September 19, 2017
This piece was originally written on September 19, 2007, the tenth anniversary of Rich Mullins’ home-going, and every year on this date I read over these thoughts again. Every five years, I’ve made a few updates to post it again and here we are, unbelievably, at the 20th anniversary of Rich’s death.
Although I didn’t know who he was at the time, I can still recall a few moments from that night. The Erwin Center, Austin, Texas, sometime back in 1985. It was Amy Grant’s ‘Unguarded Tour’ and we had great floor seats, probably in the first 20 rows or so. The curtain was still drawn in front of Amy’s set and a lone piano sat near the edge of the stage. I think the lights may have stayed up for his whole opening set. He strolled out on the stage casually, wearing jeans and an old t-shirt, probably shoeless, too, although I don’t recall for sure. I know I was thinking to myself, “What kind of outfit is that?” After all, this was the mid-80s, when Christian musicians were starting to crack into the mainstream. The “look” of an artist was very important back then. Fashion was key. I mean, who can forget that leopard-print jacket that Amy wore on the album cover for Unguarded?
Even back then he didn’t bow to expectations for the “Christian artist.”
He did a few songs on piano and I’m sad to say that while I enjoyed the set, I wasn’t entirely impressed at the time. All I knew about this guy was that he had written one or two of Amy Grant’s songs. And I was there to see Amy, but more than that really, to see the fantastic stage show that she regularly afforded her fans. This was the era when Christian concerts were first hitting the big time… and here was a lone guy up on a big stage singing with only a piano? Nice music and all, but c’mon, let’s get to the “big show.”
It pains me to remember this as the first and only time that I would ever have the opportunity to see the great Rich Mullins in concert.
Today is September 19th, 2017. For most of you the date probably means nothing. But for some of us, we can still remember exactly where we were shortly after September 19th, 1997 when we first heard the news.
“Hey, did you hear that a Christian musician, Rich Mullins, was killed in a car wreck?”
The college students I was working with at the time weren’t into Rich’s music much at that point, after all, Awesome God, was old-school to them, but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was at a small group fellowship after church on Sunday when one of the students casually mentioned the news. This was impossible! How could this be? Surely they must be wrong.
I’m not sure how I ended up verifying the information; you know, believe it or not, twenty years ago there was no Google and the internet surely wasn’t what it is today. I think I tuned in to the local Christian radio station that afternoon and eventually got confirmation that yes, it was true. Rich Mullins had been in a car accident, was thrown from his jeep, and had indeed died.
I can vividly remember standing in the little kitchen of our home in Wimberley, Texas, staring outside into the black of night and the tears just began to well up. I cried, not for my own loss, because of course I didn’t know Rich personally, but I wept for the loss to Christendom, to music, to humanity. For although my first experience with his music wasn’t entirely memorable, I had since developed a profound love for this simple poet, bard, and musical prophet.
If you’re a fan, I’m sure you have your own favorite set of Rich Mullins tunes. I won’t take the time here to go into his fantastic body of work (after all, we do have Google and Spotify now and you can delve into that on your own), but for me, it was the two-volume The World As Best As I Remember It set of albums that first captured me with Rich’s song-writing ability, his honesty, profound faith, and creative musicality. However, one of my favorite Rich Mullins recordings is an album that most of you probably have never heard. You see, shortly before his death, he had just finished co-writing a musical based on the life of St. Francis, and while he personally didn’t sing on the corresponding album, The Canticle of the Plains, the music was vintage Rich and it is some of the most beautiful songwriting I have ever heard.
What impacted me most about Rich’s life, though, and what continues to inspire me today, was his ability to truly live life simply. Here was a man that eschewed popularity and success, went back to school later in life to study music education, and spent his last few years on a Native American reservation teaching music to children. Not your typical “big star” behavior. Through his music and his life, it is obvious that Rich was in touch with God on a profoundly deep level, a level at which I hope and pray we are all striving to reach.
So on this, now the twentieth anniversary of Rich’s home-going, I pray that you take a moment in your busy day to stop and reflect on your life, your faith, and your relationship with God. I think we could all take a lesson from Rich about slowing down in this crazy, unnecessarily busy world of ours, and finding rest in the arms of our Savior. Who knows how Rich would have conducted himself in this age of social media, but I for one doubt that he’d be comfortable with the fast-paced and often thoughtless way we reduce our lives to posts, pics, tweets and pins. Slow down. Take a deep breath of God’s grace. “Hold me Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf. You have been King of my glory, won’t you be my Prince of Peace?”
I’ll be listening to Rich’s catalog today and will celebrate his memory tonight by watching the Homeless Man documentary or the fantastic movie based on his life story, Ragamuffin. Why don’t you pull out some of those old CDs of yours (remember those?) or hit up Spotify for a few of your own personal favorites and remember Rich and his legacy today. If you’re new to Rich’s music and want to know a good place to begin, A Liturgy, A Legacy, and A Ragamuffin Band is a great place to start. Or ask me for suggestions — I’d be happy to introduce you to some of the finest, most authentic, genuinely faith-filled music ever penned… by a man named Richard Wayne Mullins.
As Rich was often fond of saying, may you always “Be God’s.”
“If you want a religion that makes sense, I suggest something other than Christianity. But if you want a religion that makes life, then, I think this is the one.” — Rich Mullins (October 21, 1955 — September 19, 1997)