The Last Words of a Ragamuffin

Tony Cummings




Rich Mullins was a lot of things before he left us: exceptional artist and songwriter; rough-around-the-edges friend; passionate student; generous and kind mentor; gifted teacher and missionary; devout church reformer. But mostly, in and beyond all of these things, he was a lover of Jesus. Every song that Rich sang, every word he spoke, every sentence he wrote, and everything he did followed from his conviction that Jesus was exactly Who He claimed to be: Saviour, Lord, Deliverer, and (especially) the One Who brought "good news to the poor". Anyone who spent much time with Rich understood he had grown to believe in a Jesus many Christians rarely consider - the Son of God Who abandoned power and brought salvation to the broken, weak and outcast. In the writings of his friend, author and speaker Brennan Manning, Rich found a name for those Jesus loves: Ragamuffins.

Rich knew he was one. When he gathered a band of like-minded, like-broken kindred spirits and fellow travelers - Rick Elias, Jimmy Abegg, Mark Robertson, Aaron Smith - he named them The Ragamuffin Band. Rich was convinced these established and highly acclaimed musicians had never received their due, and felt that together they could make music close to the heart of Jesus.

"None of us were forced to be Ragamuffins to make a living," Elias says. "We were and are Ragamuffins because we found a home with each other and with Rich. He gave us a place where we could be ourselves, where we were respected as artists and where we could grow together in Christ."

For the past five years, Rich toured and made records with the Ragamuffins. If you talked with Rich about them, or listened to them rehearse, it was clear this was more than his backup band. They were first and foremost friends on his journey to know, love and share Jesus.

It is appropriate and wonderful that the last work Rich left us is The Jesus Record. The most unified, mature collelction of his abbreviated career, The Jesus Record represents the culmination of Rich's artistic mission: a group of extraordinary songs, recorded by his best friends, which together make up a surprisingly subtle extended meditation on the person, message and mission of Christ.

A Record That Was "Needed"

For several years Rich had talked about making an album that would unfold the Jesus that we quickly gloss over on our way to church or Christian concerts. He wanted us to see the raw, rough Jesus Who had dirty fingernails and Who hung out with all the wrong people and loved them just as they were. He said it was a record that was "needed", because for too many of us, Jesus had become domesticated, ordinary and predictable. The record was also necessary for those who believed Jesus to be otherwise, because they often felt abandoned and alone in their convictions. Such was the nature of Rich's work: he sought to at once challenge and heal, stir and comfort, agitate and settle.

Last summer, after nearly 15 years of making records, Rich sat down in the Navajo hogan that was his home and spoke with his band, his new record company, and his manager about what he wanted The Jesus Record to be. "He demanded that we focus on Jesus," Robertson says. "Not just in terms of subject matter. He wanted this project to make us better, more faithful as a band and as individuals."

"Rich knew exactly what we needed," adds Elias, who produced The Jesus Record. "He knew this band well. He was a Ragamuffin, too; he knew we needed Jesus as much as he did. He wanted to make a record that would force us all to spend time focusing on Jesus."

Rich settled on 10 songs - eight he had written or co-written, plus "Man of No Reputation", written by Elias, and "Surely God Is With Us", co-written by Robertson and Beaker. He gave his label a cassette of songs crudely recorded on a boombox at a small church in Illinois. He told them it would be his best record to date. Despite its roughness, the tape was extraordinary. Rich's performances are playful, vivid and passionate. The demo (which makes up the first half of the double-disc set) is a testimony to his commitment.

The Jesus Record would be, Rich insisted, a Ragamuffin record. In fact, he originally conceived it as all the band members sharing vocals equally. "Rich was so unselfish," Abegg remembers. "It simply never occurred to him to view us as anything but partners in the process. We were peers; because of that, everyone in the circle had an equal say. He simply wanted to empower us - to use his own platform to life us up."

As they sat together, however, the band members argued that while,yes, they were a band of equals, Rich needed to be their "lead singer". Laughs Elials, "We knew if Rich sang the songs, more people would buy the record. But I guess he got his way."

