Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Rich Mullins I (sort of) Knew. Reflections on Twenty Years Since Rich's Passing

I remember where I was when I heard the news.
I was in my work truck, driving to a small job with my best friend. I had the local Christian radio station on and word had just come out of Illinois. Details were sketchy but the one thing they knew for sure was that we had lost Rich Mullins.
My heart broke. It breaks even now, twenty years later, to the very day. I was a huge fan, but even more, I had a connection to Rich that made this personal. One of my dearest friends was an original “Ragamuffin,” and was one of Rich’s closest comrades.
My thoughts immediately went to Rick, and to the other Rags I had gotten to know through him. Mark, Jimmy, Aaron… an All-Star band; assembled to create one of the greatest, most lyrically and musically perfect albums Christian Music has ever seen. Suddenly their friend was gone, and the world –at least the world that knew Rich’s music and felt its’ touch- was never going to be the same.
I stopped at a pay phone (no cell phones at the time) and called my friend Rick in Nashville. I had met Rick Elias at a concert in 1992 and we became instant friends. That same year, Rich, already a friend, asked him to join what he envisioned as a talent-laden group of Christian musicians, for the purpose of creating a landmark album that he had been working on, inspired in part, by his reading of Brennan Manning’s “The Ragamuffin Gospel.” The band took their name from this book and the album became “A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band.” You can argue about where it falls in the pantheon of Christian music, but nobody would place it outside the top five. To this day, twenty-four years after its release, it is still the benchmark for what Christian Music can be when the songwriter is knowledgeable, talented, and not trying to fire off yet another album full of brain-dead, lyrically-vapid, “praise and worship” music. The album was beautiful. It was complete. It was seamless. To quote William Gaines in “Pumping Iron” when describing Arnold Schwarzenegger…it was “as finished as a G__ D____ apple!”
Lyrically it was a miracle. Musically it was a triumph. It was perfect.
I thought immediately of Rick and his friendship with Mullins. My only encounter with Rich came during a phone call to Rick’s house. They were sitting at his kitchen table discussing some charts with Jimmy Abegg when I called to discuss a concert Rick was playing at my home church in Delaware. “Hey man…just calling to finalize your hotel accommodations and flight info.” I said. Rick was his typical California cool self, “Hey brother, I’m just sitting here in the kitchen with Mullins and Abegg, we’re finishing up these charts for the tour…”
Just sitting here with Mullins and Abegg. For those of you not familiar with Christian Music of the Golden era, this was like saying “Hey man, I’m just sitting here with Bono and Mark Knopfler…”
I kept the call brief and hung up. I remember saying something stupid like; “Tell Rich I said hello!” Whether Rick did this or not I have no idea, but I can’t imagine why he would. I was nobody. But then again, that was the charm of Mullins. He was nobody too. He was no diva. He was humble. He was entirely removed from the pomposity and arrogance that permeates the current crop of Christian artists we have now. People who just don’t get the truth that nobody has really ever heard of them. Not really. Not in the way secular artists are known. They parade around as if they are someone. As if having a record deal on a Christian label is anything more than just a cut above having your record produced by “Uncle Bob” from “That Thing You Do!” Rich Mullins was probably the most talented artist to ever write Christian music, and he carried himself as if he were some shmo at an open mic night in Smallville.
So, I dialed the number and as I expected, nobody answered. I knew Rick was awake. I also knew he would be in no mood to talk or take inane phone calls from well-meaning friends. So, I left him a message on his voicemail. I told him I’d just heard the news. I told him I was sorry for the loss of his dear friend. I told him I would be praying for him –which all Christians say to each other and somehow, has lost its power among us- and I told him I loved him. My voice broke when I got to that part. It broke because it was, and is, true, and because I loved my friend, I instinctively knew how his heart was broken. Rick Elias is a tough hombre, but if you make it into his circle of friends, he loves you deeply. You’ll have your moments of disagreement as all friends do. But Rick clutches his friends to his chest as treasures and I knew he was in more pain than he would ever be able to express to me anyway…so a conversation would have proven empty anyway.
I hung up before the operator asked me for some more quarters and I walked slowly to my truck. I’d expressed my love to the mutual friend I’d had with Rich, now it was my turn to deal with this. I got in my truck and broke down. I was thinking about all the moments when his music poured out of my heart.
I was skiing in Vermont in February 1994. The Ragamuffin album was only a few months old. I’d played the thing so often that I had memorized literally every sound it rendered. My family and I were skiing a nature trail; a long, ambling trail through miles of forest. Not very challenging but full of incredible views. We rounded a curve on the trail and I glanced to my left and saw enormous oaks, barren from the snowfall, with their branches all reaching toward the sky…like giant sinewy arms grasping at Heaven. Instantly a line from one of Rich’s songs came to mind. It’s from “The Color Green” it says;

