Rich Mullins died 20 years ago. This is what he left me
I still remember the day I learned that Rich Mullins died.
It was 1997. I was 14. We lived in a quiet small-town cul-de-sac. I was in our kitchen when my mom told me. This was the heyday of what’s known as Contemporary Christian Music (don’t laugh — it was a big thing if you grew up in the evangelical church at that time). Mullins, a farm kid from Indiana, was one of its best singer-songwriters: a slovenly misfit who hammered away joyously on his dulcimer, bringing to life the the wooden truths I memorized at church and school. I don’t know exactly why I connected with this midwestern poet so deeply from the first time I heard his music, but I did — instantly.
I still do.
In my teens, I didn’t know that he was a mystic who struggled with alcohol abuse, shuffling about the world like some vagrant Desert Father. What I knew, immediately, even as a teenager, was that I trusted him. Rich’s voice rang true, unlike most of the other “Christian” schlock I listened to. That stuff mostly consisted of inferior riffs on the popular music of the day, with a token sprinkling of Jesus mentions added in.
Rich was different. When he spoke of Jesus, I listened. There was no pretence, no false piety. Rich was ordinary. He was himself. Maybe that’s what made him so unusual.
“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,” wrote Bernie Sheahan, Rich’s friend, after his death. “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, as Sheahan put it, a bundle of paradox.
Rich Mullins died in a car accident. He was 41. He’d been thrown from his Jeep and struck by a semi. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt — typical Rich, as I’d learn later. He wasn’t nearly as concerned with rules and proper behaviour as everybody else, including most of the Christians who bought his CDs.
“I think I would rather live on the verge of falling and let my security be in the all-sufficiency of the grace of God,” Rich said, “than to live in some pietistic illusion of moral excellence.”
Rich’s death hit me deeply. I attended a fundamentalist Christian school where moral excellence was paramount, and I was forever striving — and failing — to meet that impossible standard. My family went to a Baptist church in Edmonton, Alberta, where I attended youth group every Friday night. I was immersed completely in evangelical Christianity. And in that culture, Rich Mullins mattered. At school, we’d sing his most popular song, “Awesome God,” an evangelical anthem in the 1990s (and, truth be told, not one of Rich’s best).
A year after Rich died, when I was 15, I moved away from home to attend high school at Prairie Bible Institute (PBI) in Three Hills, Alberta. The move was a truce of sorts between my parents and me: we fought bitterly through my early adolescence, and I was ready to get out. Prairie was our compromise, one we were all happy with. So I lit out for this outpost of American fundamentalism, founded by L.E. Maxwell, a charismatic Kansan who started the school in 1922.
On the Alberta prairie, where we students would sometimes sneak out of our firetrap dorm at night and walk along the railroad tracks in the dark, Mullins’ music held even deeper resonance. There was something about the emptiness of the place. The ring of Rich’s dulcimer. That huge sky. Rich loved the prairie. He liked how it made you feel insignificant and conspicuous at the same time. He saw the plains not as desolation, but prayer.
And a single hawk bursts into flight/And in the east the whole horizon is in flames/I feel thunder in the sky/I see the sky about to rain /And I hear the prairies calling out Your name
Rich spent his final years living on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, teaching music to children. In a 1996 interview, Rich was asked if God “touched his heart” and led him to the reservation. “No,” he said bluntly. “Wouldn’t that make a great story, though, for evangelicals and charismatics? They’d love it.”
“The truth is, I just kind of got tired of a white, evangelical, middle class sort of perspective on God.” — Rich Mullins
He went into the New Mexico desert, he explained to a Chicago Tribune reporter, not to save anyone, but to work out his own salvation “with fear and trembling.”
Most Christians speak of bringing God to others; Rich spoke of finding God there. He seemed to understand, in a deep way, that colonialism had it all backwards. As did the religious right. As did so many popular evangelical preachers. As did all of us, whenever we get too smug in our certitudes, or figured we’d screwed up our lives beyond hope and healing.
Where could I go, where could I run/Even if I found the strength to fly/And if I rose on the wings of the dawn/And crashed through the corner of the sky/If I sailed past the edge of the sea/Even if I made my bed in hell/Still there You would find me
As a successful CCM artist, Rich made piles of money — but never touched or even saw most of it. He set up a committee of sorts to manage his finances, asking them to give him a meagre salary. The rest was given away. At a time when Christian music was becoming a billion-dollar industry, Rich, one of its reluctant pioneers, apparently had no idea how much he actually made. He didn’t want to know, and asked his accountant not to tell him. That would only make it harder to give away.
Who does that?
At the Prairie Bible Institute bookstore, as a high school student, I bought Rich’s final album, The Jesus Record (1998). It consists of demo tapes Rich made in an abandoned church nine days before he died. The recording is raw: just guitar, piano and Rich’s fragile, wavering voice, at once intimate and distant. The audio is poor but the songs are some of his best. The album begins with “Hard to Get,” Rich at his most vulnerable, contending with the anguish of loneliness and an absent God.
