Let them worry, I know your soul is fine
In remembrance of Rich Mullins
When he was younger, our son Joseph really loved contemporary Christian music.1 Yes, I'm talking about the music on stations with pledge drives, music that promises to be both positive AND encouraging. He loved it so hard, you guys. He knew the words for every song and if you thought you were tired of "I Can Only Imagine" back in 2005, you have yet to listen to that song on repeat for days on end for literal years.
I mean, once we were all in the car and our eldest daughter was in charge of the music. She began to play songs from my high school days, blasting Nirvana and R.E.M. for us to enjoy.
I declared Kurt Cobain a Great American Artist.
Joe nodded thoughtfully and said, "Just like TobyMac, Mum, you know: the greatest American artist."
Joe and I often had long drives together back then. Since we lived in a smaller community and he had a minor medical condition that required occasional care, we often drove together to the big city an hour away. It wasn’t a serious situation but it was ongoing for much of his life.
There were two perks for Joe in this ordeal by traffic and doctors. First, after his appointment, I always bought him a medium pop from the McDonald's across the street from the doctor for the drive home and second, he was in complete charge of the music with zero input from sisters with affinity for the Descendants soundtrack. This meant that several times a year, I also got a medium pop from McDonald's and was then subjected to two solid hours of contemporary Christian music.2
One day, when we were about halfway home, he had queued up "I Can Only Imagine" yet again and God forgive me, I just couldn't listen to it even one more time. In a desperate attempt to mix things up, I asked if he wanted to listen to some of the Christian contemporary artists I had liked back in the day. He was game and so we spent the next hour, curating a playlist of D.C. Talk, Jars of Clay, Caedmon's Call, Marantha!, Vineyard Worship, Burlap to Cashmere, Waterdeep, among many others from the 80s and 90s. He mentioned that Rich Mullins popped up as a suggestion from the app and I immediately pulled rank: we were going to listen to Rich Mullins right that minute. No more of this playlist nonsense.
The prophet, the poet, the ragamuffin, the troubadour, the troublemaker himself. Like most people of my generation, my introduction to Rich Mullins came through his runaway hit, "Awesome God." I was in my early teens when every low church played that song every single Sunday. I still remember standing up in floral print dresses accessorized with choker necklaces among the people in the small churches of my youth, all of us singing our hearts out to the overhead projector in the community centre.
But beyond all his brilliant lyrics and songwriting and hornets-nest-kicking in the Church, you see, Rich Mullins worked a bit of a miracle for me and my mother.
When I was in Grade 10, I found myself in a relative amount of trouble and my concerned parents gave me the gift of starting over. Of course, there is a time when it is wise to make our children walk out a story of redemption in the place of their crashing but then there are times when our children require a rescue and new ground, if they are to ever find their footing. I was the latter. And so at my request, my parents changed our phone number, cooperated with my cover-story that they had forbidden certain friendships, and enrolled me in a school at the complete other end of Calgary, effectively giving me a fresh start. Despite the gossip from our small church, she had my back in public and in private.
The main consequence for my mother's life - other than her relief that I had agreed to go to church youth group again as part of the bargain we had struck - was that she now had to drive me all the way to the new school and back every single day. She arranged her entire work day around my school bell. Now in the mornings, when my sister got on the school bus, long after my dad had left for work, she and I began the trek over to the other side of town.
At first those thirty minute drives together felt like a form of torture - not only for me but for my mother as well, I imagine. Over the preceding years of turmoil and conflict and yearning for independence, my mum and I had lost the ability to speak the same language. Everything I said to her was wrong. Everything she said to me was wrong. We couldn't even agree on music. We could not find our way to each other and, given the circumstances, given our exhaustion at our constant conflict, we mutually resorted to silence. Silence was preferable to arguing.3 We drove the thirty minutes to school and thirty minutes home in silence every single day, five days a week for weeks.
Then came the day when she presented a cassette tape for our consideration: it was a brand new tribute to Rich Mullins. His friends had created the album so it featured Amy Grant singing "Hold Me Jesus" and Jars of Clay singing "If I Stand." I was so tired of the silence between us, I conceded: yes, we could listen to this one.
