Rich Mullins - A Poet Goes Home

Kim Hurley Benson

No one wanted to believe Rich Mullins, one of Christian music's most thoughtful writers, is dead at 41. Heading to Wichita on Sept. 19, he and fellow musician Mitch McVicker, 24, flipped their Jeep, and were thrown onto the road. The driver of a rig swerved to miss the jeep, but hit Rich. In an instant, the artist was snatched away by God. Mitch, who sang in the musical drama Canticle of the Plains with Rich, is home recovering.

Born Oct. 21, 1955, Rich grew up on an Indiana farm, creating songs while he drove a tractor ("the beginning of what some might call a pretty creative streak," he said humbly in a 1992 interview). He recorded nine albums for Reunion. His many No. 1 songs include the praise standard "Awesome God" and "Sing Your Praise to the Lord." Nominated a dozen times for Dove Awards, he never received one, but probably didn't care. "Nashville didn't own Rich, but then, he cared nothing for the things of this world," friend Doris Howard says.

Rich played in the group Zion at Cincinnati Bible College. His "long hair and no shoes" look was his trademark for many years. Rich lived meagerly, sharing a small rental house in Wichita with lifelong musical cohort Beaker (yes, just "Beaker"). Few neighbors realized the two bachelors who drove old trucks and romped with their dogs outside were successful musicians.

A natural teacher, he shared the works of late, great theologians with concert audiences. Rich's wooden dulcimer mallets flew over the strings with impressive ease, but his real ministry happened away from the stage, when he could make ordinary people feel special.

After graduating from Friends University, Rich went to the Navajo Nation in Arizona on a Compassion International project to teach the children music and spread the Gospel. When his career got in the way of teaching, Rich decided to form a music club. He and Mitch lived in a trailer next to the reservation and were in the process of providing musical instruments for the children when he died.

"He was really complicated," says Nickie Lundgren, a musician who worked in Rich's Ragamuffin Band. "In all the time we spent with Rich touring and recording, I never could figure him out. He didn't think like other people. That's probably what made him so creative."

"Rich was full of terrible and beautiful stories," college friend/adviser Sam Howard says. "The truths he told were whole truths, the good and the bad."

Some say Rich was as content as he could be at the end of his life, only recently signing a recording contract with Myrrh, naming his longtime accountant as his new manager, and roughing out 10 songs for a new album.

"I don't think he would want to be remembered," Beaker says, "because that's not what he was about."

His manager, Jim Dunning, Jr. adds, "Maybe I was just too close to the situation, but it's becoming apparent that Rich's solitary purpose in life has been to tell people how to get to Heaven."

~Kim Hurley Benson

In the spring of 1991, Rich Mullins and RELEASE Magazine began what would become a very special relationship - a relationship that would enable not only editors and staff members to learn more about this mysterious artist, but one that would also allow people across the country to draw closer to him. One learned quickly from his columns (just as with his songs) that Rich not only had a lot to say, but a unique way of saying it. He challenged us. He comforted us. He taught us. We now pay homage to the man whose life was an inspiration to many, with some of his best and most personal writings. Here is Rich in his own upwards:

I am setting out to explain again why Jesus is the only true hope for the world, why we should put our faith in Him and what all of that won't mean...

But then I remember two things. The first thing I remember is how I once won an argument with a heathen friend of mine (who after I had whacked away his last scrap of defense, after I had successfully cut off every possible escape route that he could use, after I had backed him into an inescapable comer and hit him with a great unarguable truth), he blew me away by simply saying, "I do not want to be a Christian. I don't want your Jesus Christ." There was no argument left to be had or won. Faith is a matter of the I will as much as it is of the intellect. I wanted to believe in Jesus. My friend wanted to believe in himself. In spite of how convincing my reason was, my reason was not compelling.

