My friend Beth Lutz sent me a couple of photos from what seems like a million years ago. Beth was Beth Snell before she married my buddy and co-pastor Mark. She sang with an acoustic Christian group way back in the late seventies/early eighties (sorry, Beth) named Zion. Zion was centered around an unknown, piano-hammering young singer-songwriter named Rich Mullins. I was working a minimum wage job downtown in the catacombs of the Public Library and Rich worked a few blocks away in the ticket booth in the Shillito’s parking garage. We’d get together and argue theology—neither one of us really knew much—and wonder why the church had a problem with long hair at the time. He was raised in a conservative religious home, I was raised in a pagan home. Rich was slightly wacky. Maybe that’s what religion does to you, I don’t know. But I think that’s why I liked him.
I had just become a Christian, gotten a civilian job, and had started playing guitar more seriously after being a drummer in bar bands from the time I was fourteen. Remind me to tell you the story sometime of an expletive-ranting bar owner in Kentucky that kept a beer-guzzling live bear in a cage that bit his finger off one night between sets. At the time it seemed, uh, justified somehow. But I digress.
I met another Christian named Paul Niehaus who had a TEAC four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder (I told you this was a long time ago) in his basement with an old upright piano. He and I played guitars together and had started gigging in local coffeehouses in the mid-seventies. At night Rich would come to Paul’s basement and bang furiously on the upright, I’d play my black-oyster pearl Ludwig drums and Paul thumped bass. Paul and I eventually formed an acoustic group with a female singer and female violinist. And then married them. Is music great or what?
Rich formed Zion and then a relative loaned him the money to go to 5th Floor Studios in Cincinnati and record a self-produced album. Rich called and asked if I would play drums on the sessions and of course I said yes. A friend named Tony Ross played bass. Greg McNeilly engineered and went on to engineer all three albums for a band called Prodigal that I had the pleasure of playing with in the early-to-mid-eighties (for some of that retro-80's-blast-from-the-past-rock-goodness, click below...)
Anyway, it was a song from that Zion session called Sing Your Praise to the Lord that made its way to the ears of rising CCM pop star Amy Grant. The rest is early Christian music history.
Rich was signed as songwriter, moved to Nashville and eventually released his own music, later forming and traveling with A Ragamuffin Band. By the early nineties, his songs were picked up by other artists by the boatloads. Awesome God became a signature worship chorus. Rich could have been fairly wealthy, but instead he arranged for a small church he had attended to receive all his money and had them pay him whatever the average income was in America—about $25,000 then. The church gave the rest of the money out to various ministries and needs. Rich never married and started a quasi-monastic order called the “Kid Brothers of St. Frank.” He said he would have been a Catholic monk but was too much of a wimp. When an executive from a record label once asked him if he knew how much money was pouring in from royalties, he simply said, “No…it would just make it that much harder to give away.”
Like most of us, Rich was a complex personality. Deeply desperate for God, a strong sense of justice, more than a little quirky, critically honest and opinionated. Years passed before I saw him again. The last couple of times were at a Bruce Cockburn concert at Bogart’s and then bringing him in to play at the Vineyard on a weekend in the mid-nineties. He died shortly afterward in a tragic car accident on the way to a benefit concert.
In the end, I think it works like this: the more we’re aware of how screwed up we really are, the more desperate we become for Jesus. Maybe it’s the implied message when Jesus forgave the prostitute who washed his feet with her tears: the one who is forgiven much loves much. It certainly creates a desperation for God. We really, really need Him. I mean, who do we think we’re kidding? Perhaps that’s why the Bible says, “The fool has said in his heart: there is no God.” (Ps 14:1)
I think that’s why I absolutely loved Joe Boyd’s message this weekend in the Strong Challenge series. The angle he took with the “Strong Training” segment was the desperation factor: it’s only when we’re really desperate that we get serious about doing anything we can to be near Jesus.
I could use some more of that in my bones.
And I hope there’s a funky old upright piano in the Kingdom Come; it would be good to hear Rich again. He was a desperate man.