Saturday, September 30, 2017

Dear Jesus; I Miss you

So, this is sort of a confessional for me. One of those articles that reveals a whole lot of my soul, in the hopes that others will read it and see something of themselves in it, and be encouraged by my honesty on the matter.
I woke up this morning thinking I was going to write something about Hugh Hefner and the way he is being honored by people for the life he led. But that’s low-hanging fruit. If you aren’t honest enough to admit the damaging effects of pornography, then my article wouldn’t change your mind.
I sat down to have my morning time of prayer and bible reading. I looked at the stack of books sitting on my kitchen table, books that I use in the morning to get my mind focused on spiritual matters. Some of the titles are “Building Dynamic Faith” by Dr. Jerry Falwell, “Why Revival Tarries” by Leonard Ravenhill (along with “Tried and Transfigured” which I am currently reading) “The Knowledge of the Holy” by A. W. Tozer (along with a newly purchased “The Pursuit of God” which will be my next read) “The Mind of Christ” by Dr. Ben Gutierrez who is a provost here at Liberty and for years taught in the School of Religion. (It’s one of the best studies on Philippians chapter 2 that I’ve ever read and I try to read through it at least once a year. I highly recommend it) “Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus.” By Brennan Manning
My morning routine is this: I first read a chapter from one of these books. With the exception of Dr. Falwell’s book, these are all collections of essays by the writer. This means, for the most part, that I can read one chapter each morning and not feel like I am leaving something unfinished. The topics are typically contained within the construct of one chapter. This makes it easy devotional reading.
After this, I read five Psalms and then a chapter or two of my reading through the Bible. I added the Psalms readings last month after a long time without them. Reading the Psalms reminds me of the necessity of recognizing God’s holiness, and goodness, and love for us.
I take a few notes in a small journal I have for that purpose. Usually writing out a quote from the book I read, a verse from my reading, and something to pray about. Then I move into my prayer time.
I learned this system about six or seven years ago, listening to Ravi Zacharias on the radio in my truck. Ravi said that he developed this system for himself because he found that early mornings were not the most spiritually-minded times for him, but if he didn’t have his time with God first thing, his day was off somehow. It was much harder to carve out time during a busy day. He wasn’t always in the mood to read and pray at 5 A.M. so he began by reading an essay from a great Christian author. He prefers Muggeridge and C.S. Lewis. (I have never read Malcom Muggeridge, and my copy of “Mere Christianity” is buried in the many boxes still in storage here.)
Then Ravi proceeds as I do, to the bible and then to prayer.
I was relieved when he said he struggled to be spiritually minded early in the morning. Ravi is –in my mind- the greatest Christian thinker of this generation, and someone I hold in the highest regard. If he struggles with this, then I don’t feel so terrible. I decided to follow his formula and it has made a huge difference for me.
So, what does this have to do with you, the reader? Why the lengthy introduction? Where is this confessional that is supposed to help everyone else?
I was sitting here this morning, preparing to do my routine. It’s been about 45 days since I began this anew. I had fallen into the trap of Bible reading out of habit. The rote, mechanical, ten minutes each morning were empty. I would sit down with a cup of coffee, read a single chapter of the bible, pray for my daughter, and rush off to the shower and then to work.
With all the working I do on weekends, I haven’t been in church on Sunday, consistently, in almost two years. My spiritual life was surviving on prisoner’s rations. Bread and water. My relationship with God was non-existent. The past year and a half has been extremely trying. In some ways, more so than homelessness was. My daughter has struggled with issues from her home-life to the point that last year, right around this time, I nearly lost her. At the same time, I had begun writing my latest book and it took me back through that horrible, painful six-year period of homelessness. Chronicling it in detail brought it all to the surface. Things I had pushed down inside me, were now out in the open and it caused me great pain. It effected how I did my job, how I related to others, (including my daughter) and how I saw myself. The story needed to be told, but in the telling, there was great pain.
I had no reserves left at that point and I was fighting one of the greatest spiritual battles I had ever fought. Sadly, I fought it alone, because of the great distance between God and me. The funny thing about moving from God is that it seldom ever happens in leaps. It happens in small steps. One day without contact becomes another, then another. Before you know it, there is no intimacy with the one with whom intimacy matters most.
A couple of weeks ago I was reading through 1 Corinthians and got to the “love” chapter. It was a convicting time because I realized how few of those descriptives fit me.
“Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs, Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails
I was not patient. I was often unkind. I’ve never had a problem with envy, and I have very little to boast about, and I’ve never been self-seeking. But I was increasingly easily-angered. I kept a record of wrongs. Things that got my blood to boil in an instant. People who had betrayed, things that didn’t turn out as I’d hoped. These things simmered beneath the surface, unaddressed in the years I was homeless because I was spending all my energy just surviving back then. But in the last three years, I’ve had time to feel them, and it hurt. Maybe it hurt even more because they’d been festering for so long. I never delight in evil and I always rejoice in truth, but that, in itself, had become a weapon for me. I was a crusader for truth in a world full of lies. It was the only battle I could fight at the time. I had lost everything, but I still had my wits, my words, and my sense of right. So, I became Peter with a broadsword, lopping off the ears of the innocent in my righteous rage. Well-intentioned for sure, but harmful.
