It’s strange how you don’t recognize just what an influence someone has held on your life until many years later. To look back, to see your journey and the way others have left their marks along the way is profound, and in some ways, a little sad.
Today is the 15th anniversary of Rich Mullins’ death. Those who have been immersed — or at least dipped — in the Christian music scene have heard the name, perhaps even the songs or the stories. He’s something of a legend now, bigger than life and memory. I had only discovered my local Christian station Z88.3 a week or so before, and I was a 14-year-old at the height of my “Jesus Freak” era, looking for something to give voice to my intense spiritual passion.
I was listening to the morning show when the news broke. Songwriter Rich Mullins died in a car accident on his way to a show. They followed the story with “Awesome God.” I hadn’t heard the song in a few years, my only real memory of it being my fifth grade class singing it for a chapel service, all proper in our dresses and ties until we had to pantomime “thunder in his footsteps and lighting in his fist.” And yet, the song had left some sort of mark on me that I didn’t realize.
Oh, the guy who wrote “Awesome God” died? How sad.
Shortly after, my mom picked up a copy of his sort of hits collection Songs, and I discovered a side of this writer that was far wider and deeper than “When he rolls up his sleeves he ain’t just puttin’ on the ritz.” I wore the CD out. Sure, the songs were a mix of the stunning and the cheesy, but I loved it. It was unlike anything I’d heard, from the hammered dulcimer flourishes to the haunting drums and chant in “Calling Out Your Name.” If I hadn’t discovered his music then, I wonder if I would have found the taste for poetic folk songwriting that colors my listening now.
But perhaps, more than anything, I am thankful for the grace I learned, even indirectly, from his work. It led me to read The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning, a book I can honestly say changed my life, even if I was too young to really know what “bedraggled, beat up, and burnt out” meant. The lyrics on his posthumous release The Jesus Record wouldn’t make sense to me until after I stumbled through my own doubts and could empathize with the cry, “Well I memorized every word you said / Still I’m so scared I’m holding my breath / While you’re up there just playing hard to get.”
I’ve come to learn that Rich was not a saint. He was sort of that weird rebel of Christian music, a scruffy barefoot ragamuffin that raised eyebrows even as he wrote such moving songs. I wonder what 14 year old me would have thought of him. And yet I regret never having the chance to meet him or at least see one of his concerts, because I can tell from the stories people who knew him tell that I would have liked him now.
So much has changed in 15 years. I work for that radio station that made the introductions. I’ve muddled through the dark, with grace to light my way. My own prayer could very well be, “I can’t see how you’re leading me, unless you’ve led me here / Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.” These songs have helped light the path, and I am grateful.
I have a hard time pinning down a favorite song to share, but I’m always drawn back to “Calling Out Your Name.” There’s something about the poetry of comparing God’s glory to “the fury in a pheasant’s wings” that gets me every time.
This thirst will not last long.
“…the Lord takes by its corners this old world / And shakes us forward and shakes us free / To run wild with the hope / To run wild with the hope”