For Rich Mullins, joy has flown over his life and left an immutable mark.
The sky really is a deeper, more vivid blue. It is gigantic-a great canopy of cloud-dotted color and light and drama, overarching the barren Southwestern terrain. The sky! Vast! The sun, like an unclenched fist, spreads fingers of dry heat across the desert floor below.
Take Highway 40 west out of Albuquerque, on the upper Rio Grande. You will pass seven extinct volcanoes, the seemingly endless stretch of sage, piņon trees, and majestic red-rock formationseventually you will come to the trailer Rich Mullins now calls home. Behind it, a small valley stretches between two mesas, each running five or ten miles in length. Such is the stark beauty of central New Mexico, home to a Navajo nation and an iconoclastic musician.
Rich was drawn here, pulled away from his Wichita, Kansas home by the natural wonder of the Southwestand by the people. It has been his dream to live among the Navajo and to share the gifts of music and faith.
At the moment, however, Rich is not under the vast Southwestern sky. He is confined to a rented facility in downtown Nashville, where he is rehearsing his band to tour in support of his recent release, Brother's Keeper (Reunion). Something truly amazing happens when musicians come together to make music livea magic that cannot be replicated by endlessly laying down one track upon another in a studio. The band breaks for dinner and Rich settles down to discuss music, his spiritual pilgrimage, and the influences that have shaped him.
"The thing that's cool about music is how unnecessary it is," Rich says with characteristic candor. "Of all things, music is the most frivolous and the most useless. You can't eat it, you can't drive it, you can't live in it, you can't wear it. But your life wouldn't be worth much without it."
Rich speaks of the soundtracks that play in his mind as he drives and of the challenge to capture such musical ideas so he can work with them. He speaks of the serendipitous things that happen as you create, alone or in a group. The sense that something wonderful has transpired. The challenge to recreate the moment.
Of course, music that truly captivates us involves much more than intervals and scales and chord progressions; melodies, harmonies, rhythms; guitars, drums, keyboards or hammer dulcimers. Music that touches us and stirs us deeply involves these mechanics, but it is really about those things which reach the soul. It is about ideas. It is about life.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Southern author James Agee once said that if he was looking for great literature, he would read grocery lists. His point was, everyone's caught up saying things in some cute and clever way. A writer's job is really just to say what's there. Saying what's there, painting the landscape of life, has become Rich Mullins' passion. In the process, he has learned that there are some things that encumber the process or obstruct the view. Cynicism, for instance.
"I came to Nashville more than a decade ago with a chip on my shoulder. I was
going to be the Nashville bad boy. I was not going to be your typical run-of-the-mill,
Pollyanna, goody-two shoes Christian musician. I became so boring trying to be bad that I
gave up the pursuit."
Cynicism had clouded and limited his perception.
"A lot of people think you can either be cynical or you can be sentimental. I think you have to reach beyond both of those. I read Proverbs all the time now because I would like to be wise just for a few years before I become senile. But wisdom doesn't lie in cynicism or sentimentalism. A wise person isn't either of those things, and wisdom doesn't look like what either of them has to offer. I remember thinking, 'God please save me from this cynical spirit, because I'm going to become such a nasty old man.' I like grumpy old men-kind-hearted but grumpy-but I don't like nasty old men. I don't like people who are genuinely mean-spirited. And I didn't want to become one."
Realize: as Rich embarked on a Christian music career a decade ago, he was just emerging from more than 10 years of darkness. "From my junior year of high school until age 30, I felt tormented all the time. I didn't like myself, and I didn't like anybody who was around me. Part of the reason it was so dark was it was dull. I would think maybe I should experiment with this or that, and I would. Invariably, it was a letdown. I'd hear testimonies about deliverance from drugs and I thought, 'What wonderful things drugs must be if a person is willing to destroy their life in order to have them.' Then I remember being very disappointed with my own little experiments. Whatever it was that people seemed to get out of it, I didn't get it. I never had to be delivered from a life of drugs or whatever because I didn't want in it. There was nothing there for me."
During this time, however, Rich's faith also seemed empty. "I never tried to be an atheist. That never made much sense to me. I knew I wouldn't make a good atheist. But I do remember thinking I just wouldn't have anything to do with God. Yet, even then, I felt driven back to God. I wanted intimacy with Him."
Like most of us who find our way, it was a series of many small steps, scarcely remembered later, that brought Rich home. What we do recall more vividly, are those points at which we make an abrupt change of direction-the dramatic turns we take that keep those small steps headed in the right direction. Rich was about 30 when he confronted the power of a secret sin and found a greater power in confession.
"I was in Michigan, on my way to somewhere where I knew I ought not to be going. I started praying, 'Oh God, why don't you just make my car crash so I won't get there because I can't stop myself.' I remember thinking that He said, 'Yeah, you're right. You can't.' I said, 'Why can't I? What I'm doing makes me sick.' And it was as if God responded, 'Yes, what you do makes me sick too, but what you are makes me sicker. You do what you do, because you are what you are. You can't do otherwise.'"
At that moment, facing himself honestly, Rich Mullins concluded that he was sick. At the same time, he remembered the words of Scripture. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). That recollection was intermingled with James 5:16. "Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." The idea was forceful. Could this be the answer to his inner anguish?
"I thought, I'm just going to stop and confess to the first preacher I see. The first church I go by, I'm going in there and I'm going to tell everything. And I remember thinking, 'No, that's not what it means. Confession has to be something other than just saying words. It must be something more than just owning up to what you've done, even though that's a big part of it. I need to tell this to people whose opinion is most important to me.'"
At that time, Rich had three or four friends in Cincinnati so he immediately drove from Michigan to Ohio. He didn't stop until he met with those friends and confessed his struggle.
"It was one of the most liberating things I have ever done. It's not like I haven't been tempted since that time. It's not that I don't still deal with the same sorts of things. I still have to make right choices. I still have to flee temptation. But the power of that sin was broken."
Gradually, the oppression Rich had felt lifted, like a flower slowly opening or a smile spreading across a face. It is this sense a wonder and hope and deepening intimacy with God that Rich would like to leave imprinted across his music and his life.
"I would hope that when someone comes in contact with me or my music that they would be caught in a sense of wonder. Not that they would have a sense of wonder, but that a sense of wonder would possess them. And I would hope that they would be enveloped with a sense of joy. Joy is a very enduring quality. If it ever flies over you, it does change you forever."
It has certainly changed Richin both his worlds. The world of the road, the concerts, the recordings. The world that is now his home, the prospect of seeing the face of a Navajo child lit by love and faith and wonder.
And it's there, hundreds of miles west of Nashville, that sunset's coolness settles over the desert floor. The sky dims to cobalt blue, deep purple, jet black, stabbed by a million suns. A vast, dark sky bleeding light. Constellations slowly cartwheel across the night sky. Moonlight paints the sage and desert floor in shades of blue. Shooting stars arc above, tearing the fabric of space.
Joy is flying overhead.