I had the “always protects” thing down. I had done everything in my power to protect my daughter, but I trusted no one by this point. Always hopes? Not me. I was running on sheer stubbornness, not hope. In fact, I had become hopeless, even with a job and a place to live again.
This was all very telling for me and very convicting. I spent several days contemplating this and repenting of the failure of showing love in my life. But that wasn’t enough. I knew I could not be my own source of love. I can’t live a supernatural life under my own natural power. I knew what was missing, but I wondered if it was too late for me.
A few days later, I read in Galatians about the fruit of the Spirit. I demonstrated almost none of those fruits in my daily life. I sat there pondering those words and it dawned on me, “How can I have the fruits of the Spirit, when I have no relationship with Him?” “How can I be loving when I spend no time with the One who loves me?” My relationship with Jesus had become cursory. My prayer life was non-existent. (I struggle terribly with this. Because of my home life, I have never been able to trust that anyone else…not even God, would help me in a situation. I have always, as far back as I can remember, done it myself. This mindset makes prayer difficult) I could pray for others, but praying for myself was impossible and unnecessary. Why? Why pray to God when you are expected to fend for yourself?
I neglected the presence of the very God who invited me into His presence. I ignored the Savior who gave His life for me. Maybe worst of all, at least from the sense of being empowered to live the Christian life, I abandoned the very Holy Spirit from whom those desired fruits came. For me, as a Spirit-filled believer, this was like running my car on empty and wondering why I was sitting on the side on the road. My daily habit of one chapter and a brief prayer, was akin to pouring in a cupful of gas, just enough to start the engine, and move a few feet. The truth was I was getting nowhere.
I have been chewing over these things for almost two months now. What’s heartbreaking to me is how the relationship was so paralleled to my relationship with my daughter. We live in the same house. We are family. Yet we don’t talk a lot. She is hurting, and like her dad, she tends to hurt from within and not want to talk about it with her dad. She’s not mad at me. She’s not disappointed in me. She understands all I went through on her behalf and she appreciates it. But she has my personality in that she doesn’t like opening up to her father about things. Not easily, and certainly not quickly. She talks to friends, her counselor, her journal. But seldom to me. I think it’s because she thinks I already have too much on my plate. I also think that she spent so much time alone over the last eight years, that she feels she must do this alone, too.
Just like her dad.
I was considering all this over the last two months. Remembering how my spiritual life was long ago. I remember the night I was baptized in the Spirit. I remember how that broke through to a place of closeness and nearness to God that I had never experienced before. Why had I moved away from that? I remembered how, when I had my home in the country in Tennessee, I would go outside on starry nights and walk in the woods and talk to God like talking to a friend. How even in my homelessness I was closer to Him than I am now.
I thought about how, like any other relationship, we get out what we put in. God tells us to “seek Him” Jesus says “Come unto me.” In His offering of a lighter burden and an easier yoke, the offer starts with “Come to me…” I can’t take that easier yoke unless I get close to Him. I can’t find God if I haven’t sought Him. The Holy Spirit will not empower me, break me, shape me, and refine me unless I yield to Him. Years ago, my pastor, Paul Walters, told me; “The Holy Spirit is the perfect gentleman. He never goes where He is not invited, and He never overstays His welcome.” I had not invited Him in a long time, and He was not openly welcomed in my soul. I was too busy being too busy. The relationship was cursory. Limited. Surface. Like a married couple who drifted apart over the years until they were nothing more than roommates. Still married, but entirely disconnected.
In my kitchen, about a month ago, I had a tremendous reconciliation. I realized the distance that had come into my life. I felt it. I missed Jesus. He missed me too. I repented of my priorities and my lack of faith. I confessed my distance. I invited the Holy Spirit back into the center of my life. I felt Him fill me again and renew the relationship. I realized, full well, how much I had been trying to do this under my own power, how at no time did I intentionally shut God out…it just happened slowly. Death by a thousand papercuts. An inch at a time.
We all do this. We live in an age that moves faster than any other in history. We are bombarded with information, with demands on our time. We are in a 24-hour news cycle. We are offered electric church on the internet and we convince ourselves it’s a good substitute for physical presence with others in the body of Christ. We can watch online, tithe online, submit prayer requests online, and never leave our houses.
That can’t help but translate to our personal relationships with God. A bible that  was once a well-worn companion, a trail map through the adventure of life, is replaced with a verse on the screen of our smartphone, or something we get in an email from our pastor. We replace intercession with the internet, the prayer closet with an app, deep reading with retweets. (I am not against technology, only against the lack of depth it often causes.)
Worst of all…we forget that a relationship with God is no different than a relationship with anyone else. It must be pursued, it must be honest, it must be a priority.
I failed in all this. I wrote this because I’m pretty sure many of us have failed as well, and sometimes it helps to hear another person’s confession so we can say “it’s me oh Lord.”
If you read this and you feel that twinge that says; “I miss God,” rest assured…He misses you to.


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…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.