 “And the wrens have returned, and they’re nesting. In the hollow of that oak, where his heart once had been. And he lifts up his arms in a blessing. For being born again.”
                                                             The Color Green

I saw those oaks living out the words from Rich’s song and my eyes flooded with tears. I glided through the Vermont mountainside, singing those words and raising my own arms in a blessing for being born-again in that moment.
In years that followed, it was Rich’s music more than any other Christian artist, who got me through the hard times that befall a man of my heritage. When I was dating my wife, it was “The River” from “The World as Best I Remember It Vol 1” that put my longing, passionate heart to music. When we married, her processional was the opening Hammered Dulcimer solo from “Calling Out Your Name” When we divorced…it was “We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are” and when those long nights of homelessness would not yield to sleep…it was “Hold Me Jesus.”
                                                                       The River
                                                            Calling Out Your Name
                                               We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are   
                                                                   Hold Me Jesus

Rich’s music was painfully honest, in ways that endeared him to real human beings. And it was supremely talent driven. I have not listened to Christian music since he died, save for the albums my friend Rick put out occasionally in the years after. I can’t. Current Christian artists are empty. Their songs are just one long, empty continuation of every other song on Christian radio. They write formulaic lyrics. They are driven by cash. They can deny this all they want, but not one of them stands apart from the others. They hear a song on the radio and set out to duplicate it as fast as they can to cash in before the trend changes again. They spend their time trying to get a record deal and have themselves added to a tour. Rich honed his craft by throwing his gear in the bed of a 1965 Chevy pickup truck and hitting the road with no-one but his best friend Beaker.
These new breed hit clothing boutiques and consult style coaches where Rich spent his last four years living six months each year on a Hopi reservation, teaching music therapy to Native American children. They’re pretenders, this current brood. They aren’t worthy of lifting the cover of Rich’s keyboard, and the sad thing…most of them couldn’t name three of his songs.
The last time I saw him was at a concert he played in Nashville in 1994. The Ragamuffin Band had been on the road for a lengthy tour in support of “Brother’s Keeper” an album Rich hated but served the purpose of getting him out of his record deal. (Something he wanted ever since Reunion was purchased by Provident Music)
The show was a masterwork. Those were some of my friends on stage and I felt their triumph. Two years later, he was gone.
Rick Elias has shared so many wonderful stories with me about Mullins. Always at a time when I think he was missing his friend and needed to share thoughts with those who truly got Rich, and weren’t just the average, not-musically-astute Christian music fans. We would talk about the story behind the lyrics Rich wrote. The humanity. The truth. The reckless way Rich wrote about pain in an industry that refuses to let its worker-bees discuss the topic. Rich’s friends sure loved him. In as much as I could, I loved him too. I knew him only vicariously through my association with some of his inner circle.
Five years after his passing, I was living in Nashville. Brian Mason, a Christian Radio legend, put together a memorial show featuring the Rags. They would play a song or two and then someone would tell a Rich story. Somewhere toward the end, the great Phil Keaggy –himself a legend in music- had this to say about Rich Mullins:
“Rich was the most ‘One-foot-in-the-grave-and-one-foot-in-Heaven’ person I’d ever met. He truly didn’t fit here. I think Rich knew this, and it was what drove the greatness and the longing in all of his songs.”
I am 54 now and sometimes I think of that quote and wonder if in my own way…it doesn’t apply to me as well. I wonder where I fit. I wonder –even now in my fifth decade- where my home is. Rich seemed to always feel that way.
In the twenty years since that awful, fateful morning, my music collection –once burgeoning- has shrunk. The voice that gave me songs I cannot stop singing has not sung them in years. At least not in a venue where I can hear him.
He is home. Home where it seems he always wanted to be anyway. And we who loved his gifts, and those who loved him personally are still, twenty years down that road, trying our best to fill the void.
The peace we have, if we have it at all, is knowing that we will sing with him again one day. But for now, we still weep.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

