The Rising Leader Series: Week 22 - Despair
Updated: Jun 1
The younger son demanded half estate
Then fled to distant country to debauch
To teach himself new levels of self-hate
To death-dance in the dark on bottom notch
The father, old, half-blind, nursed a habit
Of straining one good eye to scan the hill
Late came the day, as destiny would have it,
Through blur he caught a glimpse of figure still
In desperate hope he shuffled ‘cross the clearing
The figure on the hill began to run
“Dear God in Heaven! If you’re in my hearing
Please deign to name that running man my son!”
With joy exquisite, two frail hands of care
Embraced, forgave, and loved away despair
The cloak of loneliness that hung over Rich Mullins’ heart for most of his life was stitched early. Born to a meek Quaker mother and a hard-driving farmer father, he grew up a disappointment. While watching a “Cowboy and Indian” movie with his sister as a four-year-old, he saw an “Indian” shot dead and burst out crying. Attentive in church as a youngster, taking teachings seriously, he soon became deeply attached to Jesus. His dad, a tough-leathered Indiana farmer, tried in vain to stiffen his son’s back and teach him the ways of the farm. But Mullins was as soft as his father was hard. He broke every implement he touched, including the tractor. A passion for music was sparked early by the attention of his great-grandmother, who taught him how to play hymns on the piano and sing four-part harmony. His father once said ruefully, “I’ve got two sons, two daughters and a musician.”
Mullins carried his music and loneliness with him into the world– starting a band in college, and then becoming a church music director. After taking a group of church teens to a Christian music festival in Kentucky, he saw the power of music to connect with young people and decided to pursue it full-time. In 1981, Christian recording artist Amy Grant learned about Mullins and recorded his song Sing Your Praise to the Lord. It opened the gate that led him to become one of the best known Christian recording artists of all time. Two songs, Awesome God and Sometimes by Step, are to this day considered cornerstones in the cathedral of contemporary Christian music. Three of his albums are in the top 50 of all time (#3, #7 and #31).
In 1982, when his girlfriend-turned-fiancée decided she could not marry a professional musician, he said goodbye to the only woman he would ever love. He headed out on tour, traveling the country, singing to large crowds. In between gigs, he did missionary work in Asia and at a Navajo reservation, where he taught Jesus and music to children. Later, after his death in an automobile accident at 41 years old, these former students would speak with great love about their lost friend and spiritual leader. His success brought him riches, but he gave most of it away– choosing to live on the annual income of the average American worker, which was $24,000 at that time.
Despite his deep faith and through-and-through goodness, Rich Mullins wrestled with demons. He fought addiction to alcohol; at many low points in his life, he tried to drink away his despair. When his college friend’s father (who had become a father figure to him) suddenly died of a heart attack, Mullins was inconsolable. So too when his fiancée left him. So too later, when his own father died. At these crisis moments, the bottle became Mullins’ only friend. He performed more than a few concerts sick, hungover, and ransacked with self-loathing.
Despair is a crisis of faith. Surely God has deserted us. Hopelessness overwhelms; we feel naked, raw and empty. Utterly alone, our soul cries out into the vast silence with no expectation of reply. Our mind is wracked to exhaustion as we try in vain to rationalize our plight. Until finally we surrender the mind to the heart, and the heart to God. Only then might a first flicker of light chance to pierce our darkness.
Somehow, time and again, Mullins found God in the midst of despair. His very vulnerability connected him with his audiences. His connection to Jesus was unshakeable; he knew his Savior saw him, loved him and walked beside him amidst his brokenness. It was enough.
In concerts, it was his habit to play a couple of songs and then stop to talk to his audience. In just such an interlude, he once said this:
"God notices you. The fact is he can't take his eyes off of you. However badly you think of yourself, God is crazy about you. God is in love with you. Some of us even fear that someday we'll do something so bad that he won't notice us anymore. Well, let me tell you, God loves you completely… And in the love of God there are no degrees, there is only love."
Later, he said:
“I grew up hearing everyone telling me ‘God loves you’. I would say big deal— God loves everybody. That don’t make me special! That just proves that God ain’t got no taste. And I don’t think He does. Thank God! Because he takes the junk of our lives and makes the most beautiful art.”
And he was not afraid to challenges his audiences:
"Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in your beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken."
Rich Mullins' authenticity, humility and radical commitment to the poverty of Jesus flowed directly from the dark shadows of his soul. Go online; listen to a couple of his songs. They drip with honesty. Anyone who has known despair will find solace in them. For example, check out the first two verses from his song, Help Me Jesus:
Well sometimes my life just don't make sense at all
When the mountains look so big
And my faith just seems so small
So hold me Jesus 'cause I'm shaking like a leaf
You have been my King of glory
Won't You be my Prince of Peace?
Mullins was a leader of great courage and consequence. His gifts of word and song blew like fresh winds through the stale air of institutional Christianity. Fearless in faith, he stood up to church hierarchy— challenging church leaders to embrace Jesus’ radical call to serve the poor. He lived his Christian faith in service, focused on the fringes of the world. Through his music, he offered up his frailty and brokenness as a free-will gift of love. His Christianity was the big-tent kind. In search of a church to call his own, he checked out multiple denominations– Quaker, Lutheran, evangelical and Catholic– until he finally decided it didn’t matter all that much, as long as he chose one: “...it’s not about being Protestant or Catholic. It’s about being faithful to Jesus.”
Rich Mullins lived out the Gospel as best he could all the days of his life. By sharing his true self with the world through his gift of music, many thousands of broken souls came closer to Christ. “Never forget that Jesus died for you,” he once said. “Never take lightly what it cost Him. And never assume that if it cost Him His very life, it won’t also cost you yours.”
For the past four weeks, we have explored the dark night of the soul in the shadows of doubt, disillusionment, depression and despair. Now, for the next four weeks, we will search out the beauty and joy that can be found by living true to our authentic selves.
“For the enemy has persecuted my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me dwell in dark places, like those who have long been dead… I stretch out my hands to You; my soul longs for You, as a parched land… Answer me quickly, O Lord, my spirit fails; do not hide Your face from me.”-- Psalms 3-7
In fellowship and joy,
Previous Weeks' Letters: