Sunday, March 17, 2013

I Miss Rich Mullins

Being St. Patrick's Day,  I've been thinking of some of my favorite Irishmen.  Though Rich was not born there, his name and lifestyle certainly reflected much of the Irish flare.

I miss Rich’s beaming smile and furrowed brow.

I miss Rich’s pop sensibilities blended with eclectic instrumentation.

I miss Rich’s quick laugh and his barking anger.

I miss Rich drinking eight glasses of water a day to “counteract” his smoking habit.

I miss that Rich read the Bible not to understand God but to encounter Him.

I miss Rich singing the “Star Spangled Banner” acapella to open a show but being outraged at U.S. foreign policy.

I miss Rich’s contrite heart and his assertions to, like Martin Luther, “sin boldly.”

I miss our extended chats about the rebel Jesus and our arguments over theology.

I miss Rich’s focus on the needs of others and his recurring challenges with absentmindedness.

I miss Rich’s wrestling with fame and his willingness to confess openly his darkest problems.

I miss Rich’s love for the Church and his aversion towards westernized churchianity.

I miss Rich’s servant heart and his uncompromising stance with record label suits.

I miss Rich quoting lengthy passages of scripture and swearing like a longshoreman.

I miss Rich’s longing for purity and his struggles with celibacy.

I miss Rich’s attraction to “high church” and performing his concerts bare foot and in tattered clothes.

I miss Rich’s love for Amy Grant and his disdain for the majority of her fans.

I miss Rich’s zeal for what moved him (like seeing Dances with Wolves twenty-seven times while it was in theaters) and his equal frustration with pop culture trends (like obsessive dieting).

I miss Rich’s desire for meaningful friendships and his frustrations with loneliness.

I miss Rich’s clarity that realized taking pride in poverty was equally as wicked as taking pride in wealth.

I miss Rich’s blunt rebukes and gentle grace.

I miss Rich’s intense self-judgment and his recognition of Christ’s deep fondness for him.

Yep…Rich was a complicated character, and a friend. When I read Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing To Heaven by James Bryan Smith I guess my emotions about Rich’s untimely death in 1997 were still a bit raw. But many memories started flowing…

Like when I met Rich the first time at Blanton and Harrell Management while I was a consultant on Amy Grant’s Straight Ahead Tour.  Mike and Dan had recently signed Rich to their new Reunion Records label.  He was just as scruffy as you would expect wandering the hallways, and had some definite opinions about the $15,000 Turkish carpets on the floors.

Or the time a few years later when I was helping manage the artist department at Compassion, and had worked hard with Rich on a printed piece to go into his second album, Pictures in the Sky.  He was excited to use his platform to help needy children in the developing world.  Unfortunately, I had just come from the parent record company, and the president of the label had decided not to allow the flier to be inserted after all. We were sitting in the old Shoney’s restaurant on Demonbreum here in Nashville when I gave him the news.  In an instant, his eyes flashed, he pounded his fist so loudly on the table that it lifted all the silverware and tipped a glass of ice water. “That bastard!” he screamed.  The bustling joint grew eerily quiet as Rich fumed further while I tried to calm him down. With our mutual passion for the insert, we eventually got those in charge to change their minds, and hundreds of precious little ones ended up with better lives as a result.

Then there was the time I was on the road for Compassion with the modern rock band The Choir.  One show was in Wichita at a second floor night club.  A terrible load-in for the band and crew.  Rich had become a fan of their music, and showed up early to assist with all the equipment and stayed late do the same.  The Choir and their crew had no idea Rich was with them, and since he was just wearing a dirty baseball cap with his hair pulled back, they never recognized him.  Later, on the bus as we were headed to the next town I asked if they had enjoyed meeting Rich at all. “He was there?!” they exclaimed. They were pissed that they never got to actually meet him, even though he’d been helping all night. Rich never went out of his way to introduce himself, even though it was his home town, and he helped fund the club where they were playing.   He was just thrilled that they came to play and were making an impact on some kids he knew.

