I was in my parents’ kitchen when I heard the news. It was twenty years ago, but I still remember standing in the tight space between the fridge and the stove, surrounded by the warm browns of the tiny floor tiles and cupboards, thinking that a light was gone. Rich Mullins had died.
I was nine years old when I first heard Rich’s music. We lived in Hong Kong, and our church had some tapes for sale. My older sister Jessie bought Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth; Rich in black, on a white-draped backdrop, with the dog. It was cool. Cool with the synthesizer driven tunes of the late ’80s.
Later that year, at a conference in Japan, the summer missionaries taught us “Awesome God” to perform for talent night. Even today, when I chuckle at the cheesiness of the “When He rolls up his sleeves / He ain’t just puttin’ on the ritz” lyric, I can’t separate the song from the way the light broke across the mountains near Tokyo at sunset. Our God is truly awesome.
From that first introduction through the remainder of his life, it was my sister Jessie who led my journey into Rich’s music. She brought home A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band her senior year of high school. It blew my musical world open. From the first throat clearing and admission, “Just—allow me to make this disclaimer everybody. I’m barely ready to do this, but let’s keep doing it. So, don’t get mad at me,” through the hammered dulcimer of “The Color Green”; from the bare-faced admission of need in “Hold Me Jesus” to the final lyric of the album, “I’ll sing his song, in the land of my sojourn,” I’d rarely heard music and lyrics so beautifully paired, that so expressed what I wanted to say. A few years later the wife of one of my youth pastors heard me listening to “Hold Me Jesus” one day. She told me, “When I was sick from chemo, I would just listen to this song over and over again and let it pray for me.” That’s what I heard in Liturgy. Prayer in music.
Songs was one of the first CDs I ever bought. I’d purchased Music You Can Believe In, tapes which had some of Rich’s songs among their collection of CCM, but Songs was the first time I’d put down my own money for a Rich Mullins album. I found old favorites like “If I Stand” and discovered new ones in “Elijah” and “Let Mercy Lead.” The latter was my song of choice for the slide show my dad made for my high school graduation party, and it cycled throughout the afternoon at our open house:
Let mercy lead Let love be the strength in your legs And in every footprint that you leave There’ll be a drop of grace If we can reach Beyond the wisdom of this age Into the foolishness of God That foolishness will save
Jessie was a student at Wheaton College when Rich played there in April 1997. Some of the best videos of Rich performing are from that visit. When introducing Rich in chapel, Steve Ivester said, “He is quick to point out his own humanity, and he is surprised when you spot something lofty in him.” And that’s what Jessie told me about the man behind the music I so loved: he was real. He told the story of writing “Hold Me Jesus” in a hotel in Amsterdam, when he was tempted by the sins of the flesh so readily available to him. He sat outside the student center to have a cigarette because he didn’t live by the black and white rules of Christianity. Once I learned more about him, his prayers resonated all the more. As a Christian kid who loved black and white rules, I needed to hear that living a life of faith was more often about navigating grey areas. Rich said in chapel that week at Wheaton, “We live in a time that we have come to believe that there are answers. And I don’t know why we believe that.” I was a kid who liked having all the answers, and Rich’s voice pointed me instead to Jesus, who was the Guide I needed.
“Everybody only really has one sermon in them, if you want to know the whole truth. Everybody only really has one song in them,” Rich said at Wheaton a few months before he died. His song was the song of his Savior.
After Rich’s death, I ached for the loss of that voice, and then The Jesus Album released. It was a cold, wet Michigan afternoon, and I hadn’t saved enough money to buy the 2-disc set, but I needed to hear that voice again. So I went to the local Christian bookstore and found the new CD loaded on their listening station. I put on the headphones and looked through the titles of the songs. I punched the button and heard the click of a tape recorder, then the scratchy audio and out-of-tune piano began, and one more time, Rich’s voice pointed me to my Savior:
Jesus They say You walked upon the water once When you lived as all men do Please teach me how to walk the way You did Because I want to walk with You Jesus They say you taught a lame man how to dance When he had never stood without a crutch Well, here am I Lord, holding out my withered hands And I’m just waiting to be touched Jesus Write me into Your story Whisper it to me And let me know I’m Yours Jesus They say You spoke and calmed an angry wave That was tossed across a stormy sea Please teach me how to listen, how to obey ‘Cause there’s a storm inside of me Jesus Write me into Your story Whisper it to me And let me know I’m Yours Jesus They drove the cold nails through Your tired hands And rolled a stone to seal Your grave Feels like the devil’s rolled a stone onto my heart Can You roll that stone away?