So, the second thing I remember is this: I am a Christian because I have seen the love of God lived out in the lives of people who know Him. The Word has become flesh and I have encountered God in the people who have manifested (in many "unreasonable" ways) His Presence; a Presence that is more than convincing, it is a Presence that is compelling. I am a Christian, not because someone explained the nuts and bolts of Christianity to me, but because there were people who were willing to be nuts and bolts, who through their obedience to the truth, and not necessarily through their explanation of it, held it together so that I could experience it and be compelled by it to obey. "If I be lifted up," Jesus said. "I will draw all men unto me."

Much that I have read has challenged my opinion and hardened my convictions - I am thankful for it. It is for you (and for me, more in my living than in my writing) to let our light shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in Heaven."

("Telling the Joke," Spring 1991)

When I was very young I was afraid of the dark. I hadn't yet learned how not to fear what could not be seen, let alone trust that anything beyond the dark - the unseeable - could be good.

...I thought that headlights, projected by ongoing cars as they moved across the walls of my room, were ghosts. I thought that my dad's team was the secret headquarters of the Communists and that people became "commies" (a fate worse than death) by being kidnapped by the KGB and shipped to Russia to be brainwashed and tortured. This belief put me well within the parameters of imminent danger.

I used to recite the 23rd Psalm to and from the barn. I could say it about three times on my way there and seldom got past, "He maketh me lie down in green..." on the way back. The minute my work was done I would run to the house, bust through the door and pretend that I had not been afraid. I felt ashamed of those fears and was afraid that they would be with me always - even unto the end of the world.

They weren't. I outsmarted them. I became a teenager. I discovered campouts and hayrides and girls and midnight swims. The dark looked friendlier. I found mystery where I once knew fear. I "put away childish things" - I was sophisticated, and fear of darkness could not cast a shadow of shame on my new, teenaged, undaunted self.

And I threw the baby out with the bathwater. Since I had no fear, I believed that I had no use for the 23rd Psalm. I came to think that religion was a trick people played on themselves when they were confronted with a world that was too big, too overwhelming and too scary for them. No world would be too big for me. I was young and cool and the universe was my parking lot.

And then I turned 30. I had spent six years in college and did not have a degree. I had fallen in love and was badly burned by it. I had bills to pay and life courses to choose. I was trying to keep my head while all around me the world was loosing its mind. I was faced with the consequences of my many and varied adventures... and I was alone. I became aware of my smallness and insignificance and the world again seemed full of wonderful and dreadful possibilities.

And one morning I was trying to hurry through my devotional time and thought it was fortunate that part of the reading was Psalm 23. I thought, Oh I know this one well. I can pass over this quickly. But I could not. Because there are scarier things than the dark, and in the course of our lives we grow out of one fear and into a million others. I could not pass over it quickly because all my sophistry and self-delusion was melted away by the power of this simple statement of faith that will not be outgrown - a truth that is bigger than the fears we invent of the confidence we affect:

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

("23rd at 32," Fall 1991)

My dog, Bear, is a golden retriever that has a more-than-weird fear of storms, an uncanny sense of how to be especially gentle around children, epilepsy, and a coat that is wildly wavy and shines gold. He has a look of nobility - at nine plus years of age. He weighs about 75 pounds and eats very little to maintain that weight. He loves to fetch, especially in water. He hates baths and loves to roll in ... how should I say it? ... stuff that smells.

But the devout part - aside from his obvious charm - that is, the part I most envy - is when a storm comes, Bear unashamedly dashes between my legs. If I lock them together, he attaches himself to whichever leg he is closest to. He does not run away in a storm - he runs to me. I don't know if this is about real safety or if it's about mere comfort, but I know that I would do better to crawl between my Master's legs in those times of storm, than to feign courage or break for another and doubtless inferior shelter.

Of all the things I've had to teach Bear, coming to me was never one. Bear not only loves me, he loves my stuff like I should love God's "stuff" - His church, the Bible, stars, sparrows ... His voice, those things that carry His scent.

