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Christian music that’s real


I wish I didn’t have to wear a nametag on my waitress uniform. It bothers me that people I don’t know can greet me by my name or call me from across the room. “Robin,” they say. “We need steak sauce. Iced tea. Butter.”

It’s my duty to get what they need, to make their dining experience a pleasant one. Mostly, I do a good job. Lately, though, the work has begun to wear on me. I no longer shrug off the more difficult customers, the ones who scold me like a naughty child if I take too long to fill their requests.

Those are the times when I complain too much to my coworkers and spew bitter, mean things about the customers while in the bus station. Afterward, on my drive home, I feel dirty inside. My well-trained religious side knows that all my restaurant angst has its roots in a lack of faith. If I were a better Christian, I wouldn’t worry about what people tip me, because I’d remember that God provides in spite of them.

My faith isn’t usually that strong, though. Recently, I discovered a singer who seems to understand this, a man with questions of his own. Rich Mullins had a long string of Christian albums, some with his Ragamuffin Band. His focus, though, was not so much on his career as on following Jesus. He took a vow of poverty, went back to school to earn a degree in music education and then moved to the Navajo reservation to teach music to children there.

He was planning a new project with the Ragamuffins, “Ten Songs About Jesus” he called it, which he told them was the most important record of his career. It was the first record that had to be made, he said. The others were just for fun.

On a Wednesday in September 1997, he recorded demo versions of nine of those songs in an abandoned church with a battery-operated recorder from K-Mart. Nine days later, he was killed in an auto accident. The demo songs are half of a two-CD collection that Ragamuffin Rick Elias later produced, “The Jesus record.” The second CD features the Ragamuffins performing the same songs and one extra, “Man of No Reputation,” which Mullins reportedly was deeply moved by and didn’t think he could sing all the way through.

Other musicians on the CD include Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Phil Keaggy and Ashley Cleveland.

The second CD, the polished one, is lovely. The first CD, where Mullins sings alone, is rough, haunting and holy. More than any Christian music I have ever heard, it is prayer. Mullins never could have imagined that these raw versions would be mass-produced or heard by anyone other than his close friends. It’s because the songs are unpolished, though, that they speak to me in such a powerful way.

This is an album that I will listen to, over and over again. Because the songs remind me of Jesus, and they pop into my head at the best possible times. They redeem my ordinary moments, even my bad nights at work, and remind me that Jesus is alive. Even as the fat man yells and demands his own pitcher of iced tea with “copious amounts of sugar.” As the harried cooks burn a steak or we run out of prime rib just as I have four orders for it. “Surely God is with us, today,” Mullins sings. Somehow it’s true.

I like the Jesus that Mullins helps me see in this album. This Jesus is a homeless man who has the “hope of the whole world” resting on his shoulders. He is a deliverer, who will “never break his promise,” a promise we “will never doubt,” though we “doubt [our] hearts -- doubt [our] eyes.”

They accused him of making himself leader of a strange kingdom where “paupers, simpletons and rogues” were the honored subjects, where prostitutes and drunks toasted him, where “the sinners have become the saints and the lost have all come home.” Mullins’ Jesus taught a lame man how to dance, played with children, baffled doctors of the law, even raised the dead. He loved the weak with “relentless affection.”

 The songs on this album escape the sickly sweet conventions of much Christian music to hit the stuff of real life, the fears and doubts that we pretend don’t exist. “Hard to Get,” the first song on “the Jesus Demos,” is a prayer that asks Jesus tough questions.

“Did you ever know loneliness?” Mullins asks. “Did you ever know need/Do you remember just how long a night can get?” And, “Will those who mourn be left uncomforted?” Even, “Did you forget about us after you had flown away?”

Later, he sings, “I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears/All these words of shame and doubt, blame and regret.” The answer? “You’ve been here all along I guess/It’s just your ways and you are just plain hard to get.”

What a relief for someone to finally say this. To admit for all of us that though we love Jesus and long to follow, that deep down we’re still “so scared [we’re] holding [our] breath.”

Sometimes I feel like I’m holding my breath all day long. In many ways, I wish I were more like Mullins, which really would be more like Jesus. I hate that I lie to myself about how rich I am, that I am so far away from Mullins’ life of voluntary poverty and holistic ministry. I hate that I don’t know what to say to the young hostess who came to work with a split eye and stitches from where her boyfriend hit her. She is engaged to him and pregnant. If he does it again, she says, she will leave.

I hate that our new busboy feels out of place in our small Nevada town. He has seven tattoos that he’ll show you if you ask, is fresh from Los Angeles, and tells me that he misses his family and homies. He’s been stabbed before, shot. He is kind to me, genuinely friendly with the puzzled customers, a hard worker. I think Jesus would have felt right at home with him.

He’s not someone that I would have hired, though. Which just shows what I would have missed.

I know I need to change my attitude at work. To view people as people and not just as potential tips. Mullins’ music helps me remember this.

“The Jesus record” is about life. My life. Yours, too. I don’t know why Jesus called Mullins home just days after he recorded these songs. The singing must have touched him deeply. Now, Rich is with Jesus, while the rest of us are left here, bumbling along as best we can. We sin. We love, sometimes. We have songs run through our heads, again and again.

Through all of that, in spite of ourselves, Jesus is with us. Jesus is here. In all places and situations, through all times and storms.

Robin Taylor writes from Dayton, Nev.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999