Another time I wanted to introduce Rich to some of my cohorts at Compassion.  I had warned my boss and the others that Rich could be a tad unpredictable, and that he was never shy about expressing whatever thought process his mind was churning.  “Be prepared….and take whatever he may spout-on about with a huge grain of salt,” I cautioned with a wink and a smile.

We drove up to Boulder, Colorado to see him open for Amy Grant on the Unguarded Tour. Rich was not in a particularly good mood after his sound check in the cavernous Univ. of Colorado Fieldhouse was completed.  Once he got permission from the road manager to go off site with us to eat, he was grousing in the van about the idiocy of Amy’s fandom that were waiting like cattle in long lines outside the hall.  Rich claimed that he would enjoy going up to those pre-teen wanna-be’s who were all wearing their leopard skin jackets and black spandex tights and “slap some sense into each and every one of them.”  My fellow Compassionates laughed nervously.

We drove to several area restaurants, but they were all over-run with said fan base, and the waits were over thirty minutes to be seated, so we kept moving.  This did not assist in changing Rich’s demeanor whatsoever.  Since we had limited time before Rich had to return backstage, we had to settle for a McDonald’s that was, once again, full of Amy-ites.  My chums were doing their best to make small talk with Rich, but he was sullen and somewhat withdrawn.  My boss, Dave, looked at me as if to say, “What is this guy’s deal?” 

As Rich was munching on his fillet-o-fish and slurping some orange drink, he suddenly plopped the cup on the table top and declared with intentionality that would make Idi Amin flinch, “Ya know, I could pull out a sub machine gun and mow down every single person in this restaurant, and not feel one moment of remorse.” 

Trying to lighten the mood I interjected, “Aw Rich, you’re so full of it sometimes…just relax and let the kids have their naïve fun.”  

He then took another bite and mumbled, “I am so very, very serious. Get me a gun and I’ll prove it.”  More uncomfortable acknowledgement and tittering ensued from our group.  Thankfully, his mood began to lighten, and he apologized for being such a jerk just as we dropped him off at the arena.  To this day, I’m amazed that my teammates at Compassion were willing to keep moving forward with Rich.  But it was a tremendous partnership that grew deep and more precious over the next eleven years.

The time that Phil Madeira and I put together the Mark Heard Memorial Tribute Concert at Belmont University also sticks out in my mind.  Rich had only recently come to be familiar with Mark’s artistry, and was moved by his sudden death the previous summer.  The concert was a rousing success as an artistic endeavor, the auditorium was packed, and we saw over $10,000 raised for Mark’s widow and daughter.  But we knew that another revenue stream that could not only help their financial straits, but also expand Heard’s heritage would be for artists to commit to covering Mark’s wonderful songs.  Rich was the first to pop up that night and promise to do just that.  His next album featured a powerful rendition of Mark’s “How To Grow Up Big and Strong,” and thousands more publishing dollars went to the foundation to assist the Heard family as a result.

I think my favorite story revolves around taking Rich on his very first overseas trek.  It was 1991, and I put together a Compassion Artist Vision Trip to Guatemala with Rich, Rick Elias, Geoff Moore, promoter Chuck Tilley, and my manager, Devlin Donaldson. None had ever really met each other before, and there was a great bond that formed during that week in Central America.  In fact, that is where the seeds of the Ragamuffin Band concept were sewn, with Rich and Rick became fast friends and collaborators from that introduction forward.

Whether we were trudging through Guatemala City’s massive dump, or clambering up Mayan pyramids at Iximche…whether we were sitting through an earthquake late one evening in our rattling little motel in Panajachel or skimming across the glass surface of the gorgeous Lake Atitlan… whether we were blowing bubbles with kindergartners in San Pedro La Laguna or Rich getting popped with a swinging stick from an overenthusiastic little piñata basher in Tecpan…whether we were watching naked kids splashing in a stream or he was leading a group of native teens in singing “Awesome God,”  Rich was radiant.  You could just see how this was impacting him from that point forward.

