David Mullins - Remembering Rich
by Andrew Greer
CCM Magazine September 15, 2017
"Rich Mullins introduced me to an experience with God in the context of music that I had never known." – Amy Grant
On September 19, 1997, Rich Mullins died in a tragic car crash along Illinois Interstate 39, ending the life of one of the most compelling—and provocative—artists in Christian music history. He was one month shy of his forty-second birthday.
Like many cultural influences whose lives are cut short, seemingly overnight Rich Mullins' life and work became a focal point for a tribe of followers—in even greater numbers than had already gathered during his illustrious decade-plus career—seeking authentic communion within the gracious conversations he perpetuated throughout his life and lyrics.
Growing up in a Baptist congregation in rural Northwest Texas, I knew Rich's music. Songs like "Awesome God," "Sometimes By Step," and "Hold Me Jesus"—unknowing forerunners of our present day modern worship music movement—were staples on our radios and in our worship services. And it was within the musical breadth of his seventh studio record, A Liturgy, A Legacy, And A Ragamuffin Band, that I first learned honest-to-God songwriting was not exclusive to music in the mainstream, but was also available to spiritual seekers inside the church.
In a mid-90's music industry where sales thrived from the slick-pop presentation of the gospel, Rich's musical poetry thrived in the realities of the mess and the muck of everyday living. Though his music was resonating with the airwaves across the country, the Ragamuffin troubadour stayed close to the ground by identifying with everyday people in everyday situations in the communities around him. He was unafraid and unashamed to love people, especially those lingering on the outskirts of society. And his generous lifestyle (he gave away the majority of his earnings, which in his lifetime was substantial) and provoking dialogue bolstered the notion of a gospel where God loves us "as we are, not as we should be"—as phrased by his friend and fellow Ragamuffin, author Brennan Manning.
Twenty years after his unexpected death, it remains a mystery as to how Rich's down-to-earth songwriting would have fared inside modern worship's trends. Regardless, the inspiration of his lyrics and his life continue to surge through the lives and work of many voices who are influencing spiritual music today, recognized by an ongoing tribute to Rich within the pages of this publication this month.
After his death, Rich's younger brother, David Mullins, a pastor, became a natural spokesperson for the family and a minister of Rich's legacy—attending memorials, hitting the road with Rich's infamous Ragamuffin Band, and accepting a plethora of awards that had alluded Rich during his lifetime, but posthumously, were being administered in abundance. And perhaps, more than anybody on earth, Rich's death profoundly impact David's life. We could think of no more poignant person to help steer our cover conversation in commemorating the indelible influence Rich's has had on ours than his brother. So, with this, we remember Rich.
CCM Magazine: It has been twenty years since your brother, Rich, made the passage to the other side. Does it feel like two decades since you lost him?
David Mullins: It's like it's been forever, and then, in other ways I don't think there's been a day that I haven't thought about it. That event [Rich's death] probably has had, in practical ways, the biggest impact on me of any event in my life. I think that event changed the message of my life and ministry.
CCM: How has it changed the trajectory of your ministry and message?
DM: In the afterword for An Arrow Pointing To Heaven (B&H Books) I talk about how I used to believe that God works through all things to bring good, but I don't believe it anymore. It's not that I don't believe it because it's not true, it's because I've come to know it more—in something that was really bad, I've been able to watch God work. The trajectory of my ministry and the messages that come out of my life have been about the brokenness of life and the beauty of God, not separated but completely intertwined in an odd way that you can't define. Scars have become the key thing in my life.
CCM: In the sense of, here's this great tragedy and yet you have experienced beauty and grace?
DM: Losing a brother has opened a door for some effective ministry, dealing with people who have lost someone in a tragic way. I was on staff at a church in Wichita and our receptionist's brother was killed in a motorcycle accident. I didn't get to see her before she left to go home for the funeral. On the day she came back, I walked in, thinking, I'm a pastor here. I'm supposed to have answers for this. I'm supposed to have some theology that makes this OK. Everything in me is going, Say something meaningful, and all that I could get out was, "That sucks." What an awful pastor, right? On every level. But she said, "Thanks for not using, ‘We know that God works through all things to bring good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose' as an anesthesia."