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears/All these words of shame and doubt, blame and regret/I can’t see how You’re leading me, unless You’ve led me here/To where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
Elsewhere on the album he writes about Jesus as a vagabond who defied the party line: “You had the shoulders of a homeless man/No you did not have a home.” At a house concert performed the month he died, Rich quipped: “I wrote this for the religious right.”
Instead of taking offence, his audience would generally laugh at such comments. With his self-effacing manner, he threw up a mirror to an insular religious culture that was (and still is) too attached to certainties. “I think if we were given the Scriptures, it was not so that we could prove that we’re right about everything,” he said at a concert in 1997. “If we were given the Scriptures, it was to humble us into realizing that God is right and the rest of us are just guessing.”
Over the years, as I get further from that childhood kitchen where I fought with my parents and learned of Rich’s death, Rich’s story has resonated ever more deeply with me. It has informed my life in ways I don’t fully understand. His music has carried me through darkness, and brought me back to the light. He has reminded me, over and over, that the story is true: not just the Christian story I learned as a kid, the faith story I still find myself in, but the full story of my own life, including the stuff I’d rather hide. The painful chapters. The parts I want to leave out.
That’s where God is.
Among those who followed Rich’s career and music, it’s widely agreed that his best album is A Liturgy, A Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band (1993). I’d never spent much time with it, sticking mostly to his greatest hits compilations, but in 2016, I took my son, then 5, on a spontaneous road trip from Calgary to a baseball game in Seattle. I had downloaded that album to my iPhone, and it became our soundtrack for the 12-hour drive as we rolled toward the coast and late-season baseball.
In Seattle, we watched the veteran knuckleballer, R.A. Dickey, throw his last pitches as a Blue Jay. Dickey, who is from Nashville, is sort of the Rich Mullins of baseball — a man of thoughtful Christian faith and humility. “The point isn’t to arrive,” wrote Dickey in his book Wherever I Wind Up. “The point is to seek, to walk humbly with God, to keep walking and keep believing even though you know there will be times when you make mistakes and feel lost.”
It felt right: watching Dickey work on the mound in extra innings, and then being taken home, over the dark hills of the Pacific Northwest, by the longing in Rich’s voice.
Nobody tells you when you get born here/How much you’ll come to love it/And how you’ll never belong here/So I’ll call you my country/And I’ll be lonely for my home/And I wish that I could take you there with me
As we drove, I imagined what it would be like to go on a road trip with Rich and R.A., of the conversations they might have. As we tore past Trump signs — too many, too many — I felt a sense of dread about what was coming. I don’t think it’s for me to say how Rich would respond were he around now, but I wonder. How he would navigate things like the continued exclusion of LGBTQ2 people from large swaths of the church? Or the Trump presidency? Or any number of problems in the church and in the world? In so many ways we seem to have have lost our way.
I imagine Rich would be bristling at a lot of it. Or maybe he’d just be off in the desert.
What I do know is what Rich did say. He questioned his privilege as a straight white American, saying Christianity isn’t about a secure life of comfort and prosperity, where you don’t have to encounter the world or “gays and minority groups,” as he put it. It’s about learning to love like Jesus. It’s not about being a hero, he said. It’s about being yourself and being vulnerable, as Jesus was. “The only way we can possibly do anything meaningful to God is to be who He made us to be,” he said in a 1996 interview. In the 1960s, the monk Thomas Merton had said the same thing: “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”
R.A. Dickey, tosser of dancing baseballs, has said the same thing about pitching and about life: “You get the best results not when you apply superhuman effort but when you just are — when you let the game flow organically and allow yourself to be fully present.”
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” said Julian of Norwich.
I still search for Rich, usually late at night. I want to hear him tell me what I already know but can’t quite believe. I’ll go far down a YouTube rabbit-hole, watching newly uploaded scraps of concert videos and interviews. I love to hear his self-deprecating sermons and unvarnished performances. In his last months he looked like hell — haggard with big bags under his eyes. A man passing through. He seemed almost to know what was coming.
In Rich’s music and words, I continually find different parts of myself: the earnest Christian teenager burning with shame over indiscretions; the college student angrily reacting to my evangelical upbringing; the writer trying to find an authentic voice as the years pile up ever faster, and the world seems to get darker. Regret at not being somehow enough as a father, a husband, a son, a writer, a Christian and so on.
There is always that damning voice: you are not enough. You are too far gone.
So many times, Rich’s music has pulled me back to the truth: you are loved. God is love. That’s the Christian gospel at its core: we are, all of us, lovable and loved, as we are. Here and now.
In his life and his music, Rich Mullins was the real thing. I never met him, but 20 years on, I miss him terribly.
Jeremy Klaszus is a Calgary journalist and an alumnus of Prairie High School in Three Hills, Alberta. He launched a new Calgary journalism venture, The Sprawl, in September 2017.