Rich Mullins - As Best As I Can Remember Him, Vol. 1

Bernie Sheahan

September 25, 1997. I'm thinking today of an Irish legend about St. Patrick. It's said that he broke the law by kindling a fire on Easter Eve (during a pagan holiday), and when he was brought before the High King he thundered up the hill singing the 20th Psalm: "Some trust in horses, and some in chariots, but we will call upon the name of the Lord our God..."

My friend Rich Mullins would have done that. Barefoot, maybe.

It was his passion - his "one thing" - to proclaim the holy, reckless, raging fury of the love of God. Rich had a heart for native peoples, as evidenced by his commitment to the Native American and specifically the Navajo Nation, where most recently he lived among them in Arizona, following his dream of teaching music to children. And so he was like Patrick, venturing forth into an unknown place, a place he loved in his soul, a place that felt like home even though he was from somewhere quite different, among people not of his bloodlines.

St. Patrick, the most famous Irishman of all, wasn't Irish. (He was from Britain.) Rich Mullins, I have to tell you, wasn't of Native American descent. (He was Irish and French, but he tanned well, and that fooled people.)

Yet he was a native of this land, and as American as they came, a patriot whose love for his country could make him curse the politicians who he felt were doing it damage. He loved every road he traveled, and I think he traveled them all, from Maine to the Mexican border. He insisted on driving to his concerts instead of hiring a tour bus, loving as he did the independence of the open road, the hum of the highway, the vibration under his hands on the wheel. In the end, it's what took him for us, robbed those who loved him and those who only loved his music (though they were inseparable) of a treasure that is absolutely, maddeningly irreplaceable: his presence in this world.

Our friend Rich Mullins is gone from this place, and though I know he's beside himself with joy, home at last, questions answered in an instant, I miss him now. And I'm not sure I can stand the thought of life without him.

How did I meet Rich Mullins? He just showed up one day, in my kitchen, back in 1982. I was sharing a house with John and Pam Mark Hall; Pam was a Christian music pioneer and a genius of a songwriter who eventually became Rich's labelmate at Reunion Records. And then there was this scruffy looking guy from Cincinnati, a songwriter of course. He was wearing torn army fatigue pants, a dirty T-shirt and a goofy grin. My first thought: questionable personal hygiene. I sort of knew he was there before I walked in the room, due to a certain Boy Scout-on-a-four-day-Jamboree aroma that, as it turned out, was not so unusual with Rich, along with patchouli oil and other distinctive fragrances (including soap, more often than we give him credit for).

That year, Mullins would pop in unannounced and pitch his tent in the backyard for a month at a time. We'd talk by the fire till all hours about God, movie, music, books (he read aloud from G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, his lifetime favorite; if you haven't read it, do). During that time, he ate Pam's great cooking and collaborated with her on some of my favorite songs, ever. I'll never forget the day the two of them emerged from a writing session downstairs, saying, "You gotta hear this song..."

Oh sparrow watcher
Lover of the flowers
Heavenly Father
Keeper of the stars
We come now with hunger
We come now with thirst
Clothe us in your glory
Feed us on your word...

It was the tender, majestic "Sparrow Watcher (which Pam later recorded with Amy Grant and Kathy Troccoli), and for the first of many times over the course of our 15-year friendship, I heard Rich say, head tucked and brown eyes wide and hopeful, "Do you like it? Do you really like it?"

It was that little-boy innocence, shining on that weathered, older-than-his-years face, that endeared him most to me. On a damp, gray, Saturday in December 1990, as part of a choir of friends that sang on "Step By Step," I watched him in the control room as he nearly burst with joy at the sound of us at worship, leaking heaven onto analog tape, with a song - something he and his best friend Beaker had crafted together, like a musical model airplane.

Shortly thereafter, Rich and Beaker insisted on taking me road-tripping to Cincinnati, their favorite city, where every beloved old haunt broth that Christmas-morning excitement to Rich's face, and Beaker's too. For four days, I was part of the Abbott and Costello, Paul and Silas, David and Jonathan phenomenon that was their friendship.

I'll always remember that February trip to Cincinnati. Together, we three heard cathedral bells peal, devoured the famous Skyline chili, and took in the confluence of the two great rivers from a hilltop churchyard at the top of steep granite steps.

Knowing my fondness for old train stations, Rich couldn't wait to show me the restored Cincinnati Union Terminal. With an unguarded sweetness, he picked out a just-right souvenir for me in the gift shop, a photo book on the station's history. Then it was off to the lobby to demonstrate the "way-cool" acoustical trick involving the station's 106-foot-high rotunda. It might just be my most precious memory of Rich, hearing that gee-whiz whisper from the other side of the cavernous lobby, delighted as he was with the wonder of sound and the joy of surprising a friend.

