Rich Mullins, Twenty Years Alive

Today marks twenty years since Rich Mullins’ death. I still remember reading the news in a computer lab in the basement of Klein Hall at Messiah College. My friend David (who I would later marry) emailed me with the story. It took my breath.
 
From the opening notes of “The World As Best As I Can Remember It,” his music taught me that Christian worship and music could be better than what was being promoted on the radio. And when “A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band” came out, I found a top-ten lifetime album. Those of you who know him as the guy who wrote “Awesome God” — you don’t know his best music. It’s worth looking into.
I’m so grateful I got to see him play once. He performed in the chapel at Gordon College and I drove home from college for the weekend to attend the concert. A local duo named Harrod and Funck opened for him — I was a fan of theirs, too. I’m pretty sure the poster from that night is still up in my attic.
At the end of his concerts, Rich always had the audience stand and sing the doxology unaccompanied.  While the crowd was singing in harmony with eyes closed, he would slip off the stage. He wanted to be absent when the applause started.
In his song “Elijah,” Rich wrote
But 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 
Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park 
And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye
The weekend that Rich passed away, David happened to be headed to Manhattan. He said he was going to light a candle in Central Park for Rich. When Rich said goodbye, it broke our hearts a little. But we knew it didn’t break his heart.
Rich+Mullins

Galileo and the Reckoning

Musically speaking, I grew up in the 1990’s. Natalie Merchant, the Indigo Girls, the Cranberries…these were all my favorites. There was no better anthem for high school and college life than the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine”:

I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind

Got my paper and I was free

Or who didn’t love Natalie Merchant’s “Jealousy” in the wake of a bad breakup?

Does she talk

The way I do

Is her voice reminding you

Of the promises

The little white lies too

The music was bitter and cynical, and I relished it being that way. It was the tone of that whole generation.

Occasionally when I’m cleaning the house, in need of a shot of energy, I’ll turn on a Pandora channel with these artists on it. I find amusement in seeing if, while I’m scrubbing the bathroom sink, I can still sing Dolores O’Riordan’s entire descant at the end of “Dreams” without taking a single breath. I sound terrible, and the echo in the room only magnifies the horror, but I’m having fun and the bathroom is getting clean.

My children and husband quietly roll their eyes.

The other day The Indigo Girls’ song “Galileo” came on. If you’re not familiar with the song, it wrestles with the idea of reincarnation. The writer despairs that she will never “get it right,” and wonders if she’s doomed to repeat the same mistakes in lifetime after lifetime.

How long till my soul gets it right?

Can any human being ever reach that kind of light?

I call on the resting soul of Galileo

King of night vision, King of insight

In the writer’s mind, Galileo was the only person who ever got it right — he found the truth and was twice accused of heresy for it. He died under house arrest, and now his soul is at rest.

Until her friend brought up the idea of reincarnation, the writer thought her mistakes were only to blame on her childhood. But now, she says, she might need to look back further: “And now I’m serving time for mistakes/made by another in another lifetime.” Faced with this dark reality, the only hope is that, as a result of her failures, at least we’ll avoid a nuclear holocaust:

If we wait for the time till all souls get it right

Then at least, I know there’ll be no nuclear annihilation

In my lifetime

At the end of the song, the first line of the chorus repeats again and again: “how long? how long?”

As “Galileo” played in my house the other day, I heard my youngest son quietly filling in a background vocal at the end: “How long until the reckoning…”

He was repeating the closing strains of Andrew Peterson’s song “The Reckoning.” This song has become “mandatory thunderstorm listening” in our home, as Andrew witnesses a storm and calls to mind how the Lord promises to return and set all things right.

Immediately I was struck with the difference in worldview here.

How long until this curtain is lifted?

How long is this the song that we sing?

How long until the reckoning?

…I know you hear the cries of every soul tonight

You see the teardrops as they roll tonight

Down the faces of saints

Who grow weary and faint in your fields

And the wicked roam the cities and the streets tonight

But when the God of love and thunder speaks tonight

I believe You will come

Your justice be done, but how long?

hourglass-4-1312475-1599x2132Behold in stark relief the difference the Gospel makes: hope. Christians long for the end. We look forward to it, because we know the outcome doesn’t depend on us “getting it right.” Christ has gotten it right for us. Though the idea of a holy God returning to earth and exacting justice on evil might inspire fear, ultimately we are at peace because our lives are hidden in Christ.

Hope is at odds with cynicism. We cannot carry both at the same time — they repel one another. We must put one down. Lately I’m realizing how much I’ve been carrying cynicism around. It’s a security blanket for those of us who’ve been disappointed. If we don’t “get our hopes up,” we won’t be let down.

This ugly, dirty security blanket of cynicism prevents me from looking people in the eye. I am afraid of them. I am afraid of getting hurt again. Being lied and gossiped about again. Being misunderstood again. I am more like the cynical believer in reincarnation than I am the hopeful Christian.

