We Are Frail: Rich Mullins and the Human Condition

Rich Mullins

The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 19 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “In the Trenches.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.

Writing about music is a doomed task, like turning a round world into a flat map. It distorts and stretches, emphasizing what should not be emphasized and under-emphasizing the important parts. If an alien were to look at a map of the world, he might be tempted to think Greenland dominates Earth. Likewise, if a reader unfamiliar with Rich Mullins’s music looked just at his lyrics, she might be tempted to send him to a grammar coach, when the truth is that Rich, according to one of his biographers, “gave us some of the most beautiful canticles of creation the world has seen since the days of St. Francis.” Mere words on a page cannot capture the essence of a mandolin any more than a flat map can reveal the splendid isolation of a mountain peak. Still, we must do what we can. This leads me incongruously to ESPN.

The 2016 Summer Olympics have passed, and we are in the midst of football season. During the Olympics, my husband and I watched athletes in top physical condition execute their craft. We saw bodies with no trace of fat on them, clad in spandex modified to give them the best performance possible. Now we’re watching the keepers of the pigskin, suited in protective armor, growling like medieval warriors through their face masks. In between all of these physical displays are commercials depicting trim, muscly men and women clothed in athletic gear, telling us that greatness comes from determination, focus, and a steely resolution to keep fighting. Go. Fight. Win.

It’s one thing to be stuck in a trench, but it’s exhausting to expect perfection of your fellow soldier, slogging in the same mud as you.

Rich Mullins, on the other hand, was not an athlete and didn’t, as far as I know, spend much time watching sports. He likely would have made a horrible coach. Some of his top songs were titled, “We Are Not as Strong as We Think We Are,” “Let Mercy Lead,” and “If I Stand.” Rich had few delusions about determination, focus, and a steely resolution to keep fighting. He did not encourage people to follow their dreams. On the contrary, in one of his songs, “The Maker of Noses,” he satirizes that advice:

They said boy, you just follow your heart
But my heart just led me into my chest
They said follow your nose
But the direction changed every time I went and turned my head
And they said boy you just follow your dreams
But my dreams are only misty notions

No, the author of “Awesome God” would not have been asked to write a Nike commercial. Although we know that sports can have their own inspiration, as the apostle Paul and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes have recognized, we should also be aware that how we watch sports and their commercials can blind us to a fundamental truth: weakness is an inherent part of being human. The presence of Band-Aids in the store and doctors on every block testify to this. We don’t live at the crisp summit of perseverance. Often, our surroundings resemble trenches: we take shelter behind imperfect walls, live through hours of boredom punctuated by bursts of activity (or hours of activity punctuated by bursts of boredom) and get so much dirt on ourselves we sometimes can’t distinguish our body from the mud. Not only do we get wounded, but our wounds also get infected from our surroundings.

Yet we want so badly to be strong. We greatly prefer tales of heroism to tales of limitation and failure, and even though we are okay with pain, it has to come with obvious gain. We are motivated by victory, especially if it comes through determination, focus, and a steely resolution to keep fighting. On the other hand, we are surrounded by narratives of weakness, both today and throughout our history. Peter betrayed his Lord at a critical hour, and many Christians have done the same since. Augustine defended the church against sectarians and legalists . . . and ended up championing forced conversions. Pope Gregory the Great commented how angelically beautiful were the children from England . . . and left them to be sold at the slave market. Martin Luther penned fiery words against legalism—and against the Jews. G. K. Chesterton was overweight. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, if he had succeeded, would have been an assassin. This is a hard list to write, because I feel I’m maligning heroes of the faith. But we must see their weakness. Nor can we follow it up immediately with a “Yes, but [fill in the blank with all the good things they did].” There is no “Yes, but…” Peter was an angry, impetuous man. Augustine had a wrong view of state religion. Martin Luther was rude and anti-Semitic. These men were weak. They were wrong. The women around them were too, but there aren’t any women in this list because millions of them have been belittled to something less than image-of-God status by the great men of our culture; women’s legacies and weaknesses have historically been just a sideshow. Being a woman, however, I can safely say that women were just as wrong and broken as these men.

We are and have always been frail. With our hells and our heavens so few inches apart, we must be awfully small and not as strong as we think we are. When I was a young girl, we attended a healthy, family-friendly church. We were there on Sunday mornings, often on Sunday evenings, and again on Wednesday nights. I spent a lot of wonderful times in that building, around those people. One year, we hired a new pastor. Almost everybody loved him, but after awhile, his mask began to slip. Soon, he had divorced his wife, done some incredibly damaging things to the congregation, and left town. The church disintegrated. We were dumbstruck. During the whole episode, my parents, deeply hurt by what had happened, offered this refrain to me and my siblings: people will fail you, people will fail you, people will fail you.

If you work at a Christian school, your colleagues and supervisors will fail you. The parents, protective of their child’s education, will certainly hurt you. If you are in a Christian marriage, your spouse will do you wrong. If you are friends with me, it’s only a matter of time before I say something heartless or, even worse, not call when you need me to.

How should we respond in the face of such staggering selfishness, such lazy incompetence, and such mediocrity from our brothers, sisters, and ourselves? Scripture provides an answer, although we may not like it. I spent some time memorizing the book of Colossians a few years ago. Some parts were surprising in their difficulty to memorize. For example, I never mastered chapter three, which is largely a hodgepodge of exhortations: put on compassionate hearts, kindness, and humility. Or was it humility, kindness, and compassion? One passage that did stand out in mnemonic isolation was the latter part of verse 13: “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive.”