In those discussions it was decided Elias would produce the record. "Rick was really the only choice," Robertson says. "He understood both Rich's music and loved Rich the man. He respected that Rich wanted to make music accessible to the mainstream, but also was able to make it with an edge. Perhaps more importantly, he shared Rich's desire to make the record about Jesus, not about the band or Rich himself.

Grief

Pre-production on the songs was only a week away when a tragic accident on an Illinois road took Rich's life. The Ragamuffins took refuge in each other, trying to grieve as Rich would have wanted. They prayed together, gathered for the kind of Irish wakes Rich often celebrated, played his songs, laughed at each other's stories about Rich and wondered what was next. The Jesus Record was foremost in their minds. The Ragamuffins met with Myrrh and wondered what to do with the songs. Everyone who had heard them believed they needed to be heard.

The question was how. "We didn't want to exploit either his memory or these songs simply for sentiment or profit," says Jim Chaffee, vice president of Myrrh. "We knew we needed to be wise and tender with this gift Rich had left us. More than any other project we were invovled in, we knew if we were to proceed, everything we did had to be grounded in Christ."

In this spirit, the Ragamuffins and Myrrh decided to proceed with the project as planned. The Ragamuffins would record the songs themselves with some of Rich's closest musical friends, the band would have full creative freedom, a portion of the proceeds would directly benefit Rich's work with young artists on Navajo reservations, and their version of The Jesus Record would be released with an enhanced version of Rich's original demo recording.

Robertson says, "Rich told me this was the only one of his records that he felt had to be made. It was that important to him. I guess it was just like him to give it away."

The Studio

The Ragamuffins started by listening to the songs again, focusing on their center: Jesus. They found songs full of the tensions Rich felt so keenly when he approached Christ; songs that reflected the joy and challenge and fear and excitement of confronting a real, flesh-and-blood Saviour. In that tension, the record grew to become a blending of Rich's view of Jesus, his theology and of Rich himself.

"I suppose there was a temptation to make a tribute - a big, somber record designed to play on sentiment," Elias says. "But faithfulness to Rich's vision demanded the record be a juxtaposition of reverence and hilarity and intimacy and struggle; that is how Rich understood and responded to Christ."

"We simply didn't have the luxury to make any compromises," Robertson says. "We knew how important these songs were to Rich. We knew how dear they had become to us - nearly as dear as Rich himself. It was a massive responsibility."

Great care was given to The Jesus Record's guest list. Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith offered to sing before the record company had even decided to go ahead with the project. "Their inclusion was a no-brainer," says Elias with a smile. "They were friends of Rich's that he loved and who understood the heart of his art." As the Ragamuffins spent more time with the songs, the other choices were easy: Ashley Cleveland was Rich's favorite singer (they had toured together extensively); Phil Keaggy was a hero of sorts to Rich. "At that point, we knew we had enough," Elias says. "We weren't making 'We Are The World', after all. We were making Rich Mullins' record."

The Jesus Record became a kind of six-month journey for the Ragamuffins. "This record was one of the loneliest experiences of my life," Abegg says. "I mean, we were all together. Everyone was there who needed to be. Except Rich. I kept expecting him to walk through the door and pull up a chair."

The Songs

The disc begins with Elias singing the anthem "My Deliverer", Rich's hymn of yearning and faith. Complete with a full orchestra, arranged by Tom Howard and recorded in London's Abbey Road Studios, Rich hoped the song's worship chorus and confession of need could create the same sort of feel that "Awesome God" stirred, but in the context of a mature, biblically-grounded reflection.

Like many of his songs, it's set against the backdrop of history; this time in Mary and Joseph's flight to Egypt and their longing for the deliverer Who was their own child. Added against this backdrop is Rich's own longing for personal deliverance and confidence that it's available in Jesus.

"Surely God Is With Us" follows, with Robertson on lead vocal. The song contrasts the majestic expectations of the opening track with the scandalous notion of God wrapped in flesh hanging out with sinners. For those who had ever seen Rich's eyes twinkle when reading the Gospels, it's easy to understand why he chose the song.

