At the time the great Christian artist Rich Mullins left us in September of 1997, he was working on a new album. It was still in rough demo form, and would become “The Jesus Record” after his death. The album was discovered on a cassette in his belongings and his friends and bandmates in The Ragamuffin Band produced it and released it three years after his death.
It was haunting. There were songs that were very much like what Rich had been writing previously and there were songs that sounded very different. Some were even “other-worldly,” addressing the topics of death and leaving friends behind. It was as if Rich knew his accident was coming and wanted his friends to be ready and to have hope.
He also addressed the topics of loss and failure; both were experiences Rich had been intimately familiar with. Rich had loved and lost. He had battled demons and failed sometimes. He was lonely, even in the midst of his great successes and even though he had deep friendships. He was lonely because he was keenly aware that he didn’t belong here.
In 2002, on the fifth anniversary of his passing, his friends gathered in Nashville to host a memorial concert. It was a wonderful night and in between songs, they regaled us with their favorite stories of Rich and his quirky, crazy ways. They spoke of his kindness and his moodiness. His love and his passion, (they are two different things sometimes.) The great Phil Keaggy said something about halfway through the night and it has stayed with me to this day. He said, (I am paraphrasing because I never wrote it down that night) “Rich was truly the most ‘one-foot-on-earth-and –one-foot-in-Heaven person I ever met. He truly was a sojourner here. I don’t think he ever felt like he belonged here, and so he never felt entirely at ease with what this world offers.”
I think this was why Rich could write so honestly. Because he was unfettered by caring very much what people thought about the content. He was a perfectionist with his music, as his friends have told me. He wanted commercial success as any artist would, but he never wanted to alter his art for the sake of that success. The funny thing is, it was that success that gave him the freedom to not care about that success. Because he had produced “hits” for the label, the label let him do things as he wanted to do them.
On “The Jesus Record” there is a marvelous song called “Hard to Get.” To listen to it in full view of Rich’s death, is to feel the chill of wondering if he knew somehow that a fatal car crash was coming. If you loved Rich’s music you can’t help but weep when he sings what seems to be a goodbye and a message to his friends to remember him and that he isn’t far away…just hard to get to. The song is about Jesus, of course, but it’s also about everyone we ever loved who went on before us.
There is a verse toward the end that says this:
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
I seldom listen to this song without getting tears in my eyes. Sometimes I sob. I’ve lived this. Especially in the last ten years. In 2007, the industry I worked in began its death spiral. I lost my home that year. I rebounded enough to rent a house and –as did all the others in that field- kept vigil to see if this hiccup was a death rattle. By 2008, we realized it was. By March of 2008, the company I worked for was gone, and by June the industry itself was literally on life support. Over 800,000 people lost their jobs in that industry.
I began a six year journey of homelessness, because my daughter was in jeopardy at her mother’s house (we had divorced eight years earlier and her new husband was horribly abusive) and I was the only buffer. I made a choice and I paid a high price for it. I did it willingly and I would not have made a different decision because before I am anything else I am her dad.
I endured this hellish existence until May 2014, when we moved here to Virginia and I was hired by my alma mater. The homelessness is over but the memories linger. They haunt me. The good and the bad. The memories before the fall…of my home and our pets and the life I had with my little girl. The memories of the cold nights and the desperation, and the despair. The endless job search, the menial tasks just for gas money, the embarrassment of trying to eat enough food samples at Sam’s Club to make a meal. The shame of being homeless.
I’m reeling from these voices. There are times when I cannot get free from what I’ve left behind. It hurts. I missed six years of normalcy with my daughter. I never missed her important events like recitals and birthdays. I saw her almost daily. But we didn’t have a home back then. She couldn’t come and spend the night like she did before. She needed her daddy to recuse her and I couldn’t. I hear those voices sometimes. I see the things I lost and watch as they burn to cinders before my eyes.
When I was enduring this terrible ordeal, there were so many times when I questioned God’s wisdom. His plan. Was this His plan, or was I somehow relegated to this whole thing on my own? Was He simply watching from some celestial living room, eating popcorn and waiting to see how I’d handle this whole thing? Of course, that’s not the case, but it felt like that sometimes. It felt like He was letting me wander. The truth is that all along He was leading me.
And He has led me here now. Here to the foothills of the Blue Ridge, and to a job with my alma mater, and with my daughter here as a now-sophomore music major. He led me to a place where I was finally lost enough to let myself be led. To let Him take over. To stop fighting Him about what I want, and to accept what He has that I need.
In 16 days, the story of this long journey will be released to the world. I don’t know if it will be loved or hated, embraced or rejected, a blessing or a curse. I do hope it helps someone. I do hope it brings hope to others who are stuck in their own desert, wandering aimlessly, looking for a way out.
I especially hope that it marks and end to this longing and puts these voices to silence once and for all. I hope that talking about it and getting input from others will finally shut down this echo chamber of remorse and regret and shame. It still hurts sometimes when I say, “I used to be homeless.” It is still embarrassing. I still wrestle with forgiveness toward those who ignored my plight. I still fear homelessness sometimes.
I have to let that go. I have to let myself live here, where I am now. Not in the back of a Yukon parked on a farm in Franklin, TN.
We all have something, or many things, that keep calling to us from the past. Mistakes, bad choices, character lapses, just plain foolish actions. We’re human. We have to address them and then let them go. We have to step back and realize that He used even these, even our frail humanity, to lead us to where we are right now; lost enough to let Him take over and lead us.
It’s here where we discover that we were all really homeless…and He is leading us home.