Rich couldn't put all of his consistently contradictory life into his songs, nor did he try. Though so many of us can say, "He seemed to know what I feel," a closer look at his lyrics doesn't reveal the kind of navel-gazing personal angst one might find elsewhere. Blood, yes. Sweat, yes. Tears, of course. Mostly, the piercingly poetic love of God, squeezed through heart and soul and some unearthly vision he had in his head, and, as my pal Carolyn Arends wrote, "they rhymed."

God is what he wanted you to get, not him. And that's what we got. How many of us - raise your hands - put on a Rich Mullins CD when nothing else will do, when we need comfort in our grief (even, yes, over him right now), strength in our troubles, and joy in our dark days? How many of us know that Rich Mullins seems to disappear from the picture when we hear these songs, and God Himself appears, bright, clear, present in our need, whatever it is?

I cannot remember too many other times in my long history with Christian music that I was so unaware of the artist standing before me on the stage or coming through the stereo speakers. Rich got out of the way, and let God, the "reckless, raging fury," the unexplainable, undeniable, unfathomable grace of God, pour forth and touch us where we needed to be touched.

If Rich was a stranger to you, then I wish you could have known him. He didn't stay a stranger long, wherever he went. He swept people up in a warm whirlwind of inclusion ("You wanna go to the movies?"), and was just as happy to talk crop prices with a farmer or get into a theological half-nelson with a college chaplain - or the other way around. To him, it was all the same; he was on equal footing with simple folk and scholars, drinking in earth and heaven, seeing God's relentless tenderness (to quote Rich's friend Brennan Manning) in both. His best prayer partner was the deaf infant daughter of a friend, his best companion, whoever he was with right then (there was no such thing as a "nameless" fan; he was known to send thoughtful postcards from the road to anyone who'd taken the time to write).

He was the naked man, God's own fool, kept clothed and sane by really believing what Jesus said on a Palestine hillside about the flowers and birds and not worrying about tomorrow. He could be delightfully childlike or exasperatingly childish; kind or cantankerous, he could fling his hands heavenward in an explosion of joy, or nearly cave in on himself from the silent pressures of his private hell (sometimes in the same day).

He was a bundle of paradox, but he was a bundle of the sort spoken of in Scripture about David, another man of human failings who knew his desperate need for God. Listen to this, from I Samuel 25:29:

"And should anyone rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, then the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living with the Lord your God, but the lives of your enemies He will sling out as from the hollow of a sling."

I like that. It's tender and comforting to me, if I think of it this way: that Rich's life is bound in the bundle of those who are living, really living, with the Lord our God. I have to admit that I wish he were still here in the shadowlands with us, helping us see through the glass, however darkly.

Rich Mullins, age 41, of Richmond, Ind., Cincinnati, Ohio, Atlanta, Ga., Bellsburg, Tenn., Wichita, Kan., Window Rock, Ariz., and points in between (including the Appalachian Trail, Guatemala, Columbia, Korea, Ireland, a hundred La Quinta Inns, and numerous tents), helped me - us - make sense of the world.

I am supposed to be telling you how he came to be in it, and what he did while he was here. But if you want the official biography, you'll have to look elsewhere, because the details, the wheres and the whens, don't seem as important as the way he lived them. He told us the facts in his songs, anyway: He was a good Midwestern boy... he grew up around Indiana, Reid Memorial is where he was born, his father could make things grow out of Indiana clay, his mother could make a gourmet meal out of just cornbread and beans... they and his two brothers and two sisters shared one bathroom... you get the drift.

He loved them all with the quiet, fierce loyalty of a farm boy. He was proud of his Quaker roots, proud of his Kentucky Appalachian forebears, and he honored that heritage in his music.

You might think Indiana is a dull place to live. Kansas, all the more so, if you've only seen it while driving endless interstate miles to Colorado, maybe. Rich had no choice about Indiana (though he loved it all the same), but Kansas? Why he chose to live on a windswept prairie baffles most people, except those of us with Kansas roots. Out there, you can be swallowed up in a starfield or a sunset behind and before you, 360 degrees...

And over Kansas the whole universe was stilled
By the whisper of a prayer...
And the single hawk bursts into flight
And in the east the whole horizon is in flames
I feel the thunder in the sky
I see the sky about to rain
And I hear the prairies calling out Your name...

