O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith


Remembering Rich Mullins

posted by Jason Boyett

Saturday, September 19, was the 12th anniversary of Rich Mullins’ death in 1997. A lot of my younger readers may not have heard of him, but he had profound influence on me as a writer, a musician, and a Christian. I didn’t post anything on Saturday, but thought I’d start the week off by re-running a blog post I wrote commemorating the 10th anniversary of his death.

This is from my old blog at Relevant.

————

I am not the fanboy type. But the closest I ever came to it was upon discovering Rich Mullins in the early 90s. I’m not generally an emotional kind of guy — especially the kind of person who really feels it when a stranger passes away — but I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Rich died. I was at a computer (a PowerMac/Performa 6400), laying out a newsletter using an early version of QuarkXPress. My wife called. Her mom had heard on the local Christian radio station that, overnight, Rich Mullins had flipped his Jeep, been thrown out, and gotten hit by a truck somewhere in rural Illinois. His friend and traveling buddy Mitch McVicker survived the wreck, barely.

“I’m really sorry,” my wife said, as if she had just informed me of the death of a good friend.

It was ten years ago today…September 19, 1997.

I realize, of course, that a lot of you readers were, like, 12 years old back in 1997. And so maybe the only thing you know about Rich Mullins is that he was the guy who wrote “Awesome God.” And “Awesome God” is one of those worshippy songs that got sung way too much back in the day, and the chorus is trite and the verses are pretty dumb and you’re wondering why all these people in their 30s liked the guy who wrote “Awesome God” so much.

The first thing you should know is that Rich Mullins agreed with you. He didn’t think “Awesome God” was a very good song either, but somehow it got popular. Youth groups sang it around campfires. T-shirts were made. Inspirational posters appeared. Toward the end of his career, he mentioned on a couple of different occasions that he got really tired of playing that song at concerts. It was, he admitted, one of his worst songs. So don’t hold “Awesome God” against him, because Rich Mullins was one of the good ones. Here’s why.

1) Rich hated the limelight. His typical concert uniform was jeans (with holes in the knees) and a t-shirt. No shoes. No socks. In fact, he was known for sneaking onto the stage before being introduced, because the glowing introductions always made him uncomfortable. It was not uncommon for the audience to think the guy walking out onto the dark stage and sitting at the piano was some sort of pre-concert piano tuner. Then he’d start playing, and the lights would come on, and everyone would go “Oh, that’s him!” and the concert would start.

2) Rich was a genius musician. I had never heard of the hammered dulcimer until I bought the cassette tape of The World As Best As I Remember It (Vol. 1) when it came out in 1991. There was this brilliant sound on some of the songs — a droning, dancing, rhythmic theme that sounded like a cross between an acoustic guitar and a piano — and it mesmerized me. I figured out that this must be the “hammered dulcimer” mentioned in the liner notes. Within a few years, I had my own hammered dulcimer and had learned to play it. Never anywhere as good as Rich, but still entranced by the beauty of it. Rich introduced a lot of Christians like me to the depth and simplicity of Appalachian music…and the Irish folk music that inspired it.

3) Rich was a 36-year-old college student when his career really began to take off. From 1991 to 1995, one of the bestselling Christian musicians was enrolled at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, pursuing a B.A. in Music Education. He played French Horn in the band, for Pete’s sake. And he remained there until he graduated and received his teaching degree. Now, imagine Chris Tomlin deciding suddenly to enroll at your local community college so he can study physical therapy — because he truly wanted to help people by becoming a licensed, practicing physical therapist — and then actually graduating with a degree…while still writing and recording music. It was kind of like that.

4) Rich was a “new monastic” before we knew what that meant. Before guys like Shane Claiborne came along, Rich was pursuing an uncloistered, semi-Protestant monastic existence. Upon graduating from college, he moved to a Native American reservation in New Mexico, near the Arizona border, where he taught music to kids in the local school. He made hundreds of thousands of dollars through album sales and royalties, but Rich only ever saw a fraction of that money. Early in his career, he set up a team of advisers to handle his finances. They paid him a yearly salary — as I remember it, it was something in the mid $20,000 range, equivalent to that of a common laborer — and the rest went to various charities. He didn’t know what his music and career were worth, and didn’t want to know.

