Fifteen years ago today, I heard that Christian singer/songwriter Rich Mullins had been killed in a car accident. He was 42 years old.
Most of the rest of the world was still stunned and mourning over the sudden tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, less than three weeks earlier. A week after that, Mother Teresa of Calcutta had died (less shockingly, as she was 87) and received a lesser, but still significant, amount of media attention.
The death of Rich Mullins was not front-page news, except for those of us who loved contemporary Christian music, who listened to his songs and read what he wrote and admired the man. For me, the third death in that summer/fall of 1997 was the one that impacted me the most by far. I loved Rich Mullins’s music and thought of him as one of my remote-control spiritual mentors. I always thought someday I’d get to see him in concert.
The first Rich Mullins song I ever heard was “Boy Like Me, Man Like You,” which was getting a lot of airplay on VOAR during the year when I was living in Alberta and Jason was sending me cassette tapes of his Top 8 shows from VOAR, usually with romantic little messages either written or recorded at the end (ah those sweet pre-internet days!). I quickly went out and bought Rich’s album and what I remember most is being blown away by the opening lines of “Jacob and Two Women”:
Jacob he loved Rachel, and Rachel she loved him,
And Leah was just there for dramatic effect.
Well it’s right there in the Bible, so it must not be a sin
But it sure does seem like an awful dirty trick.
I’d never before heard a “Christian singer” who could be that clear-eyed and straight and sarcastic about the oddness of the Bible, and Rich Mullins probably won my heart with those four lines.
Over the years his songs touched every part of my life and often kept my faith afloat when nothing else could. I found a depth to his writing that’s too often lacking in Christian music. I shared the love of Rich’s music with so many friends but now, of course, it inevitably reminds me of Jamie, who loved his music so much (and who did get to see Rich in concert). Jamie, like Rich, died in his early forties, much too soon, and wanted the song “Hold Me Jesus” sung at his funeral. The last of the hundreds of comments Jamie left here on my blog was a comment on Rich’s song “Elijah” — a song reflecting on his own inevitable death that ended with the line “It won’t break my heart to say goodbye.” Jamie, who unlike Rich had plenty of warning of his death, said that he wasn’t sure he could ever honestly mean that last line, and I said that if Rich had had time to know and prepare for his own death he might not have been able to say it either. It’s one thing to say that you’re so in love with God that you don’t mind leaving this world, but the heartbreak is always for those left behind. In Rich Mullins’ case that meant not just friends and family but thousands of fans who looked to him for inspiration and encouragement. I would love to have heard what he would have produced in the last 15 years, if he’d lived … but it’s one of the too-many things we’ll never know.
I don’t know if I even have a favourite Rich Mullins song but Jamie’s pick, “Hold Me Jesus” is the one I’m thinking of today, as I reflect on Rich Mullins’s life and ministry, and how it was cut short too soon, and on the over-too-soon lives of everyone we’ve loved and lost. I found this live version on YouTube and I like it because the quite lengthy introduction is so very much Rich, with that unvarnished openness that made him the antithesis of the “Christian music star.”
I can’t believe he’s been gone 15 years.