American Dreams

I dreamed too.
I dreamed of owning a home and being a dad. I dreamed of a family and friends and long summer evenings catching fireflies with my daughter in our front yard.
I dreamed of snowmen and Christmas lights and homemade soup on cold winter Saturdays.
I worked hard for that dream. I learned a business that I had no previous experience in. I studied, and toiled, and busted my butt and became one of the best there was in the business.
In 2004, at 41 years of age, with a 7-year-old daughter, I bought my dream home.
It was basic. A 2200 square foot, three-bedroom ranch in rural Williamson County TN, where I lived at the time. It was just her and I. Her mom and I had divorced several years prior. I didn’t remarry, choosing instead to focus on my little girl and being her dad. My house became my refuge. It was my safe place. It was where I could shut the door on the burdens of the day, and find peace and quiet. I bought it. I didn't sneak into it under the cover of darkness and then claim some right to stay there. I did it right.
I lived there for almost four years, until 2008. That’s when the dreaming stopped.
The economy collapsed in 2008, taking out the entire industry I worked in. I lost my job, then I lost my home.
Then I lost my dignity, and my sense of pride, and the only thing I had left was a storage unit full of belongings, and my fatherhood.
From May of 2008, until May of 2014, apart from about 7 months when I stayed at a friend’s condo while it was listed for sale, I was homeless.
I lived in my car, showered at the county Rec center, took every ignoble odd job and menial task I could find, and survived. I often made a meal out of the sample stands at the grocery store, the embarrassment of getting back in the line again after a few minutes, to get "seconds" of cheese spread on a single cracker, or a tiny piece of deli meat, turning my face to crimson. 
I was at the mercy of public restrooms. I tried to hide my plight.
I never panhandled. I never made my homelessness an issue. I worked as much as I could. I stayed in Nashville because my daughter was in danger at her mother’s house. Her mom had remarried and the man was a monster. I stayed to show him where the boundaries were. To remind him that even though I was a homeless man, I was still a man. If he went too far with his cruelty toward my daughter, I would be there, in all my fury.
It was two years before I could even drive down the twisting country road where my former home sits. The first time I drove past it, I had to pull off the road. The sobs were racking my sides and I couldn’t see to drive. I have tears in my eyes right now as I write this and it’s been nine years. It was my home. My dream.
I didn’t sneak in here. My grandparents came here legally, did things legally, became citizens, and honored the laws. They did it right.
For weeks now, all I hear about are “dreamers.” People Obama let off the hook. People who weren’t here legally, didn’t come in through the front door, didn’t play by the rules.
I hear about their dreams. Their hopes. Their contribution. I hear how many voices champion their causes and care for their needs.
But when I was destitute, living in a Volvo 850, showering at a gym, and eating dollar hotdogs at Sam’s club –often paid for in pennies- nobody even noticed.
Barack Obama has come out to criticize President Trump over his ending the “DACA” act. Obama. The man who caused this wreck. The man who talks of “dreamers” and their dreams.
