This year marks the 25th anniversary of Rich Mullins' classic praise song, "Awesome God", which made him one of the most beloved Christian songwriters of the modern era. In honor of the occasion, Jackson Presbyterian Examiner will look back at 12 particular songs of Mullins which stand out as his best:
1. Bound to Come Some Trouble
Rich Mullins never had a son, but this song was borne out of a project—if he was dying, wanting to leave his son all the advice he’d need to get through life, what would he say? The result was this song, which discusses how life is full of trouble and tears, but Jesus is there throughout.
Somewhat of a personal favorite for Mullins, this song, named after the ancient Hebrew prophet, discusses how fleeting life is and how passing to the other side is something to look forward to, not dread—as he says, “It won’t break my heart to say good bye.” Ironically, Mullins re-recorded this song shortly before his own death, making the opening line all the more haunting: “The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through; my heart is aging I can tell.”
3. Growing Young
In this song, Mullins explores the parable of the prodigal son through the eyes of the prodigal. Based on the concept formulated by G.K. Chesterton that whereas sin ages us, repentance makes us grow young, this is one of Mullins’ most profoundly moving songs about the nature of heart change, as is evidenced by the last verse:
“I’ve been broken now, I’ve been saved; I’ve learned to cry and I’ve learned how to pray, and I’m learning, learning even I can be changed.”
4. Hard to Get
Recorded as a demo for what Mullins intended to be his next album, this is one of Mullins’ most honest songs, as it grapples with the pain of living in a broken world. Reminiscent to the book of Job, the song is a complaint to God about how unfair life can seem. Only an extended quote from the song could really explain what the song really does:
“You who live in heaven, hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth,
Who are afraid of being left by those we love, and who get hardened in the hurt.
Do you remember when you lived down here where we all scrape to find the faith to ask for daily bread?
Did you forget about us after you had flown away? Well, I memorized every word you said
Still I’m so scared I’m holding my breath while you’re up there just playing hard to get."
By the end, the narrator has resigned himself to the fact that God is using the pain for a purpose and hasn’t left:
“What 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 from what we’ve left behind;
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears, all these words of shame and doubt, blame and regret.
I can’t see how you’re leading me unless you’ve led me here to 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.”
This song was included in the 1998 double album which Mullins’ band brought to completion shortly after his death. Disc 1 is the Jesus demos (recordings of Mullins on a tape recorder), and disc 2 is the Jesus album, with the Ragamuffin band’s studio recordings of the material.
5. Here in America
In Mullins' biography, An Arrow Pointing to Heaven (B&H Publishing Group, 2000), written by James Bryan Smith, it was stated that Mullins’ love of nature was so deep that had he not been a Christian, he likely would have been a nature worshipper. This song celebrates the beauty of the earth:
“Well, if you listen to my songs I hope you hear the water falling,
I hope you feel the oceans crashing on the coast of north New England.
I wish I could be there just to see them. Two summers past I was.
And the holy King of Israel loves me here in America.”
The bridge explores nature in a manner reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi, who, incidentally, was Mullins’ hero:
“If I were a painter, I do not know which I’d paint—the calling of the ancient stars or the assembling of the saints.
There’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see, but everywhere I go, I’m looking.”
Mullins praises the region of his father in the next verse:
“Once I went to Appalachia for my father he was born there. And I saw the mountains waking with the innocence of children.
My soul is still there with them wrapped in the songs they brought.”
The final bridge ties the song together showing that since he is so acutely aware that this is our Father’s world, he can feel at home no matter where he is: “I’m home anywhere if you are where I am.”
6. Hold Me Jesus
Arguably Mullins’ best song overall, the artist described this song as a prayer to God. Again, a grippingly honest cry to God about one’s weakness and frailties shows through:
"Well, I wake up in the night and feel the dark;
It’s so hot inside my soul, I swear there must be blisters on my heart.
So hold me Jesus ‘cause I’m shaking like a leaf.
You have been King of my glory, won’t you be my Prince of Peace?”
The bridge is an especially vulnerable line, reaching a level of honesty not frequently found in contemporary Christian music:
“Surrender don’t come natural to me.
I’d rather fight you for something I don’t really want than to take what you give that I need.
And I’ve beat my head against so many walls; now I’m falling down, I’m falling on my knees.”
7. My Deliverer
Also on the Jesus Record, this song is set in the days of the Nativity when Jesus was born and soon was taken with Mary and Joseph to Egypt to escape Herod. Mullins, in the chorus, explores the Messianic longings of first century Israel, imagining the people of God singing:
“My deliverer is coming, my deliverer is standing by. He will never break his promise, though the stars should break faith with the sky… I will never doubt his promise, though I doubt my heart, I doubt my eyes. My deliverer is coming, my deliverer is standing by.”