Before we had departed for the trip southward, Rich asked me if it would be OK to bring an instrument.  I assumed he meant an acoustic guitar, but he wanted to bring his large hammer dulcimer.  “Rich, that thing is worth a couple of grand and is pretty delicate,” I reasoned. “It may not survive the transport, and the kids at the projects are gonna want to bang on that thing relentlessly.”

“I won’t mind…I really want to bring it, and I certainly want the kids to try and play it,” he replied.  And sure enough, when we got there, once they saw the magic sounds Rich could bring out of it, they all wanted to try.  Most were none too dignified in their attempts to get notes out of it, but Rich was just beaming ear-to-ear with their efforts. I’ll never forget the images of kids crawling all over Rich trying to take turns pounding on one of his most prized possessions, and him being absolutely thrilled with joy. Before the end of the trip, a few strings were broken, and several chips were taken out of the fine wood finish.  But Rich simply didn’t care.  You could see his heart for wanting to teach children via music come to the fore during those moments…and that’s exactly what he committed himself to five years later when he moved to the Navaho reservation in New Mexico.

I like this summary of Rich from An Arrow Pointing Toward Heaven:

Growing into the person God created us to be, Rich thought, was the goal of the Christian life—not trying to sin less, but to be God’s more.  Mitch McVicker comments, “He would often say that the most holy thing he could do was to be completely human.  He was more interested in being genuine and real than being crisp and clean on the outside.  He said, ‘God created us human, and that means struggling, falling, admitting it, and being healed.’  A part of being holy means knowing that you are a struggling human and that you can be forgiven and healed by God.  He always focused on the hope on the other side of sin.”

Many of us are preparing to live rather than actually living.  Meditating on this may awaken us to the fact that we have one life to live, and the day—the moment—we are in will never be repeated.  In a sense, a well-lived life is the best way to cheat death.

“So go out and live real good,” Rich wrote late in his life, “and I promise you you’ll be beat up real bad.  But a little while after you’re dead, you’ll be rotted away anyway…it’s not gonna matter if you had a few scars.  It will matter if you didn’t live.”

Yeah, I still miss Rich Mullins and that thirst to drink in all God had to offer.  I still see Christ reflected in his sometimes awkward attempts to live fully.  With Jesus as my hope, may I humbly do likewise.   


  1. Mark, someone just sent me your blog and it made my heart smile. A great analysis of my dear friend! He was a walking contradiction, wasn't he? I guess that is true for all of us, but we decide to hide it rather than celebrate our humanness.
    Richard thought so much of you and your work with Compassion. I hope he took the time to tell you that; he certainly told me.
    Thank you for a trip down memory lane that was rife with belly laughs!
    Glad you're feeling better!
    Kathy Sprinkle

  2. Great to hear from you, Kathy! Glad the piece sparked some good memories of Rich. Certainly one of the great characters of our lives.

  3. Having done countless interviews with Rich for Christian Radio and reviews for CCM - I have to nailed him. I was always blown away with how he could smoke then sing beautifully, cuss then write profoundly. The religion in me would always want to argue with him about the petty things I witnessed. He always won those arguments.
    Thanks for the reminder that there was once greatness among us. :)
    Rhonda Miskowski

    1. You're welcome, Rob, and thanks for the kind words. We are all flawed messengers, aren't we? I appreciated Rich's candor...his willingness to show his warts.

  4. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and stories, Mark. I'm always glad to hear more of Rich, not just simple praise, but honest stories of his humanity. It's encouraging. Grace.

    1. I appreciate that, Evan. That is exactly what I was shooting for, so I'm glad it connected for you. : )

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  6. Thank you! For the laughs-out-loud (and the misty eyes!) that come from glimpses of our paradoxical brother and son of Ireland. (Appropriate, as paradox appears to be a Celtic specialty. Or maybe a human one.)

    He surely was one of a kind—which is why these stories are so important to remind us what being holy really means! Thanks for playing a role in carrying the message of "Being God's" forward. We are forever grateful.