When Rich was killed, I went on the funeral tour for a number of memorials. The following year I was out on tour with The Ragamuffins, so I was always seeing people. There's something in us that has to make everything OK, so I had people tell me the reason for the accident was God wanted him in his heavenly choir. I was like, "I appreciate the sentiment, but here's my problem—God is everywhere. Rich was already in the choir. The thing is now I can't hear him. And that may be selfish, but that's where I am." God didn't whitewash any of the hurt out of the scriptures. When we shortcut and say, "Don't hurt. You shouldn't hurt. Here let me just take away the pain," we cut out the goodness God develops in us.
CCM: Grief is a connector, right?
DM: Absolutely. If it weren't for the pain and what comes with the Fall, I think most of us wouldn't even want God. I hope as I mature I need less of [the pain], but I also believe that the more mature I've become, the less I avoid it. I actually embrace grief more now. I've learned to say, "Man, that really hurts. Why does that really hurt? And where does real healing come from?"
CCM: We have witnessed people swallowed up by grief. How do you embrace grief without letting it take over? Where's that line?
DM: ... by not taking God out of the equation. It's easy to fall off on either side—avoiding grief because God's good and so it's all got to be good, or life is really hard and it's bitter and it's painful. For me, [grief and God] seem like they cannot go together, so I go to God and let Him show me [how they interact]. Through Rich's death, I would probably have been overwhelmed if I had just focused on grief. But if I embraced grief focused on God, there's a way through.
CCM: Your life, like your brothers, is really involved with those who are broken. What has compelled you to be so integrated with the broken and those on the fringes?
DM: ... because that's where I am. I honestly don't know how to connect to people who aren't [broken]. People who say, "I have never once felt disappointed with God," I don't know that you need me. I'm not sure that you need the gospel. If life is that wonderful for you—and I really don't mean it flippantly—I hope it continues, but my experience has been that there's a whole lot more that say that than experience that.
I read the scriptures and I come up with a picture of what I believe Jesus is supposed to be. One of the things He's continuously done in my life is destroy those pictures. Every time He breaks my picture [of Him], there's disappointment because He's not what I want Him to be, yet by breaking [my picture], he allows me to come to know Him in a more real way. Unfortunately, it feels like in the church we protect God by creating these pictures of Him and then defending them to the place that we never really come to know Him.
One of the ways Rich really impacted me was in his pursuit of really knowing Christ. He looked at who Christ is and he didn't get rid of the things that didn't seem to fit together. Rich was twelve years older than me, so growing up with somebody that was doing that in my formative years, really impacted me.
CCM: How do we get through all the ideas of what is told to us about God and about Jesus to actually discover who really is God and Jesus?
DM: Live honestly. I think living honestly creates a space for God to come in and say, "This is me honestly." And it's this terrifying thing ...
CCM: ... you think it's terrifying—who God is?
DM: Yeah, because I don't think He will be what we want. He never has been. He gives grace when I want justice, and He brings justice when I want grace.
I want a God who doesn't let your brother die in a car wreck when he's on his way to do a benefit concert for battered women or something. God, seriously, you're the Almighty and you can't keep one Jeep on the road? It's like, "Could you just get on my plan here, God?" And I love that He won't.
CCM: There's a Nadia Bolz-Weber quote that says, "We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is His presence." Perhaps He is the fullness of what we actually need.
DM: That's the book of Job. Job's been asking, "Why did all these things happen to me?" And God speaks, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Where were you when I did this, when I did that?" At the end, Job goes, "My ears had heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You; therefore, I repent in dust and ashes." God does not answer Job's questions. He never tells Job why. We want to know why, but why will never satisfy us. God instead tells him, "I Am." I Am matters.
CCM: Have you felt that in the loss of your brother?
DM: Absolutely. One of the things I found was that He was not mildly intimidated by my anger, and He never answered why. I still, at times, will wonder, Lord, why? He was 42. There had to be more songs. I would love to have heard the songs that came from his late 40s, from his 50s. God has not answered why, but the thing that He has done is said, "I Am, and I have worked through all things to bring good." Spiritually, I can say I know God today in a way that I would not if September 19 , if twenty years ago had not happened. He has proven himself to be I Am, not I was or will be, but I Am. I Am here. I Am love. I Am good.
CCM: What is the most meaningful thing you have discovered about God in not having those questions answered?
DM: That He loves me enough to let me ask. That He really is not playing hide-and-seek, that He really does want to be known. Those questions stirred me to know Him. He's used them to draw me in.
*Read more contributions from David about his brother, Rich, in the new book, Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth: Spiritual Conversations Inspired by the Life and Lyrics of Rich Mullins by Andrew Greer.