"Nothing Is Beyond You" is another shift, moving from the radical notion that God became flesh to the even more radical idea that a man could be God. Sung by Amy Grant, the song is a classic Mullins ballad, perfectly suited for her plantive vocals. Says Grant, "The line in this song that slayed me the first time I heard it, and slays me every time I hear it, is I cannot explain the way that You came to love me, except to say that nothing is beyond You. Rich's honesty addresses our greatest fear - that somehow, in the final analysis, we might find ourselves just beyond the love of God. That's the greatest fear we can know. Rich takes the focus off of our unloveableness and reminds us that nothing is beyond God. This is good news."

All the Ragamuffins share vocals on the front-porch/country rock of "You Did Not Have a Home". Grounded in raw, folk instrumentation (with dobro, harmonica, and accordian), the song revisits and reinforces a crucial Mullins theme - the radical emptying of Jesus in the Incarnation - and focuses on the Christ Who was homeless, wifeless, and refused to come in power and might.

Anchoring the middle of the record is the quietly lush "Jesus". Sung by Ashley Cleveland in hushed, nearly broken tones, the song turns the record toward the heart of Rich's faith. Full of confession, need, self-doubt and yearning, it is a cry of faith for the relentless tenderness of Jesus to walk with, touch, calm and heal us. "Ashley's vocal on 'Jesus' is among the best performances I've ever heard, anywhere, anytime," Elias says. "She inhabited the song in a way I didn't think possible. It was humbling."

"All the Way to Kingdom Come" features Phil Keaggy's joyous lead vocals joining the Ragamuffins in a mop-top shaking, jangly romp that may be the most whimsical music Rich ever wrote. The theme is equally celebratory, playfully juxtaposing our expectations for a saviour against what Christ actually brought.

Rich had often told anyone who would listen that Elias' "Man of No Repuation" was his favorite song. Written five years ago and featured for the past several years at Ragamuffins concerts, it was one of the first songs chosen for the project. A meditation on St. Paul's hymn to Christ's self-emptying in Philippians 2, the song weaves the record's themes of Christ's humility, relentless affection, and the triumph of grace together into one gentle song. Rich knew the song had all the marks of a contemporary classic, and insisted it be heard. "I think Rick gives the performance of his life on this song," says Abegg. "It is some of the most focused, soulful singing I've ever heard."

Michael W. Smith joins the Ragamuffins on "Heaven In His Eyes", a deceptively complex (and bittersweet) song that examines what is perhaps the most beguiling aspect of the Incarnation - that many did not (and still do not) recognize Jesus for Who He was, and that He had to die to fulfill His Gospel.

Elias sings the most difficult song on The Jesus Record. "Hard To Get" is quintessential Mullins, a Psalm-like prayer of lament against God's silence, a silence that too often feels deafening. It is as courageous and bold a lyric as one can imagine in the too often sugary-sweet world of Christian pop. One gets the feeling Rich wrote these lines as much for us as for himself.

The Jesus Record ends with the guest artists joining the Ragamuffins in a new sing-along, "That Where I Am, There You May Also Be". With lyrics constructed from excerpts of the Gospels, the song is a simple reminder of the nearness of God the incarnation brought, and the hope it gives us. Its encouragement is made especially potent by the inclusion of Rich's boombox vocals. Appropriately, the record fades with the sounds of Rich's hammer dulcimer playing "Nothing But The Blood of Jesus".

The Future

There is triumph and tragedy in The Jesus Record, just as there was in Rich Mullins' life. The tragedy is ours - we lost Rich at the peak of his skills and the height of his artistic passion, just as many of his ventures in missions outreach were coming together. He would hate our sentiment, but we can only grieve his loss.

But the triumph is ours as well. Rich's vision of a record that draws us to Jesus survived to challenge and encourage us. And in its survival, there is opportunity for his vision of outreach to Native children to prosper beyond his dreams. Perhaps that alone - being drawn to Jesus in a new way and being enabled to share Him with those we often ignore - will be enough to help us in our grief.

And when (Jesus) had opened the book, He found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He hath sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord...And He began to say unto them, This day is scripture fulfilled in your ears.


Copyright 1998 by Release Magazine




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