5) Rich was theologically curious, and religiously ecumenical. True story: I grew up in a pretty tight bubble of very conservative Southern Baptist theology and practice. I owe a lot of who I am to that upbringing, but I also recognize that much of who I am comes from the steps I’ve made outside of that bubble. And I was given the freedom to take those first steps by Rich Mullins. The stuff he wrote and sang about from 1991 to 1995 — the end of my high school years and beginning of my college years — set me on a path toward re-understanding a lot of theology. It wasn’t until he started talking about this book by a guy named Brennan Manning, a Catholic writer none of my friends had ever heard of, that a little book called The Ragamuffin Gospel became the Blue Like Jazz of the mid 90s. I devoured The Ragamuffin Gospel. I started reading all of Manning’s other books. Then I started reading all the authors — Henri Nouwen and Frederick Buechner and Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor and G.K. Chesterton and Bonhoeffer and Moltmann — that Manning listed in his footnotes. And when a sheltered Southern Baptist boy starts reading Catholics and Anglicans and other suspicious thinkers, the Gospel gets a whole lot bigger. When Rich Mullins described listening to a cassette of Brennan Manning speaking about grace, he told of having to stop his pickup truck, pull to the side of the road, and weep. That hooked me, and it set my feet on a path I’m still on today. (Always rebellious and controversial, Rich was ready to convert to Catholicism — and had even been attending catechism — but died before he could actually join the Roman Catholic Church. Terry Mattingly gives some background in this article.)

6) Rich was messy. It was generally suppressed (for our safety, I suppose) while he was alive, but after Rich’s death we began to learn that he had a fondness for cigarettes, light beer, and the occasional dirty word. This sort of behavior is, perhaps, more readily accepted among CCM artists in 2007, but back in the mid-90s, we needed to be protected from the less wholesome activities of the guy who wrote “Awesome God.” So no one
ever talked about it. But there were always rumors, and Rich Mullins was as human as people get. That’s always good to know.

Rich Mullins asked hard questions and didn’t always offer answers. He rebelled against the establishment. He was a quiet, humble prophet in a culture of screaming TV preachers and Christian musicians wearing glittery jumpsuits. He refused to clean up his act — or his wardrobe — for record labels. He wrote songs about the color green, preferring to record offbeat music with densely metaphorical lyrics played by a Ragamuffin Band of unkempt, scruffy, outcast musicians rather than release a polished, radio-friendly pop song. He made lots of money but never saw it. He loved Saint Francis of Assisi and “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber. He grew up Quaker. He drove an old pickup truck and taught himself to play the cello. He talked of grace as often as possible. We were strangers, but I feel like we were companions during a very formative time in my life. I never met him, but he influenced me more than just about any other non-relative I can think of.

Thank you, Rich. You left us too soon. We’ve missed you. You suck, by the way, for not wearing a seatbelt.

Say “hi” to Francis for us.

————

Twelve years. Hasn’t seemed that long at all.



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Comments read comments(18)
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jana.kaye

posted September 21, 2009 at 11:54 am


Thanks. Rich changed the way I thought about grace, too.



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JHearne

posted September 21, 2009 at 2:02 pm


Amen.Rich's work is a treasure that still comforts me when I'm down and out.His was easily one of the hardest stories I had to write on my blog because it was such a challenge to bring his passion to bear in a single story.



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tmamone

posted September 21, 2009 at 2:11 pm


Great tribute, Jason! I only know a few Rich Mullins songs–"Awesome God" and "Step by Step"–but I think I might have to check out some of his other stuff now.And I've been meaning to finish "The Ragamuffin Gospel" for quite some time, but I keep getting distracted.



