Editor's note:

September 19, 2017 marked the 20-year anniversary of Rich Mullins’s death. More than a dozen of Rich’s friends—today’s singers, songwriters, producers, and authors— have gathered to share never-before-heard stories and lessons from Rich’s life in the new book Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth. Our Director of Education, Carolyn Arends, joins us today to share her contribution to the book, a chapter called “The Bittersweet Longing.” Here she shares an anecdote that inspired her to write it:

In 1996, in celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Rich’s first record release, a group of his musical friends surprised him with a tribute concert. While he sat in the audience, grinning his impish grin, we each performed one of his songs.  

I had toured with him the year before, and knew him well enough to call him “friend,” but I was also enough of a fan to be exceedingly nervous. On the program, I was sandwiched between two brilliant finger-style guitarists – Wes King and Phil Keaggy. My fingers felt like blocks of cement on the strings of my guitar.

I performed “Jacob and 2 Women” – the song from which the album The World as Best as I Remember It is titled. The lyrics are pure poetry. They disarm you with clever charm and whimsical humor, and then sucker-punch you with aching sadness. After the concert, Rich rewarded me with a bear hug and said, “I never realized how sad that song is until I heard you sing it. I always just thought it was funny.”

I am not sure if Rich hadn’t been consciously aware of the pathos in that song, but his reaction (and the song itself) is emblematic for me of the way an infectious playfulness and a deep sadness co-existed in him, often at the same time. It also reminds me how much Rich delighted in other people. He so relished the creativity of his friends that he received our versions of his songs as revelations. That generosity and open-handedness was part of the reason he tended to become a hub of community wherever he went.

Laughter, sadness, and a great capacity to celebrate others—that was Rich, as best as I can remember him.

—Carolyn Arends
Director of Education, Renovaré

Excerpt from Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth

God lets us struggle and lets us prosper—we don’t all struggle and prosper the same, but we all do both to some degree. And when we have done enough to think more highly of ourselves than we should, God lets us age.” – Rich Mullins

Rich’s work—like Rich himself—was strikingly playful and hopeful, and yet there’s no denying the undercurrents of sadness running through almost everything he wrote. Where did they come from?

Some of it was biographical, no doubt—by the time I met him, Rich had experienced his fair share of highs and heartbreaks. And some of it had to be genetic—Rich was just wired to feel the full spectrum of emotions at high intensity. When he laughed, he laughed hard; when he was angry, he burned hot. When he loved a book, he was relentless in his conviction that you had to read it. He could access a range of feeling—including both joy and sorrow—swiftly and thoroughly. 

I would also guess that Rich’s facility with sadness was part of his gifting as an artist. He seemed to be consistently in touch with the bittersweet longing that haunts a lot of great literature and art—the exquisite ache best expressed by the German idea of sehnsucht

In the Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis describes sehnsucht as: 

The secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.

The experience of sehnsucht was a part of C.S. Lewis’s conversion. It pointed him to the existence of God, because, he reasoned, the longing that so defines human experience must have an ultimate object. For Rich, I suspect, his experience of God infused his work with sehnsucht, because he knew firsthand that there was so much more for which to long.

If biographical, genetic and artistic factors preconditioned Rich Mullins to be a man well acquainted with both joy and sorrow, I believe what sealed the deal in the last years of his life was the fact that Rich’s friendship with God drew him into a deep identification with—even a participation in—the suffering of Christ. “Blessed are those who mourn,”[1] Jesus once said, when he was providing a list of qualities you find in people who have been invaded by the Kingdom of Heaven.  

Rich’s imagination was so saturated by biblical narratives, his life so ravaged by divine encounter, that his heart began to be broken by the things that break the heart of God. Yes, he longed for the winds of heaven, but he also ached for the redemption and restoration of the stuff of earth, and he had the courage to let some of Christ’s passion for the world infuse his own.

Do we?

[1] Matthew 5:4

Rich Mullins and Carolyn Arends in Concert (circa 1995)
Rich Mullins and Carolyn Arends in Concert (1995)
Photo © Rose Capanna.

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Excerpted from Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth: Spiritual Conversations Inspired by the Life and Lyrics of Rich Mullins, by Andrew Greer and Randy Cox, Worthy Media, 2017.