    1. "Paradoxical" would've been a great title for one of Rich's albums. ; )

  7. This makes me laugh as I may have been one of those 'girls' waiting to see Amy Grant in 1985! Flash forward 5 yrs later to college years and drinking in the albums of Rich Mullins with my roomates. He would have been happy to know some of those naive girls heard his message and found the true Jesus of the gospel. Flash forward to today, that girl is over 40 and still loves God, wants to live recklessly, misses greatly the music of Rich Mullins and how it made her laugh and cry at the same time. Thanks Rich for not shooting me up in the crowd and giving me a chance to grow up big and strong!

    1. I'm sure Rich would smile reading your thoughts, Abby. I know I am. : )

  8. i'm a little late to the game here... but i just watched ragamuffin. funny how i knew so little about the artist i admired so deeply! i remember hearing "sing your praise to the lord" by amy grant when i walked into a christian bookstore in the mall as a teen. i stood there for a long time listening to it, then walked out with a cassette, which i blasted on my car stereo with the windows down every chance i got. i had no idea he had written it. i had no idea who he was at the time.

    it was in my 20's, when i was living a raggedy life of my own, cocktail waitressing at a pool hall, that i heard another song of his... this is the world as best as i can remember it. what a story teller! i was hooked from then on! i bought all his albums after that. i wasn't walking any sort of path towards righteousness at the time, but his songs spoke to me. and they had a huge impact on my life.

    and then in my early 30s, i had started straightening out some of the wrinkles in my life and was on my way home from church one morning, kids in the back seat, when i heard the news of his death. i pulled off the road and cried. i cried hard. i was devastated. i still get teary eyed listening to his music, and on the 20th anniversary of his death, i think i commemorated the event by spending an entire month engrossed in every youtube video i could find of his life.

    now i'm 50. i'd like to think my life is ironed out pretty well, but i still have things i don't want anyone else to know about. thoughts that make me cringe and wonder why God puts up with me.

    but not til i watched the movie did i realize he had so many struggles. and the one thought that struck me... the more screwed up we are, the more He loves us. i hate to say He loves the most screwed up among us the most, but maybe He kinda does.

    anyway, i just felt like sharing all that after having seen the film, and didn't really have anyone to share it with.

  9. Christie: Our struggles are what help define us---especially in relationship with God. Thanks for being vulnerable in sharing.

  10. I was one of those girls waiting to see Amy at Universal Studio and lived to tell !!! My sister was a fan and she introduced to me to " Doubly Good" which I just fell in love with...I had no idea he wrote the song, I did not know who Rich Mullins was until very recently. Why she did not introduce me to him back then is a mystery...My Dad died a few weeks ago... it is such a hard, hard loss, in the words of CS Lewis " His absence is like the sky spread over everything". My sister played "Hard to Get" and "Elijah" for me after the funeral, which I had not heard before and we just sat and cried together..those songs went straight to my heart and through it... they have been on replay ever since. ... I planted white double petaled lilies and bright red lilies in my sisters garden, to remind us of Dad ( he loved to wear white) and that God was doubly good in choosing him to be our Dad, and the red ones to remind us to always live our lives with passion. My sis and I were having a convo on why God does what he does ( and how most of the time I don't get it) she said "you actually remind me of Rich in many ways...funny, irreverent, Irish temper, fights with God and but strives to understand him, writes music, poetry, loves kids and dogs, has "colorful" language which would make a sailor blush, etc etc- So I wanted to learn more about Rich, I have ordered the book and movie. I just identify with him as a human .

    I will thank you in this place
    with shadows on the walls
    I lift my hands up in the dark
    and thank you for it all
    the nothing more's I can say
    the nothing more's I can do
    I lift it up, I lift it up
    and give it all to you
    I will thank you in this place
    until your grace falls like morning dew
    and I'm falling...falling
    and I'm falling into you

    D. Dwyer

  11. succinct... may God raise up another like Rich to keep us honest about the sinners we are

  12. Thanks for writing this. Blessings.

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