Bear takes his medicine (for his epilepsy) well, too. I've never been good at taking medicine. Bear obviously doesn't like it, but he doesn't resist - he's only slightly uncooperative. And, if I try to sneak it to him in his food, he spits it out. If I give it to him from my hand, he swallows it. I try to avoid medicine from God - even to the point of avoiding God. Bear comes up quietly and sits and opens his mouth for it.

Of course, there is one time when Bear runs from me. It's when I practice the cello, and so, who could blame him? But Bear's master is not as good at playing cello as my Master is. Bear's master squeaks and squawks away at his instrument like my Master never will. I have long since given up the ambition to be as good at everything as my Master is - I do hope that my Master will not give up on making me as good at being mastered as is my dog.

("His Master's Voice," Sept/Oct 1994)

My grandparents all repeated themselves a lot. Every ten minutes or so their conversations would circle and start again, word for word. As they got older an ever-boadening range of suggestions became cues for an ever-narrowing range of responses: "Yes, well, did I ever tell you about that big storm we had in '39? ... Do you have your driver's license already? ... We had a whopper rain back in ..."

So, you can probably imagine how disturbing it was to me when, after writing a column for this issue of RELEASE - after sprucing and polishing it to a fine shine and faxing it - I realized that it was a nearly exact duplicate of an article I wrote back in '93. Anyway, suddenly everything I thought about saying sounded weirdly like the echo of what I had already said. This, of course, would not be so worrisome to a person with a quieter disposition or even to someone who had any gift other than the "gift of gab." And, granted, imitation is a form of flattery, but that's only true if someone else is imitating you. If you imitate yourself, you just sound conceited. Or old.

Now, a person can overcome conceit though, through prayer and service and devotion. But no amount of fasting or Bible memorizing or church attending will hold sway over aging. If we live long enough, we will get old. And as we get older, we will more and more repeat ourselves as I have already begun to do. Repeatedly.

Not that I am a card-carrying member of the youth cult. I was awful at being young. My adolescence was riddled with that angst-ridden morbidity that seethes with crushes, complexes and bad poetry. The "twenties" were the March of my life - in like a lion, out like a lamb. They were predictably turbulent early on and dissolved into quiet desperation just before passing. At 30 I was relieved of the responsibility to be "young and foolish" - I was not yet old and I was not still young. And God, who is good through all ages, had landed me at last in a place of relative peace and even prosperity.

Of course, just as I wasted my youth by being too goofy, I blemished the high noon of my life by becoming a bit (this is so embarrassing), conceited. It's normal, I guess, but embarrassing nonetheless. And so, God, being good still, is doing what He does, doing what I can't do and undoing what I have done.

God lets us struggle and lets us prosper - we don't all struggle and prosper the same, but we all do both to some degree. And when we have done enough to think more highly of ourselves than we should, God lets us age. And as we age we begin to forget stuff, our joints stiffen, our heads go a little soft. We drive slower and are less driven; are more embarrassed but less likely to die of that embarrassment and more likely to die of natural causes. Getting old is part of getting past whatever illusion we have about ourselves. It is part of getting free - free from reasonable doubts, irrational conceits, false securities, displaced affections...

And so, let me grow. Let me grow old. Let me grow free. Even if I have to repeat myself to do it.

("Play It Again," March/April 1995)

By the time you get this issue of RELEASE and read (if you do read) this little essay of mine, I will have celebrated my fortieth birthday. In my mid- to late-20s, I had some romantic, highly exaggerated notions about an early death - taking off at 33 - joining the company of Mozart, Foster, Jesus and other immortals who checked out in their early thirties. But this was a party I didn't get an invitation to - a gang I didn't belong in (me not being a genius and all). So, in Chicago I had my own party - celebrating the fun of being alive as opposed to the mystique of having an untimely death.