8. Nothing is Beyond You
Also planned for the Jesus album, this song is patterned after Psalm 139, exploring how God is everywhere and all-powerful:
“Nothing is beyond you, you stand beyond the reach of my vain imagination, my misguided piety.
The heavens stretch to hold you and deep calls out to deep, saying that nothing is beyond you.
Time cannot contain you; you fill eternity. Sin could never stain you. Death has lost its sting,
And I cannot explain how you came to love me except to say that nothing is beyond you.”
9. Peace To You
This is a song about the Lord’s Supper, a song about authenticity towards God, a song about being willing to be loved, even when it hurts:
“Though we’re strangers still I love you, I love you more than your mask.
And I know you have to trust this to be true, and I know that’s much to ask.
But lay down your fears, come and join this peace. He has called us here, you and me.”
The chorus portrays God’s peace not as some passive, uneventful thing (something we often think of peace as being), but as something vibrant and alive:
“And may peace rain down from heaven, like little pieces of the sky—little keepers of the promise falling on these souls the drought has dried.
In his blood and in his body, in this bread and in this wine, peace to you. Peace of Christ to you.”
10. That Where I am There You May Also Be
Based on Jesus’ Last Supper discourse to his disciples, this song has Jesus as the narrator promising to return for his disciples to bring them to where he is:
“Remember you did not choose me, no, I have chosen you.
The world will show you hatred, the Spirit show you truth that where I am there you may also be up where the truth, the truth will set us free.
In the world you have trouble, but I leave you my peace that where I am there you may also be.”
11. The Love of God
Along with “Hold Me Jesus”, this song would be a close candidate for being Mullins’ overall best song. He portrays the love of God not as something syrupy sweet, but some earth-shattering, ground-breaking—something that, though it is good, is not always “safe”:
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy I cannot find in my own.
And he keeps his fire burning to melt this heart of stone,
Keeps me aching with a yearning, keeps me glad to have been caught
In the reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God.”
The final verse sums up Mullins’ thought:
“Joy and sorrow are this ocean, and in their every ebb and flow.
Now the Lord a door has opened that all hell could never close.
Here I’m tested and made worthy, tossed about, but lifted up
In this reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God.”
12. We Are Not as Strong
Written after his fiancé of many years called off their engagement, Mullins explores lost love in this song, and in the process, discusses human frailty in general:
“And they say that one day Joshua, he made the sun stand still in the sky,
But I can’t even keep these thoughts of you from passing by.
And the Master said that faith was gonna make the mountains move,
But me, I tremble like a hill on a fault line just at the thought of how I lost you.
Oh, we are not as strong as we think we are.”
The chorus makes the point even clearer:
“We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Forged in the fires of human passion, choking on the fumes of selfish rage.
With these our hells and our heavens so few inches apart,
We must be awfully small and not as strong as we think we are.”
The last line, though, is arguably the most poignant:
“When you love, you walk on the water. Just don’t stumble on the waves.
We all want to go there something awful, but to stand there it takes some grace.”
As this survey of the top songs of his career demonstrates, Rich Mullins was a complete anomaly in the world of contemporary Christian music in the 80s and 90s. His lyrics has a profoundness, a raw honesty that made him stick out like a sore thumb.
Seeing artists in it for the money all around him, Mullins had a countercultural antipathy to the acquisition of wealth. All of his yearly earnings went to a committee which would extract for Mullins the average salary of the working person in America, which, in the 90s was in the low/mids $20,000s. Everything left over went to charity. Mullins spent his last years as a music teacher on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, living in a small trailer. When he passed away, everything he owned took up less than half the bed of a truck.
Mullins’ music evolved as he got older, becoming more raw, more honest, more complex, and it’s a pity that some of his best songs are not necessarily his best known. “Awesome God” and “Step by Step” are arguably his two most famous songs today and can be heard being sung as praise choruses in numerous American churches.
Mullins was more than a musician; he was a philosopher, a poet, a theologian—he’s been described by some as a troubadour. A quick read through The World as I Remember It (Multnomah Books, 2010), a book compilation of numerous articles written by Mullins for Release magazine shows the depth of Mullins wit and wisdom. The tragedy of Mullins life is that this incredibly original, innovative singer/songwriter (how many other Christian pop artists prominently feature hammer dulcimers in their music?) was killed in a car crash at the young age of 41.