a theological position. He's not preaching about anything except this is the Good News. And I thought, wow, this is what I am hungry to hear. This is what I am dying to hear.
I started reading The Ragamuffin Gospel while I was still in high school. But the book bored me. “We say that we believe the fundamental structure of reality is grace, not works,” Manning had written, “but our lives refute our faith.” I wasn’t sure I understood his argument. After all, belief on its own wasn’t enough; it needed to be backed up with action. Rich had written a song about that (“Screen Door”), and his life of faith had been active and devout. Doing good works, serving God — this didn’t nullify my belief in God’s grace but was the result of my belief in grace, right?
That I could do nothing good on my own, and that I was saved by grace — I’d known these things since I was six. What I wanted was not a book that told me how to be a Christian, but one that told me how to be a better one. I put the book down without finishing it. Rich taught me a lot of things, but I already knew about the grace and love of God.
* * *
Of course, you know where this story is going, don’t you? After college I moved across an ocean to live a radical life of service to the poor (“the other side of the world is not so far away,” Rich had sung, “and the distance just dissolves into the love”). My ministry flourished for a year, then unexpectedly fell to pieces, leaving a trail of hurt people in its wake, myself included.
In my despair, God was silent. (I had forgotten the next line in that song: “The New Jerusalem won’t be as easy to build / as we hoped it would be.”) And for a semester, I taught my classes, drank coffee at Java Cafe overlooking busy Sihanook Blvd., and attended a small Anglican church. My desire to serve God and “save the lost” shriveled away into nothing. If my reward for serving God was persecution for my closest friends, I was too scared to serve God again.
It was only in my own failure that I began to understand what Rich had valued in The Ragamuffin Gospel. He had loved the book because he was desperate to believe that the love of God enveloped him whether or not he was worthy of it. He was desperate to believe in it because he had come to the end of his own virtue.
I had never come to the end of my own virtue before. I had always thought that when God said, “My power is made perfect in weakness,” it meant that I was weak, but God would give me the power to keep going. I could not do this thing, but God would make me able to do it. Now I understood it differently: I am weak, and I will not be able to keep going. I cannot do this thing, but that doesn’t matter. God still extends his grace to me.
I hadn’t been able to understand the grace of God until I stopped doing for God. I had to stop being “useful” before I could believe that I was loved. For the first time, I understood that regardless of what I had or hadn’t done for God, God was delighted with me. I was God’s Beloved.
* * *
Four years ago, my family and I moved to rural Indiana to work at a university. We’re in Mullins’ home territory now, just an hour’s drive through cornfields to the farmhouse where Rich grew up. As the anniversary of his death approaches, I convince my husband to drive with me to Rich’s grave. Along the way, we play his music for the kids — or we try to, but the 5-year-old asks us to keep “Step by Step” on repeat until she can memorize all the words.
Near Richmond, I point out a church where Rich once played and wonder if we’ll find the rose nursery where he worked as a teenager. On the outskirts of town, my husband spies a mailbox with the name Mullins on it. Down a long driveway we can see a farmhouse and a field, maybe the very field where Rich used to drive his tractor.
At the cemetery, my children race around the graves. I think about something Rich once said:
We all want to be useful to God. Well, it’s no big deal. God can use anybody. God used Nebuchadnezzar. God used Judas Iscariot. It’s not a big deal to be used by God, and the shocking thing in the book of Mark . . . is that it says, “and Jesus called to Him those that He wanted.” And you realize that out of the twelve people that He wanted, only one was essential to His goal in coming to earth. The other eleven people were useless to Christ but they were wanted by Christ. And I kind of go, I would much rather have God want me than have God use me.
I used to desire, more than anything, to be useful to God. To be a good Christian. To change the world for Christ. To burn with the prophetic fire that lit Rich Mullins. But when my good works turned to ashes in my hands, I learned for the first time how precious it was to be wanted by God, apart from any usefulness I might have. Rich fought hard to grasp this lesson, and maybe if I’d been listening better I could have learned it from him while he was alive, but I doubt it: I had to fight for it on my own. Still, I’m thankful that his words, and Brennan Manning’s, have accompanied me along the way.
I don’t ask for answers much anymore (although, as it turns out, Rich might have appreciated the explanation that God simply wanted Rich to be home). I don’t ask for an explanation of Rich Mullins’ death or the reason why my friends across the ocean were arrested and interrogated for their young faith.
Finally, I’m beginning to learn that the presence of “the reckless, raging fury / that we call the love of God” is more precious than any explanation could ever be.