(Part of my series Letters to Dead People)
It was twenty years ago today that you left this world for our Father’s house. A car accident of all things (is that what you get for wanting to “go out like Elijah”?). I didn’t know at that time, nor would I have cared. In September of 1997, I was a somewhat depressed middle-schooler listening to rock operas and obsessed with ghost stories. I had learned the chorus of “Awesome God” when I was a little kid in VBS, but I honestly didn’t know you wrote it, nor would I know your name. No, it was about two years later, fresh to my faith, that I first started putting the pieces together that almost the only songs I could stand on Christian radio were yours and picked up your greatest hits album, Songs.
Several things instantly struck me about your music. The first thing was how musically inventive you were. Not everyone would open a contemporary praise song with a rather lengthy excerpt from Bach. Even fewer would prominently feature an obscure Appalachian folk instrument like a hammered dulcimer in the arrangements of his most notable songs. For a guy approaching CCM from a musical background of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who’s Tommy, such artistic daring was much appreciated.
Much more appreciated, however, was the raw content of your songs. I found in your songs a bruised heart like mine, a heart that didn’t shy away from addressing the world’s painfulness and our weakness. Your brutal honesty about your struggles within your songs acted as a soothing balm to a young man struggling to figure out his place in this broken world. Unlike your contemporaries, who churned out mostly happy-clappy loves songs to Jesus, you peered into your pain, stared into the darkness of the world, and saw the light of God piercing through that darkness. You used the hurt and brokenness of your life to form art beautiful in all its truthfulness. You recognized that we were “ragamuffins,” as your mentor Brennan called us, the “bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt out”–yet utterly beloved–children of God.
Much like you, as I would later learn in your biography and a more recent biographical film, I was born a soft-hearted artist in the midst of a rural community where I didn’t fit most people’s idea of masculinity. While most men around me loved to hunt and fish and had a knack for things mechanical, I was always more content with a sketch pad or a notebook, just as you were always more suited to a piano than your dad’s tractor. This distance in your first relationships made you cling to those you finally found who you grew close with as friends, and the same was true for me. With us both, this trust issue with our acceptance, so easily masked on a regular basis, could suddenly show itself in acts of bitter desperation towards those we came to love. For both of us, beginning to comprehend the relentless love of Jesus was the beginning of healing in this area.
Just as I found comfort in the raw honesty in your songs, so I also became attracted to something I had never experienced before: the ancient church liturgy, particularly expressed in what would become my favorite of your albums: A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band. On that album, you praised God for his creation in “The Color Green,” confessed your brokenness in “Hold Me, Jesus,” proclaimed eternal truths in your adaptation of the Apostles’ Creed, and sang a communion blessing that I think may be unequaled in church history in “Peace.” In it, you lay out the reconciliation that Christ has given us, and how hard it is to wrap our minds around it:
Though we’re strangers, still I love you
I love you more than your mask
And you know you have to trust this to be true
And I know that’s much to ask
But lay down your fears, come and join this feast
He has called us here, you and me…
Rich, as you reconciled your brokenness to the “reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God,” you put it all on display for the world, and the world is still the greater for it. Your songs, in their truthfulness, have been a constant light from God in the midst of my darkest of times. Thank you, most unrestrained poet, for sharing your gift with us in your short 41 years. May we all do as well in the time given to us.
Your fellow ragamuffin,
(Cover image: a promotional image of Rich Mullins, © Reunion Records.)