September 19, 1997, 25 years ago today, I was at a friend’s house in Juneau, Alaska. A group of Bible Study leaders had gathered to talk about starting a coffee shop. Wouldn’t it be great? Just down the hill from the University? We need good coffee and a cozy place to meet up with people. I stepped into the laundry room to make a call to see if I could raise some funding. When my mother answered the phone, she said, “Honey, I just heard on the radio that Rich Mullins was killed in a car accident.”
The world stopped for a moment. The baby blue Downy bottle sat in a dark ring on a shelf. Lint swirled around my hiking boots as I shifted in disbelief. On the other side of the shutter doors, excited voices shouted out name proposals: “Glacier Grounds.” “Harbor Coffee.”
“Mom, I have to go,” and I hung up before she could hear me cry 5,000 miles away.
Rich was a friend, or at least, his music was. Ministry in Alaska was lonely at times, cold and dark. Rich was a click away on the Discman, making observations, asking questions, confessing, and declaring the love of the Savior of a ragamuffin people. I needed the reminders–often. I still do.
I offer here a few reflections on why his music touched me so much. Click on the name of each song, and through the wonder of technology, you can enjoy Rich singing each.
He loved nature and how it pointed to the Creator.
Well the moon is a sliver of silver Like a shaving that fell to the floor of the Carpenter's shop. The Color Green
He asked questions and expressed doubts like the Psalmist, sometimes raging, but secure in the faithfulness and love of God.
You who live in radiance Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was Still, we do love now and then Did You ever know loneliness? Did You ever know need? Do You remember just how long a night can get? When You are barely holding on And Your friends fall asleep And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat Hard to Get
His lyrics were so personal, so relatable that it seemed like you could have been on the writing team.
And I wake up in the night and feel the dark It's so hot inside my soul I swear there must be blisters on my heart So hold me Jesus 'cause I'm shaking like a leaf You have been King of my glory Won't You be my Prince of Peace Hold me Jesus
He made observations about common bits of life, dripping with (occasionally schmaltzy) nostalgia, brokenness, and beauty.
It's Christmas morning Did my sister get a baby doll? Did my brother get his bike? Did I get that red wagon the kind that makes you fly? Oh I hope there'll be peace on earth I know there's good will toward men On account of that Baby born in Bethlehem You Gotta Get Up
Rich loved folk instruments, incorporating a well-tuned hammered dulcimer into his later projects. Watch him play Creed here.
He demonstrated a great affection for Jesus and the Scriptures.
But I was twelve years old in the meeting house Listening to the old men pray And I was tryin' hard to figure out What it was that they was tryin' to say There You were in the temple They said You weren't old enough To know the things You knew Well did You grow up hungry Did You grow up fast Did the little girls giggle when You walked past Did You wonder what it was that made them laugh And did they tell You stories 'bout the saints of old Stories about their faith They say stories like that make a boy grow bold Stories like that make a man walk straight Man Like You
He knew the Christian should never feel comfortable in this world, but he wrote with fondness of the places God had taken him.
Nobody tells you when you get born here How much you'll come to love it And how you'll never belong here So I call you my country And I'll be lonely for my home And I wish that I could take you there with me Land of My Sojourn
You can find more than 10 albums recorded by Rich, the last, a demo album focused on the life of Christ, recorded in a country church on a cassette recorder shortly before his death. Rich’s friends, the Ragamuffin Band later released the Jesus Record, weaving the scratchy recording of of Rich’s voice with the band’s best work.
Rich was troubled by the comfort of American Christianity, and after more than a dozen years of touring in the spotlight, he stepped back from the glitter of CCM, took a second degree in education, and moved to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. He was self-admittedly a conflicted soul, struggling against the old nature, and longing for Jesus. His lyrics were hopeful, strung with the tension of brokenness and salvation, and the legacy he left is a reminder that this is true for any Christ-Follower.
One of the first songs he ever recorded considered the moment of his own death.
When I leave I want to go out like Elijah With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire And when I look back on the stars It'll be like a candlelight in Central Park And it won't break my heart to say goodbye Elijah
It was a sad departure for the rest of us, however. We never got that coffee shop going on Auke Bay, but 25 years after his passing, the music of Rich Mullins is still a treasured friend.