Because it's better to be alive than to be dead - that's for sure. And believe it or not - there are certain advantages in being 40 over being 18. Of course, there are certain disadvantages too, but - in keeping with the spirit of the 90s, I don't mind viewing those "disadvantages" as "challenges." Paul, I think had the perfect take on the pluses and minuses of life and death - "to live is Christ, to die is gain," so, that having been settled, I have made out a list of credits and debits about being younger and older - an issue that didn't seem as large or confused in the first century as it does at the end of the 20th:

At 18, if you have oversized aspirations, the whole world sees you as a dreamer. At 40, you get a reputation for being a visionary.

At 18, if you've thrown in the towel, you're called a loser. At 40, you're called down-to-earth, a realist.

At 18, if you play in the rain or howl at the moon, if you paint or invent or compose songs or poems, you're accused of being childish. At 40, you are praised for being childlike.

At 18, time fits you like a pair of pants big enough to swim in. At 40, time fits so tight you can't button it's collar.

At 18, people misjudge your character flaws as being mere bad habits that they might change. At 40, people misjudge every bad habit as being the mark of weak character and they either dismiss you as being a lesson in reprobation or just accept you as a friend. Anyway, you graduate from being a missionary project into being either a lost cause or one of the gang.

At 18, no one knows as much as you. At 40, you begin to understand the wisdom of Solomon in his saying: Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise - why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked and do not be a fool - why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18).

So, stay alive. "A living dog is better than a dead lion" - and happy birthday to all of you from all of me.

("The Big 4-Oh," Dec 1995)

In Matthew 16:13-19, we have the fullest account of the conception of the church (in the same way that we often look at Acts 2 as being an account of her birth).

I call it a conception because for all that we don't know about conception, we at least believe that at that moment all that we are made of and all that we will grow into, is set or founded. A conception is that moment when something unique, dynamic, and alive is defined. Something that never was before begins - a new possibility becomes real and takes on its own identity.

Jesus asked, "Who do men say that I am?" and at least four answers were given by at least two apostles. As soon as He got His answer, Jesus dropped the whole discussion as if to say that the world He made and that would not receive Him would never be allowed to define Him. No brilliantly composed picture, no delicately balanced compromise about Him would do. He would not refigure Himself to fit their miscalculated equations of disfigure Himself to fit their undersized frames. The ideas that the world had (and still has) about Him were of no interest to Him because they were and still are irrelevant to who He was, is, and ever shall be. Maybe He asked because He knew that the answers would provide a bleak and bland backdrop against which the answer to His next question would really pop.

So He asked, "Who do you say that I am?" And here, Peter distinguishes himself answering not by reason but by revelation, "You are Messiah, the Son of the Living God!" To this Jesus answered (and here I'll ask you to endure my somewhat lopsided but maybe not altogether inappropriate paraphrase), "You blessed little Pebble! Your answer didn't come from this lost little world, but it came from back Home. Now you're a rock and on this rock I'm building My house..."

People have long tried to distinguish between Peter and this confession, but (not that we can settle that debate here) who can sever a man from his beliefs without destroying both? What is conviction if it is disembodied? What remains of a man when he is left without his thoughts? Apart from each other, both are nothing. In their union there is something that never was before - something unique, dynamic, and alive. And in this union, the stuff of which the Church is made and the thing that - if she does well - she will grow into, is set. Here at Peter's confession, the truth of heaven connects with human experience and the Church is conceived.

And just as the heavens declare the glory of God, the Church pronounces the Name of His Son. And as the skies proclaim the work of His Hands, the Church testifies to the work of His Messiah. Red flesh and blood confess Jesus' Lordship, then drop the ball and are baffled by the immensity of that confession. People who are not pointlessly perfect receive an unattainable revelation and then misunderstand and betray the Truth. They foolishly divide and become divisive and yet He makes them one. They stumble and limp and sometimes turn to lesser gods and then are embraced by the One they've abandoned. As Paul says, "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God..." and this confession that Jesus is Messiah still changes pebbles into rock and as long as the Church confesses, she will continue to be what is in her genes to become.

We've got pretty good genes. We'll do well to grow into them.

("Pretty Good Genese," Nov/Dec 1996)

Copyright 1998 by Release Magazine, reproduced with permission

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