I wrote to the former president while he was still in office. When I was homeless. I let him know about my plight. I told him what had happened. I told him about my daughter, and the harsh reality she faced with a homeless daddy. I compared my fatherhood to his and asked him to consider how my life hurts, and how it would be painful for him if he had to put his precious daughters through what mine was going through.
I never heard a word in reply. Not an email. Not an autographed 8x10 glossy, signed by some intern and stuffed hastily in a manila envelope, and mailed out to “some homeless guy in Tennessee.”
I know he read my letter, because not long after that, the White House started reading my blogs. (I have stat counter on them so I can see when someone checks them out)
I know they knew I was out there. Out there in my car, shivering in the cold and sweltering in the heat.
My dreams became nightmares. The nightmare of over 350 job applications without an offer. The nightmare of three job offers rescinded because of the high cost of the Obamacare mandate. The nightmare of nowhere to go, and nowhere to call home. No rest when I was weary. No shelter from the elements.
No shelter for my soul. No place for my dreams.
I hear them crying out from every rooftop these days, talking about “The Dreamers” and how their dreams need to be protected. But those same voices were silent while my dreams –and the dreams of my little girl- were crushed. Squeezed in the slow, vice-like grip of hopelessness. Choked out by the stifling lack of oxygen in the Obama years. Squeezed to death, by the sheer insignificance of my life in their eyes.
So, when I hear Obama and his minions bemoaning the fate of “dreamers” and I know those people aren’t even American citizens, and I know they broke the law just getting here, and I know they have a champion in their corner that was supposed to be working for me…well, forgive my callous bitterness.
I think of the Vets who died, literally in their cars in the parking lots of the V.A. clinics. I think of the coal miners and the home builders and the small business owners who shuttered their buildings and watched their dreams die over the last nine years. I listen for the same outcry I’m hearing now for illegals. I get nothing in response.
The same nothing I got when I was homeless, and broken, and desperate.
Unless and until the voices start calling out in defense of the fate of Americans and our dreams… nothing else they say will matter to me.
We’ve waited long enough. We’ve watched while you threw trillions at foreign countries and passed laws that favored foreign trespassers while American citizens were ravaged.
You’ve failed us. You ignored our voices and our dreams for nine years now.
And now when you finally talk about dreams…it’s the dreams of those who broke the law. All the while, law abiding Americans watch as their hopes take a beating, and their dreams burn to the ground.
I still dream of my yellow ranch house. I still dream of my garden and my workshop and cutting my grass. I still dream of owning a home again one day. But my dreams only matter to me. Those we elected to help us achieve those dreams are too concerned with the dreams of people who can’t even legally vote for them!
They champion their dreams in full view and bold colors, while my dreams fade and turn gray.
What about us? What about our dreams?
I fear my dream home will only be that…a dream. These professional politicians are too busy defending this non-constituency to worry about their constituents. If I ever do achieve my dreams again, it will be in spite of them…not because of them.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Still Homeless...

