This week we watched the new movie about Rich Mullins, Ragamuffin. (The name of the movie comes from a term Rich and his band used about themselves, taken from an excellent book by Brennen Manning: The Ragamuffin Gospel) I enjoyed the movie. Partly because Mullins was so influential to my spiritual formation, and also because it helped be understand his songs and lyrics better. But I have to say, the movie was darker than I expected. I know that Rich was hurting for acceptance from his father and from God for most of his life, but that wasn’t the sum total of his life.
Cyndi and I heard Rich Mullins perform live twice, both in small venues, and while everything he said and sang was convicting and challenging and pointed, he was joyful on stage and energized while performing. I think the movie missed that joyful part of his life.
Rich Mullins was a brilliant songwriter, but by all accounts, not a fun person to hang around with. Too often we expect every Christian, especially Christian artists, to be friendly and warm and open all the time. However, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us to guide our personalities, we are still just broken people. As Brennan Manning said, “We are all beggars at the door of God’s mercy.
To be honest, Cyndi had to drag me to my first Rich Mullins concert. It was at Christian Church of Midland on Neely Street, sometime in the early 1990s. I wish I knew the exact date, but I don’t.
Rich was amazing in concert. His "band" used more instruments than anybody I’d ever seen, and it seemed each band member could play them all. They played guitars (many different types), mandolins, bass (electric bass guitar, stand-up acoustic bass, electric stand-up bass), dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, xylophone, drum set (and congas, bongos, Celtic, and a huge assortment of percussion toys), flute, electronic keyboard, cello, etc. (The movie leaves the impression Rich would let anyone in his band without knowing their musical talents, but that isn’t what I saw on stage. I witnessed some of the best musicians I’d ever heard, ever.)
His music was more rhythmic than melodic, a sort of Celtic-Appalachian-Rock, and it was amazing to hear and watch it live. He captured the open feeling of the prairie and linked it with the wideness and wildness of God's grace.
Rich Mullins made me want to get in my car and drive to the horizon. His songs made me feel like I'd underestimated God’s presence my entire life. His songs made me want to run outside and look at the sky and think about the love of God.
Listening to Rich made me feel I was wasting my time doing anything but writing. Instead of thinking, "Wow, what a great song," Rich made me think "I wish I'd written that."
He made me hope I was doing something with my life that inspired people; that helped them see God and experience His grace. I hoped I was not wasting my influence.
And Rich Mullins loved the church. Not just the CHURCH, as in the collection of all believers, but the church down the street that meets every week. A favorite saying of his was, "The reason I love the church so much is because it is the only place grown men sing."
He did not believe we go to church because we are perfect; he believed that we go to church because we need it. He said, "Every time you go to church you're confessing again to yourself, to your family, to the people you pass on the way there, to the people who will greet you there, that you don't have it all together, and that you need their support. You need their direction. You need some accountability, you need some help."
Rich said, “When I go to church … I involve myself in something that identifies me with Augustine, that identifies me with Christ, that identifies me with nearly 2,000 years of people who have come together once a week and said, “Let’s go to the Lord’s table and enjoy the feast that He has prepared for us.””
One Sunday night in June 1997 a bunch of us went to Odessa to hear Rich Mullins in concert in a small Disciples of Christ church. It was last-minute scheduling that we happened to hear about on the radio. We went with the Aycocks and Mills and Talbots and others. There couldn’t have been more than 200 people in the audience, and we sat in church pews.
As usual it was phenomenal. Mullins thrived in the close intimate setting and performed full-out as if for thousands of people instead of our handful. The audience called him and his band out for several encores, and for the last one they came out without instruments, grabbed hymnals from the pews, and led us all in congregational hymn singing, “There’s Not A Friend Like The Lowly Jesus.” It was wonderful.
Only three months after that concert, on September 19, Rich Mullins was killed when his Jeep flipped over. He and his friend Mitch McVicker were traveling on I-39 north of Bloomington, Illinois to a benefit concert in Wichita, Kansas.
And now, sixteen years later, I still haven’t stopped grieving the loss. I feel it every time I hear one of his songs. I have yet to find another songwriter to speaks to my heart like he did. I often return to my journals from that time period to remember and refresh that significant spiritual period of my life.
What I learned from Rich Mullins was this – there is more, and it’s bigger, and it’s deeper. Rich pulled back the curtain to show me a wider view of God’s love and grace than I’d imagined possible. Like Rich Mullins, I want to be a curtain-puller, an inspirer, a heart-giver. I want to be someone who lives the bigger picture of God. I want to be like Rich.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32