One drive after another, she offered Rich Mullins songs and one drive after another, I would shrug and say, "Whatever, sure."
Then we began to sing along.
Singing those songs turned into tentative baby steps of conversation. We talked about Rich Mullins, about the songs we liked and then eventually, slowly, my mother and I began to talk again.
Then we began to like each other again.
I remember her singing the line from Elijah: "people have been talking, saying they're worried about my soul"and then daring a grin at me with her eyebrows raised. She knew how people talked about me. She knew it bothered me, too.
"Let them worry, I know your soul is fine," she would say.
Eventually I believed her.
I still do.
People will talk, my soul is still fine.
By the end of the year, we didn't need to listen to music much anymore. We didn't need to because as soon as we got in the car, we galloped across the bridge that music had created for us and met in the middle where we now talked about everything from diploma exams to church, from her own story to mine, from work to dreams for the future. The drive felt short now.
The next year, I got my drivers license and an old truck, it didn't have a tape deck, just an AM/FM radio. My sister switched to my school and so the drive became the two of us, barrelling down the highway twice a day every day, blasting Country 105.1 like the two Alberta girls we were. We talked and sang and laughed, we were just seventeen and fifteen years old. My mother returned to regular working hours; she kept the Rich Mullins tape in her car console for years afterwards.
I have often thought of Rich Mullins with a peculiar gratitude since those years. I still love his songs. I grew to love his way of seeing life, his strong calls to the Church, his prophet’s tendency to kick over tables and thoughtfully step on toes. Not only did he sing the words my heart needed, not only did he create introspective and challenging art, but he built a bridge for my mother and I to find one another.
Now that I am the mother of four myself, I understand this gift differently. I used to say that he gave me back my mother but now I know it is just as much the other way around: his songs also gave my mother back her daughter.
I thought of that time in my life for the first time in a long time that day as Joe and I drove down the highway together.
He started with "Creed" - which we had to pause so I could explain the Apostles Creed to him, then "Calling Out Your Name," and "Step by Step." He sang along to almost every word with me, his instincts for lyrics sharp. I welled up at “If I Stand” and “Hold Me, Jesus.” Good gracious, those are perfect songs, right?
But when the song "Elijah" came on, I fell silent. Suddenly, I was back in the passenger side of my mother's teal standard-transmission car singing every line with her.
Then I was in the driver's seat, learning how to drive a stick with her beside me clutching the door and stomping an imaginary brake.
Then I was in my old brown truck, driving away from her but always carrying her with me.
"This life has shown me how we are mended and how we are torn," Joe sang while staring out the window, tapping his hand on his jean-clad leg.
He turned towards me and saw the tears on my face. I laughed, embarrassed and flapped my hands helplessly. "I can't help it," I said. "It's so silly. I really love this song. It makes me sad and it makes me happy at the same time.”
He reached across the divide and held my hand. "I cry when I hear good songs, too," he confided. "That's why I like these kinds of songs so much."
“Your soul is just fine,” I said out loud when we sang that one line, just as my mother had done. I think everyone needs someone to remind them of that every now and then.
“I know it is,” he said comfortably.
I changed lanes, we were nearly to our exit. Together we sang Rich's words, another bridge being built in another generation. "When I go, I want to go out like Elijah, with a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire. And when I look back on the stars, it'll be like candlelight in Central Park. And it won't break my heart to say goodbye."
And in case you missed these Field Notes:
This One: The moments of our life right now - for subscribers
Befriending Our Ghosts: On love, loss, haunted landscapes, and still healing - for subscribers
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P.S. If anyone else is going down the Rich Mullins rabbit hole on YouTube, let me get you started:
This essay originally appeared in 2019 and it has been updated/edited as a remembrance because this week marks the 25th anniversary of Rich Mullins’ tragic death.
He has since become obsessed with the late-60s/early 70s folk revival, in particular Simon & Garfunkel.
I don't even mind now - resistance was futile - and I have found myself bobbing my head and singing along with him, developing opinions on Lauren Daigle and the Newsboys. Listen, For King and Country is catchy, don't pretend otherwise.
Which may be the memoir title of every parent to a teenage girl