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rf

posted September 21, 2009 at 2:12 pm


I could (and have on many occasions, and to many people) parrot your point #5 word for word.I was raised Southern Baptist, and had a pretty narrow worldview until I discovered Rich. His music and writing impacted me in a profound way, and was the impetus for leading me to Manning, Chesterton, and many others. Rich had the incredible knack to write lyrics that said everything that I had been thinking, and put it to music, when I could barely put it into words.He wasn't the greatest singer, and he readily admitted that. He was open and honest about his sin and his struggles, and that terrified the religous leaders of the world.Rich was, without a doubt, the instrument that God used most effectively in my life to turn my pain and frustration with His Church, into a love for His Church. I vividly remember my wife once telling me (very early in our marriage, maybe 15 years ago) "I think you want to be Rich Mullins."My answer to her then, remains the same today: "I don't want to be Rich, but I sure would love to have the relationship with Christ that he has."



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Matt

posted September 21, 2009 at 2:58 pm


I began reading my 3rd Brennan Manning book a couple of weeks ago and began thinking about Rich Mullins and the foreward he wrote in Ragamuffin Gospel. I remember being introduced to Rich's music by a guy from Wichita, KS who worked with me my first summer at Hidden Falls. He had said Rich often played at their church and was just a really cool, regular guy. I still really like his early stuff.I also think it was you who introduced me to Brennan Manning and the Ragamuffin Gospel. That is one of the few books I have no problem re-reading from time to time. A great book that did begin broadening my horizons beyond the church we grew up in. Very interesting stuff.



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...drc...

posted September 21, 2009 at 3:12 pm


I first heard "Hard to Get" as a hidden track on one of the WOW 1999 discs. I can't put into words why that song means so much to me, but its honestly and familiarity have been like a friend to me.



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Karen in Wichita

posted September 21, 2009 at 3:28 pm


I can throw a rock and hit Friends U from here (okay, it's a mile away. Very small rocks?) and I'm pretty sure they would resent being characterized as a juco.But yeah… his death (and life) had a pretty profound local impact.



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Jason Boyett

posted September 21, 2009 at 3:50 pm


@Karen in Wichita:Hold on! I didn't characterize Friends U as a junior college. I mentioned community college in my parallel with the Chris Tomlin hypothetical. HYPOTHETICAL. In which I am using hyperbole. Note: Correlation does not mean equality.1. Rich Mullins and Chris Tomlin correlate but are not equal.2. Friends University and community college correlate but are not equal.3. Music Education and Physical Therapy correlate but are not equal.Just want to make that clear on behalf of my friends at Friends. Also, I want to make clear that there is nothing wrong with a junior college. I personally spent two years at a very fine community college in Amarillo, and very likely would not be writing books now had I not done that. Seriously.No offense meant anywhere…



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Karen in Wichita

posted September 21, 2009 at 4:01 pm


Oh, I'm not offended, just amused.Also, had to fire up some of his albums, and it reminded me just how many bits of local color were there.The significance of "Where the sacred rivers meet/Beneath the shadow of the Keeper of the Plains" is probably lost on non-Wichitans, for instance.Sigh. I remember hearing about his death; seemed like everyone I knew had a ticket to that concert. Doesn't seem like it's been twelve years, either.



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Bo

posted September 22, 2009 at 12:06 pm


Thanks for helping us all remember a man after God's own heart. Thanks Jason.



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Anonymous

posted September 22, 2009 at 12:22 pm


woah! 12 years? It can't be… (ok so yes it can be – I'm helping plan my 10 year high school reunion – eek!)Rich was a unique person – and certainly one whom I look forward to getting to talk to in Heaven…Rich was just such a poet… there's few artists who have written such deep songs as he (and most of them had some kind of connection with him – Carolyn Arends for example)drc – I think "Hard to Get" may be my favorite too… its just so profound and yet not… plus I lose it every time I hear it because…and yeah I'm sitting here crying over Rich at my desk at work – maybe I'll be able to finish my post later but…Its just deep… and some of the songs on that last album are almost spooky in the way they deal with heaven and the afterlife… you'd almost think Rich knew something was coming… and after all – he did know something was coming eventually – I think thats one thing thats so…whatever…about Rich – he didn't live looking only to heaven (because he clearly sought to make a difference here on earth) – but he did live knowing that one day life would be over…



