rich-mullins-hard-to-get

Hard to Get

On September 19, 1997, I was 19 years old and completely lost.


Every possession that I considered worth keeping was jammed into one suitcase and two small boxes in the bed of my ’81 Chevy pick-up. I was driving through Wyoming, on my way to Oregon to live with a couple of friends until I could figure out what to do with my life. Everything was a fog for me then. I had no job, no family, no church, and really no plan for what to do or what kind of person I wanted to become when I made it to Oregon. I was, at this point, just surviving – hanging on. This was the beginning of the darkest time of my young life. It was on this day, driving through the grasslands of Wyoming, that I heard on the radio that Rich Mullins, my favorite artist from any form of art, and an unknowing mentor to me for all those years on the farm, had died in a car accident.

I grew up on a wheat farm in Oklahoma, near a town of 1300 people. When I left home in the fall of 1996 for Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, my life was all possibility and potential. I saw nothing but beauty and success in my future. I was a great student in High School, scoring in the top 5% nationally on the ACT. I helped lead a few Christian student groups in my community, and over the previous two years I had travelled to Africa and then Washington DC for summer ministry work. I was convinced that all of the great things God had in store for me were right around the corner. I was on 50% scholarship from ORU, which was an answer to my many hours of prayer about not being able to afford college. I had turned down scholarship offers from other colleges because I felt so certain about ORU being the right choice for me. Riding the wave of such powerful optimism, I moved into the dorms in August of 1996 – and so began the first year of my unraveling.

My first semester at ORU was fine, even fun. I was taking honors classes and maintained a 3.7 GPA. My classes were interesting and stimulating. I was also participating in intramural sports and meeting some fascinating people. Add to this the weekly chapel services and the variety of churches and worship music in Tulsa, and I was genuinely excited about being in Tulsa.

But as the months wore on, I started having trouble with some nagging questions. Who was I? Why was I so angry? Why did I find it so hard to just sit down and do my schoolwork or go to class? Why, try as I may, could I not escape pornography? When I went down for altar calls, why did I not see the changes in my behavior that I was repeatedly told I should be seeing? Was I always going to feel this way? For the first time in my life, my insecurity had no strength to hide behind. I steadily began to feel more and more useless. I felt like I was floating in a wide ocean with no destination, but only the endless, expansive horizon. I volunteered for an ORU mission trip to Thailand, thinking these feelings were something that I just needed to “power through”. I was part of some genuinely amazing experiences and I really do believe that I saw God work, but my doubts and feelings of malaise lingered. I had not become a different man over those two months.

Additionally, coming home from Thailand turned out to be a period of painful discovery. I learned that because my GPA had fallen to a .76 during my second semester, I was no longer eligible for my generous scholarship. I knew that I’d soon be back on the farm, working at a local filling station. The most devastating blow however, was when I learned that my parents had separated while I was away in Thailand. I was crushed. My family was the last bit of certainty I had in life. I was as hollow and despondent as I ever remember feeling in my life.

As you can imagine, life back on the farm was sub-optimal. All of the possibility and hope I had felt just one year before had evaporated. My dad and I started quarrelling more, as both of us were pretty irritable and emotional most of the time. The realization that I could be working at that filling station and living on that farm for the rest of my life steadily began to loom larger. When a friend I’d met at ORU called and invited me to move in with him and his wife in Oregon, I packed up and left. It was the first hope I’d had in months.

This leads me to Rich Mullins. I’ve always loved language. My favorite songs are ones that are built around wordplay. I appreciate direct honesty, and Rich Mullins had the knack for communicating his messages clearly and beautifully. Personally, I think his niche in Christian music was his ability to portray the life of Jesus, not just his supremacy in a theological sense. His greatest contribution to my life though, was his intense love for Jesus and his disregard for temporal comforts and status. There are accounts of him literally giving away the shoes that he was wearing, and in fact he was living in New Mexico teaching music to children in an extremely poor area at the time of his death. There is a story of him attending a Christian awards ceremony where he felt so out of place that he got up and began helping the servers at the event. My favorite story about Rich Mullins, though, is about his songwriting royalties. Early in his career, he wrote some of the most famous and widely covered songs in Christian music (Awesome God, Creed, Doubly Good to You, Hold Me Jesus, Peace, soooo many more), and many of them were covered by multiple bands. This level of “success” entitled Rich to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Rich Mullins, however, only took the salary of the average American, maybe $30,000 a year at that time. The rest was largely given away. The story goes that he didn’t even know for sure how much money he was making, because it wasn’t important to him. Rich Mullins was focused on becoming more like Jesus, not on writing songs or being an artist. Those things were a by-product of his relationship with the one he loved so deeply.

The report of his death on the radio was literally about 30 seconds long, and then more music started playing. I was shocked, but I don’t think I had the capacity for grief at that time. I was just trying to keep moving, to keep going forward. It wasn’t until “The Jesus Record” came out 10 months later that I began to really see what we had lost. “The Jesus Record” was a project Rich was working on just prior to his death. All of the songs were explicitly about Jesus. He had an opportunity to record demos in a modern studio, but instead opted to record the songs on a tape recorder in a small church. The recordings are obviously simple and crude, but it is some of the most powerful and challenging art I’ve ever encountered. I played the songs over and over again. I clung to the message, that Jesus is above and outside of our circumstances – that he is supreme and beyond this world. But he was also here with us, he was us. He knew excitement and he knew disappointment. He knew the intense joy of intimacy with a friend and he knew the excruciating pain of separation. In all of this, Jesus knew me. It was I who did not know Him.

The song “Hard to Get” from the album was the sticking point for me. It brought everything together in those months and eventually years of continual listening. I’ve covered multiple songs from that album, but I could not approach this one. It always felt appropriate to me to just listen. Even now, my preference would be that you go and encounter the original message from Rich, recorded in that church 15 years ago, and encounter his art the same way that I did.

As we engage in this season of Lent, this song comes once again to challenge me, and to remind me that Jesus is the core of what is good and beautiful and pure in my life. He has fought my same fight and he has won – convincingly so. He has not abandoned me, and he owes me no further explanation beyond his confession of love for me. On the contrary, I owe him my devotion. I owe him the benefit of the doubt perpetually. In the words of the Rich Mullins from “Hard to Get”:

“And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained

And I know that I am only lashing out
At the one who loves me most
And after I figured this somehow
All I really need to know

Is if you who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can’t see what’s ahead
And we cannot get free of what we’ve left behind
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt blame and regret

I can’t see how you’re leading me unless you’ve led me here
Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
And so you’ve been here all along I guess
It’s just your ways and you are just plain hard to get”

Permalink: http://tnl.org/hard-to-get

Categories: From The TNL Community, Music

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