Two weeks ago, I celebrated my third anniversary working at Liberty University.
In May, I celebrated –if you want to call it that- three years of living indoors, after spending most of the previous six years, homeless. I should be thankful, and I am, but the bloom is starting to wear off the rose.
When you lose your home, something inside you dies. There is a vault full of memories that seems ever-more empty as time rolls on. It has unfilled shelves where moments were supposed to be, but aren’t. You remember the Christmases, and the summer evenings and the clear, cold winter nights when you sat outside and looked at the Milky Way and you know there should have been more. You come home to a house that isn’t yours, and holds no memories for you, and you simply live there. But it’s not home. Not really.
The last few weeks this has hit me hard, and I’ve caught myself shedding tears at odd moments during the day. The sadness of losing the home I’d worked for and had grown to love, coupled with the reality that given my situation now, it’s unlikely I’ll ever own a home again…at times has been too much.
I was thinking about the folks in Houston. So far, almost 200,000 people have lost their homes. That’s an enormous number. That’s the size of a lot of entire cities in the U.S.
I feel so much sadness for them. What if you simply can’t rebuild? Your home is in your heart, but it needs a physical embodiment, and our houses become that. I know mine was. My house represented the struggles I’d had and the victories I’d won up to that point. I worked hard to get that house. I survived a divorce that crushed me, the soul-crushing time-restriction of child visitation. I ached with loneliness when my daughter wasn’t with me, but I soldiered on. That house, was our place. Her's and mine. It was full of peace and calm, and stood in stark contrast to her mother’s house, with its tension and violence. She wrote the foreword to my latest book and she described it as her safe-haven. And it’s gone.
But it’s not gone from our hearts and that hurts. It’s a picture on my wall –invisible to anyone else- that silently compares itself to this cramped townhouse we now live in. It’s a vivid scene in my mind as I drive down the twisting country lane I lived on and see my beautiful little yellow rancher as I round the curve. Only now I must drive on past, because it’s not my address anymore.
More and more it feels like it was my last chance at home ownership. It was so perfect for me…that house of mine. It was just right. Nothing about my current address is just right. Nothing. I sleep here, I cook here, I shower here. Repeat daily. I own one couch. We have a crooked little kitchen table that is so warped and sloping your plate will slide off if you’re not careful. We have one chair for the table. We can’t even eat dinner together, my daughter and I. We hardly care because we both feel the same way about this place. It’s just a rental. It’s not home. All our memories lie in a 2000 square-foot yellow ranch house on five acres in some other part of the world. We just live here. But we don’t live here.
It’s not that I’m not thankful for my job and for not being homeless anymore and especially for having my daughter with me where she’s safe. I am. But it’s been three years now. The reality of what I went through has sunk in entirely and the truth about where I am and where I am likely going, has also shown its face. I am lost. Lost, and feeling like this will be my lot in life for the rest of my days. 
A tenant. 
Physically living here, but emotionally living hundreds of miles away. 
I’m stuck. 
I haven’t succumbed to the idea yet…not entirely. I fear that when I do, I’ll be completely without hope from that point on. Living without hope is the worst form of death. Brennan Manning wrote in “The Ragamuffin Gospel” that there are three ways to commit suicide: Take your own life, let yourself die, or live without hope. The last choice is the most dubious, because it takes so long. You’re already dead and you don’t know it. Or you do, and you feel it constricting you and swallowing you a little more each day. I feel that way. I feel –for the first time in my life- that it’s pointless to dream now. That it’s past the point of planning for something better. That this is all there is, and all there will be, and it’s time to get on with the sad tedium of trudging through each day for the rest of my life.
The only hope I cling to is that my daughter will have a far better life than she would have had otherwise, had we stayed as we were. That, and the hope that maybe God is still working in this, and this isn’t the final chapter for me yet. He owes me nothing. I don’t have any expectations of Him depositing a house on my lap, or some mystery millions in my bank account.
I have to pretend. I have to smile and make-believe that this is okay with me. I have to deny the ache in my soul, that cries out for a real home and some real friendships and some real hope and a job that elicits pride and a sense of accomplishment. There is a line in Thomas Wolfe’s classic “You Can’t Go Home Again” and I think of it often. It fits me now and the mere fact that I am living this quotation breaks my heart all over again. But I must live this, or the pain and loss will overwhelm me. It is this:

“Man was born to live, to suffer and to die, and what befalls him is a tragic lot. There is no denying this in the end. But we must, dear Fox, deny it, all along the way.”

There are those who’ve had it worse than me. I know this. But comparing pain and heartache is a fool’s errand. I’ve had all my heart can take. Maybe your heart could have taken more. Then too, maybe I would have smiled and laughed at your tragedies. It’s impossible to measure and quantify.
Three years have come and gone since I woke up from that nightmare. But I woke to find that some of that dream is reality, and I’ll have to deal with it for the rest of my days.
In some ways, I am still very much a homeless man. In need of a home. A haven. My own little castle to defend. Until then, the warrior in my soul… he who would defend that castle and it’s residents, remains at large. Wandering. Scanning the horizon for the shadowy outline of the place he calls home. Hoping to see it soon. Fearing that he won’t.