Because I am fortunate in my friends, every once in awhile, a fellow Christian breathes new life into me with words of hope.

They then addressed themselves to the water; and entering, CHRISTIAN began to sink. And crying out to his good friend, HOPEFUL, he said, “I sink in deep waters, the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me.”

Then said the other, “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

…Then I saw in my dream that CHRISTIAN was as in a muse awhile, to whom also HOPEFUL added this word, “Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole “; and with that CHRISTIAN brake out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see him again! and he tells me, ‘When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee'”.

-from “The Last Difficulties,” The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan

Oh, how I want to be Hopeful — to sink into the bottom of difficulties and see the good approaching! To bear the burden and not faint; to release the cynicism and speak hope to a fellow Christian, as so many have for me; to remind them of the Reckoning, when all things will be made new.

Come Lord Jesus! How long, O Lord?

O Theo

Saturday night, David and I went to see Matthew Perryman Jones perform. I only knew of him through other Nashville voices we love, and I don’t have a ton of his music. But we loved his show. He has a remarkable voice and is a talented writer.

One song that stood out to me was “O Theo,” which is based on the letters Vincent VanGogh wrote to his brother Theo. The song provides a sad and beautiful picture of VanGogh’s mental illness and how he used his art to try to battle the demons in his head.

So, I set fires of starlight/To burn up against the despair
I was caught in the tangles of midnight’s/Long, unanswered prayer:
‘Are you there?’

The Starry Night

The Starry Night

Linkage

I have just two things for you today.

One, if you have had it up to here with political advertising like I (and my children) have, head over to this Random Political Rhetoric Generator for a couple of laughs. You can take important stands like, “I want an America where internet pirates and violent video game makers cannot corrupt our cherished national parks.”

Two, this article by Carl Trueman is a highly influential one for me when it comes to music in the church. I return to it now and again to recalibrate and ask questions of myself and others: What Can Miserable Christians Sing? Here’s a taste:

A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience.

Trueman wrote a follow-up piece for the 9marks blog earlier this year that is also worth a read.

What Susan Said

Last night David and I were sitting in the dark living room, exhausted, talking about our day, and I mentioned that I’d seen the set list for The Local Show’s Rich Mullins birthday tribute show.

setlist

We talked through some of the songs and realized that some were unfamiliar to him. He didn’t have the album that they were on…so many years ago.

It was then that I had the unique experience of introducing my husband to a twenty-plus-year-old “new” song, one that I wore out on my cassette of Rich’s The World As Best As I Can Remember It, Volume 2.

But I remember what Susan said
How love is found in the things we’ve given up
More than in the things that we have kept

And he said, “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that song, and I’m hooked.”

I wonder what Rich would be writing now if he was still here.

(This seems like a good time to put in a plug for one of my favorites, Andrew, who is releasing a greatest hits album. There are some new songs on there, too.)

A Song for Monday

We’re studying modern history this year in school. There are so many great missionary stories to be explored; this week, we begin with Eric Liddell. Later on we’ll get to Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, and others.

They inspire us…to keep on.

Desire Like Dynamite, Jayber Crow, and A Rocha

I had a dream that the mountains cried like a child for their mother

There was poison in the seam and I saw eastern Tennessee flooding under

Black the hope, the Holy Ghost

a deaf man hears inaudible thunder

The hush, the chill, the iron will of man

Sweeping everything in sight…with dynamite

The other day I was driving down the road listening to Sandra McCracken’s latest album, Desire like Dynamite. The title song is maybe my favorite on the album. In it, Sandra compares “the iron will of man” across the landscape to our struggle with will and desires within us and our children.

Then suddenly, I encountered one of those blessed moments of connection that happen with good art and literature. I was back in the concluding chapters of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, watching Jayber sleep in the Nest Egg, a treasured bit of forest on a neighbor’s farm:

Everything there seemed to belong where it was. That was why I went there. And I went to feel the change that that place always made in me. Always, as soon as I came in under the big trees, I began to go slowly and quietly. This was not because I was hunting (I hunted in other places), but because in a place where everything belongs where it is, you do not want to disturb anything. I went slowly and quietly. I watched where I put my feet. I went for solace and comfort, for a certain quietness of mind that came to me in no other place. Even the nettles and mosquitoes comforted me, for they belonged where they were.

At the end of the novel, the Nest Egg is gone, sacrificed to the iron will and carelessness of man.

I dreamed I heard the sound of the last Great God bird singing

Lying in the trees I could hear the ax machines that were ringing

This is like a fable to be told but I’d rather put it down

Will we choose the noise of our desire,

Or the hope that makes no sound?

Those who have ears, as the smoke it clears

will see things as they are

to bend the will, you first must change the heart…

If you’d like to read about Sandra’s visit to Mr. Berry’s farm, go here.

Also, please consider giving to the Nashville A Rocha project, which encourages people in integrating faith, creation care, and hospitality. You can get some music for a small amount of support to their campaign, which ends on July 2.