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Jim Jacobson

posted September 23, 2009 at 6:53 pm


Thanks for the great post. I will always remember listening to my first RM album ("Pictures In The Sky" on cassette) with headphones while I was shopping for groceries as a babe in the faith. I took my time that night and was blown away. I bought everything he put out after that. I managed to see him in concert near Seattle and he was as you described. The Hammered Dulcimer was amazing. "Step by Step" has been an anthem that he and Beaker gave me, and has remained my personal favorite worshipful declaration to God.



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thetoddlerwhisperer

posted September 28, 2009 at 5:15 pm


Thank you for posting this. I was just cleaning my kitchen and thinking back to that September day back at ORU when we all found out Rich left us. There was a true cloud of sadness over the entire student body. I never got to see him in concert…his last concert in Tulsa…I told my friend, "Na, I'll just see him next time he comes to town.." and of course there was no "next time". He was and continues to be such an inspiration..even my babes love to listen to SONGS vol. 1 with me…and yes, we skip "Awesome God" everytime it comes on…something about "puttin' on the ritz" that bugs!! lol Anyway, it was nice to read such a touching tribute while I was thinking of him…and allow myself to grieve again for the loss in this world of such a wonderful man. Twelve years have gone so quickly…I can't believe he's been with Jesus that long.



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estebs1978

posted October 4, 2009 at 8:52 pm


I miss his so much! Down to earth, smart, an amazing musician, an amazing man and Christian. Like he said once, "Big deal, God loves everybody. That don't make me special; that just proves that God has got no taste…and I don't think He does; thank God (speaking about how God loves you just the way you are…I just love the way he used to say things)".



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Berry DaLyve

posted December 1, 2009 at 1:39 am


Just stumbled across your blogging, you know how the internet is… It was good to read about Rich again. He was my first and most significant Christian musician "friend" after I accepted Christ in my early 30s. My husband and I attended a number of his concerts in the early to mid 90s.I was just telling my 17 y/o son one of my favorite concert memories. The show was in full swing, being held in a church auditorium, and it was at an extended chorus with the whole audience singing along, when I slipped out to hit the bathroom. Returning, I just stopped and stood in the doorway watching. Someone came up next to me and stood watching, too, and after a minute or so said, "Sounds really good, doesn't it? This is my favorite part." I turned to smile and agree and then realized it was Rich. I did a double-take. He grinned and said, "I guess I'd better go back." He was just like that.His death hit us hard. I still haven't found an equal to his music, but that's not to say there isn't good music out there… just some correlations. ;-)And I'm glad to know that I'm not the only who says, "You suck, by the way, for not wearing a seatbelt."Thanks for rekindling the memories!



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Gabby

posted January 14, 2010 at 11:19 am


thanks for remembering rich in this post. can't believe it has been 12 years. rich is truly unique. his music and writings had a profound impact on my life. he wrote the most poetic, honest, heart wrenching and yet strangely comforting songs i know in christian music. his Release magazines articles were also amazing. even to this day, his work continues to be that arrow pointing me to God. that's the beauty of rich's work. that's his legacy.



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Anonymous

posted March 19, 2010 at 1:34 pm


I know you wrote this in Sept, and that was ages ago, but I was re-reading about Rich today and your thoughts reminded me of what it was about his life and faith that was attractive. Rather a bit like our Sts Patrick and Columba. Not quite right with the establishment, and more right as we realise the importance of grace and sacrificial service imitating Christ.Good post. :)Eilís – Northern Ireland



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Inlyte Electronic Cigarette E-Cigarette

posted September 4, 2014 at 10:17 am


Hello! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and starting a new project in a community in the same niche.
Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a wonderful job!



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