Update: Andrew Peterson (mentioned below) adds his Mullins tribute
For some of us, I suppose September is important because it marks the beginning of fall, or football season, or school. I like all of those things, but September always reminds me of a profound loss for me and the larger Christian community. It’s a loss we have not fully appreciated.
Today, September 19, marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Rich Mullins- singer, songwriter, poet, prophet- whose heart was ravished by the grace and wonder of Jesus. His songs like “Awesome God” and “Step by Step” have become staples in church worship services across the world.
But Rich was always about more than music. There was raw faith and daring honesty that was, jarring, compelling and transforming. There was the utter freedom to be who he was without any sense of a need to impress or play the crowd. So, he went barefoot in the church foyers where he sang and lived free of the materialism that enslaves most of us in the West.
Rich dared to live for Jesus – and like Jesus- in a way that is beyond conception for most contemporary Christians. He challenged our church-based preconceptions of faith with ruthless clarity and tender love. He loved Jesus, Jesus’ people-especially the poor and forgotten, Jesus’ mission and Jesus’ church. Oh, how loved the church-enough to grieve over it and speak the tough words that nobody else dared say about the loss of the gospel and its cultural captivity.
And there was one more thing. His artistic expression of faith was unabashedly original; unique and never derivative. His lyrics were awash with words and images that captured our minds and hearts. It was poetry on fire with Biblical truth and passion. The music had an acoustic-alternative-rock-folk mix that was unlike anything else. I’m not sure I ever saw or heard a hammer dulcimer until Rich. That’s what kept us listening. In the past decade, CCM has become big and bigger business. But real creativity has faltered in favor of Christianized versions of Billboard’s Top 40-which are often embarrassing and rarely surprise. Rich always surprised-because he was always growing. We lost something important when he died in that Chicago car wreck that we have only recently begun to recapture (Derek Webb, Sara Groves, Bebo Norman, Andrew Peterson). I pray we never grow too “cool” to learn from the legacy he left and the lessons he taught.
I have lived long enough to have a few “where were you when?” moments: Reagan’s shooting, the Challenger explosion, 9/11. I was on my way to preach on a Sunday morning when the word came on the radio about Rich’s death. I had to sit in the car for a few moments before I went inside, feeling sick and lonely. A few days later, I wrote the tribute below. Ten years later, I feel Rich’s imprint on my spiritual journey even more than then. His is one face I recognize in the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering me Home.
One Foot in Heaven: The Legacy of Rich Mullins
A good friend of mine went Home last week. Though we’d never met, I was surprised by the depth of the grief I felt when I heard that Rich Mullins had been killed in a car accident. It was one of those “kick in the stomach” moments that leaves you weak and off balance.
Now, I realize that it’s possible you’ve never heard of Rich Mullins. Rich was a Christian pianist & singer-songwriter who had recorded nine albums and performed all over the country for the past fifteen years or so. He was recognized as a premier songwriter of songs that have become contemporary worship classics, like “Awesome God”, “Sing Your Praise to the Lord”, and ” Step by Step”. But that only tells you what Rich did. It doesn’t tell you who he was or why he so profoundly influenced my own life.
I was first drawn to Rich by the richness of the lyrics to his songs. He was a wordsmith who crafted lyrics with a poet’s care. There were no throw-away, filler lines in his songs. There was always that turn of phrase, that fresh way of saying old truth that pierced through and made me think and feel the message. For instance, a song called “Creed” was a setting of the Apostle’s Creed, that ancient statement of faith of the church. The line that ties the phrases together? “I did not make it. No, it is making me. It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.” Rich believed Romans 1:20 and Psalm 19:1 were true. The heavens really were “telling the glory of God”, and “God’s power and divine nature could be seen in what had been made.” He penned “everywhere I go I see You“, including what he saw in an area around Bellsburg, TN : ” it flutters and floats and it falls and it climbs, it spins and sputters and spurts, and You fixed this world with wonders ‘round every turn. It buzzes and beeps and it shimmeys and shines, it rattles and patters and purrs. And you filled this world with wonders and I’m filled with the wonder of your world.” Rich had a blazing passion to know this creative, true, communicating, compassionate God as his “one thing” in life.
But I suppose the thing that always grabbed me was Rich’s intense hunger for heaven. I’d heard it from some who had walked with God for their three score and ten plus or from others who were weary of the struggle against cancer or heart disease. But never from one in his twenties and thirties. Rich lived with one foot on earth and one in heaven, and he was straining, longing to be with His God. He saw so clearly that the world was askew with sin, broken by the Fall, tugging us away from God. He lived with the sweetness of hope that “Heaven is waiting just over the horizon…” And several years ago, he wrote, “When I go, I want to go out like Elijah, riding on the whirlwind in my chariot of fire…and it won’t break my heart to say goodbye.” Rich finally took that chariot ride last weekend.
There is something so compelling about a life with that sort of single-hearted passion, child-like wonder, and crystal perspective on the stuff that really matters. It charges me up to think that the Father would plant those same things in my soul, too. I am a citizen of heaven, and so are you. May Father give us grace to live like it as He leads us “step by step, all of our days” until we all get Home.