That section was easy to memorize because it was so familiar. I’ve known from childhood that I was supposed to forgive my debtors as my debts have been forgiven. But one day the Lord showed me something else: We have to forgive each other because there’s something to be forgiven. Someone has done something wrong. The exhortations in Colossians were addressed to Christians, which means that Christians were the ones doing something wrong. Christians needed forgiving.

This is an easy truth to write, but harder to practice. We know that the world sins against us and against God. But Christians do too. And you sin against them. In “Brother’s Keeper,” Rich points out our weaknesses with poetic specificity: “the plumber’s got a drip in his spigot, the mechanic’s got a clink in his car, and the preacher’s thinking thoughts that are wicked.” These guys are failing in the things they’re supposed to be good at. What if C. S. Lewis said something ignorant at an apologetics debate? What if Billy Graham implied there was another way to heaven? What if Corrie Ten Boom became shy about witnessing? Actually, Corrie is one of the best modern Christians I know for admitting her weakness. You almost can’t poke holes in her spiritual shawl, because she’s already taken scissors to it.

As “Brother’s Keeper” proclaims, “my friends ain’t the way I wish they were, they are just the way they are.” A few months ago, I was fuming over the heartbreak of a loved one: My close friend, a foster parent, had lost a loved child to seemingly deadbeat parents. I was mad at God, mad at myself, and mad at the state government. I charged God with giving us stones when he says he will give us bread. Then the words of “Brother’s Keeper” came back to me. My friends ain’t the way I wish they were, they are just the way they are. Except this time, it’s my God who ain’t the way I wish he was. He is just the way he is. I have to take him or leave him, no matter what he doesn’t do for my loved ones.

One of the things I appreciate about Rich’s music is that his songs don’t often have resolution. If he is singing about suffering, his song is entirely about suffering. In “Hold Me, Jesus,” there is no moment when the singer says, “Thanks, Jesus, I feel better now.” It simply ends with a petition for Jesus to be his prince of peace. In “We Are Not as Strong as We Think We Are,” the entire song is about our inconsistency. There is no last line that says we’ve become strong in Christ. Rich lets us sit in that weakness, like soldiers stuck in our trenches. He forces us to own our limitations. He is one of the few Christian singers I can listen to when I’m furious at God or someone else. He understands that even our best (or worst) days are stained with selfishness. That’s the reality we don’t often encounter in songs or books or greeting cards: the reality that we can mess everything up, even our pain. We don’t just grieve; we grieve selfishly. My tears for a loved one are always mixed with tears for myself. I can’t even get suffering right. What a wretched woman I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Yet Rich did not only write songs about weakness. He wrote “The Color Green,” in which he compares the moon to “a sliver of silver, like a shaving that fell on the floor of a Carpenter’s shop,” and “Here in America,” which praises the wonders of Wichita, Kansas, in a way that perhaps no recorded work ever has. Rich composed numerous songs about beauty and numerous songs about strength. “Awesome God” is entirely about strength, but it’s not the strength of humans. It’s the unmatched capability of our Deliverer. In “Isaiah 52:10,” he put to music these very simple but powerful words of the prophet: “The Lord has bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations. And all the ends of the earth shall see the Lord’s salvation.” You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to realize that the nations don’t stand a chance against that bared, divine arm.

Because we are made to worship the Strongest One, we are impatient with our own weakness. We want our arm to be mighty, our mind to be firm, and our stomach to be flat. But the Lord, whose bare arm puts the nations in their place, has shown us that weakness is important. He sent his son as a newborn to our gritty earth, entrusting his upbringing to the care of young girl and her older husband and instructing him that his great victory would be submission to a handful of vicious Romans. If Jesus showed us anything (and he did), he showed us that conquest does not come through strength. It does not even come from determination, focus, and a steely resolution to keep fighting. It comes from vulnerability, the ability to say, “Yeah, me too.” Jesus Christ, whose strength and rank make the archangels look like rosy-cheeked cadets, made himself vulnerable, which means he made himself wound-able. He can look at our suffering, even our temptation, and say, “Yeah, me too.”

Next time you see a sports commercial and wish you looked as good in a quick-dry shirt, consider this: How has your weakness made others more comfortable? How has the fact that you stained your tie helped another person relax? How has your inability to deal calmly with a sluggish computer helped you understand another’s quick temper?

One final confession. Until recently, I have avoided watching any of Rich Mullins’s interviews. I know a good researcher would have combed through his video files, but frankly, I was scared. I loved his music so much that I dreaded his interviews not matching my picture of him. In the interests of journalistic integrity, I finally did watch a WETN interview recorded in April 1997. Rich behaved like a regular guy, complete with a bulky sweater and faded 90s jeans. He didn’t complete all of his sentences, and he said uh quite a bit. He admitted several faults and referenced other people’s strengths. He was neither a demon nor an angel. He was just a guy from Indiana. I happen to be from the Midwest, so to me he sounded familiar, like home.

Because that’s it, isn’t it? We don’t want to live on a mountain peak. We don’t want to live every day with focus, determination, and a steely resolution to keep fighting. We want to go home, where we can find companionship, however imperfect. That’s why we have to forgive one another. It’s one thing to be stuck in a trench, but it’s exhausting to expect perfection of your fellow soldier, slogging in the same mud as you. We’re so weak that forgiveness is the only way we can co-exist, and, by the way, the only way we can have heroes. The legacy of Martin Luther and Rich Mullins is imperfect. So what? We don’t have to defend their imperfections. We’ve never been called upon to worship them, but to love them and each other, “warts and all.”

Illustration courtesy of Cameron Morgan. Check out his portfolio at Krop Portfolio.


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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this article! I’m so thankful for imperfect heroes, including Rich, one of my favorite musicians. And so thankful for the One Perfect Hero of which he sang. Yes, his music is among the music that is fit for the worst of times. Thank you for your reflections…

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