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23 years since Mullins’ death, Hannah Rich suggests his lyrics are still deeply relevant for us today. 17/01/2020
‘Let mercy lead, let love be the strength in your legs and in every footprint that you leave, there’ll be a drop of grace.’ (Rich Mullins)
Barely a fortnight into 2020, it has been an inauspicious start to the new decade. Geopolitically and literally, fires are raging and in the words of Psalm 2, the nations (and the planet itself) are in uproar. At home, Brexit still looms large, with the current deadline date at the end of this month bringing with it a relentless degree of uncertainty.
Countless times in recent weeks and months, I have found myself wondering if one of the voices the world misses most in moments like this is that of Rich Mullins.
The American singer–songwriter, who died in a road accident in 1997 aged just 41, was maybe best known, at least to Christian audiences, for the enduringly popular chorus of ‘Awesome God’. But his other writing reflects an uncomplicated faith and yearning for social justice in a chaotic world which we might draw deeply on today. His band, the Ragamuffin Band, took its name from Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel which itself highlights God’s mercy and grace as the simple essence of Christianity. Manning’s description of ragamuffins as “the inconsistent, unsteady disciples… the honest disciples who admit they are scalawags” resonated with Mullins.
He grew up in the Quaker tradition, later attended bible college, and counted St Francis of Assisi among his greatest influences. He summed up his understanding of his faith in saying that, “Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken–hearted.”
23 years since Mullins’ death, many of his lyrics are so prescient that it seems hard to believe he died before his time and before 9/11, social media and the Trump presidency were even on the horizon.
His 1992 song ‘Maker of Noses‘ reads like a manifesto for a world–to–come without poverty, war or crime, where “there’ll be no greed and we will learn how to love”. In a week where Texas became the first state to opt out of the US refugee settlement programme, meaning the state will no longer accept refugees, the dream of the day “when the strong will learn how to care for the weak” weighs heavy.
Just before Christmas, a group of American evangelical worship leaders and musicians raised eyebrows when they met in the Oval Office to pray with and for President Trump and his administration. One senior church leader prophesied that it would be “sovereign providence” for Trump to be re–elected for a second term. Mullins, who was once described by fellow Christian musician Amy Grant as the “uneasy conscience of Christian music,” was a very different sort of modern prophet.
In ‘Save Me‘, he riffs on wanting to be saved from “trendy religion which make cheap clichés out of timeless truths,” along with the desire to be saved from Washington itself. At the time he wrote it, in the 1980s, Reagan era Washington was wracked with political scandal, complicated relationships with Iran and the whisper of impeachment – all of which we still might long to be saved from.
Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to heed Mullins’ call in ‘Let Mercy Lead‘ to “reach beyond the wisdom of this age, into the foolishness of God.” It is a foolishness in which strength is weakness, contrary to what contemporary politics tells us; we are truly not as strong as we think we are:
“Forged in the fires of human passion, choking on the fumes of human 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 world of 2020 is, as Mullins might have acknowledged, a world we are partly made of and which is also partly of our own making. If we are going to remake it in a better way, doing so with mercy leading and love as the strength in our legs is surely a good place to begin.
Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a Researcher exploring the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship, together with Church Urban Fund. She has previously worked for a social innovation think tank and a learning disability charity. @hannahmerich
Posted 17 January 2020
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.