I've been spending time at my grandfather's house my whole life, not 30 miles from where Rich camped in a teepee on producer Reed Arvin's parents' land. And though I've always loved the prairie with raw passion, that feeling went undefined until Rich put it into song, and Reed, a native son, colored it with sounds that matched his own Kansas memories:

From the place where morning gathers
You can look sometimes forever 'til you see
What time may never know...
How the Lord takes by its corner this old world and shakes us forward - shakes us free...

And...

Look down upon this winter wheat
And be glad that You have made
Blue for the sky and the color green
That fills this earth with praise...

It's something like the ocean, the green of winter wheat, undulating in waves in the relentless Kansas wind. It can take your breath away, with its stark beauty, and you won't ever see that from the interstate on the way to Colorado, unless you stop and look.

Rich Mullins had a way of making us do that. He taught us how to see. Pay attention, his music said, as did his life. Look at this! Smell that! Breathe deep, taste the salt in the air, feel the sand between your toes. See the wonders of His works, and drink them in like putting your face under a waterfall after a long hike. Shake your fist at the storm, cry at the sunrise, laugh as the rain soaks you. Let your heart be broken with compassion when you see a suffering stranger, then do something about it. And give thanks to the Giver of all these good gifts. Above all, sing your praise to the Lord, come on, everybody, for indeed, our God is an awesome God.

You could sit in your car, in traffic, and get a glimpse of Glory, listening to a Rich Mullins song. There is such a thing as glory, as Rich sang, and if there's anything that he would probably want us to remember about him, it's that he reminded us of that glory.

September 29, 1997. God's glory is pronouncing itself in the wind, and the Tennessee hills are still green. It's Monday, after a terrible, wonderful week of soul-shredding grief and exquisite pain, mingled ever so marvelously with deep, abiding joy and healing laughter. The life of Rich Mullins has been celebrate with great gusto and quiet reflection in several places: a small gathering of family and intimates in Richmond, Ind., where the winds of heaven blew the stuff of earth around a country cemetery and warmed the red clay that was his grave. In Nashville, both an Irish pub and a Presbyterian church gave friends space for healthy grieving, remembering Rich, remembering the God who both gave him to us and took him home. Saturday in Wichita, about 5000 people stood and sang out the musical legacy of a man who loved the wheat fields and the homeless wanderer with equal abandon. Countless thousands around the world are no doubt remembering him, too, thankful for the songs that set their hearts toward heaven, carved out of a life that was more painfully human than most of us will allow ourselves to be.

That's it. That's what Rich left us. For all his vices and virtues (and he said often that the virtues could be worse if they kept us from being passionate about God), he was more aware of God's mercy, more wholly given over to the pursuit of God than anyone any of us knew.

Correction. I think Rich would say he was given over, or tried to be, anyway, less to the pursuit than to the being caught.

He had much to say about that in his 41 years. I'm thankful, as we all are, that there were people along his way that knew that, that made it possible for him to play those songs and record them, to take them on the road and share them with the rest of us. Many of those people tell their stories in this tribute (mercifully, his best friend/soulmate Beaker and longtime manager Gay Quisenberry have been invited to do so in this magazine at a later, less trying time). Others were quiet contributors to his life and only they know what was exchanged between them. Rich would probably want all the waitresses and Navajo children and piano teachers and youth pastors and priests and neighbors and friends to get their chance to tell what they'd seen of God together.

Later in his life, he got the chance (thanks to his dear friend and former Release magazine editor Roberta Croteau, who insisted he write a column) to put his own thoughts in print, to tell stories unconfined by meter and rhyme and melody.

Reading those now, as with his lyrics, gives a chill at the back of the neck, and you wonder if he knew that his sojourn on earth would be a short one. From "The Big 4-Oh!" he jokes about turning 40 and missing his chance for the "romantic... mystique of having an untimely death," then muses that Paul had "the perfect take on the plusses and minuses of life and death - 'to live is Christ, to die is gain'..."

In another column, he tells us something about "those moments" that were the hallmark of his life and work, moments of doing something with "your fullest attention, aware of your deepest joy." As I think of Rich, barefoot on the streets of gold, every last longing met, laughing and enjoying God's presence in the happy company of all God's ragamuffins - including King David, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Mother Teresa, Paul, St. Francis, and yes, St. Patrick (I'm imagining Rich singing "The Color Green" for him and asking, "Do you like it? Do you really like it?"), I am compelled not to canonize him, nor to cling too tightly to his memory, but to embrace for myself anew those moments of deep joy, those reminders of God.

"No wonder we love those moments and want them to linger," Rich wrote. "But for now they can't, so we must let them go. They are the flicker of some holy flame, a twinkling of an eye wherein the dead come alive again. Remember them, thank the Lord for them, but move on into the next moment and be present in it. It is God's present to you."

Copyright 1997 by CCM Magazine




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