Rich Mullins, The Sparrow-Watcher

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My mother wept when Elvis died. I was an eight-year-old kid watching a woman shed tears for a person she’d never met, and frankly, it didn’t compute. I couldn’t fathom that a person’s life and lyrics could possibly reach through a needle on a vinyl record and find resonance with total strangers.

It was only when Rich Mullins died, twenty-five years ago today, that I finally understood.

1997 lacked the social-media capacity for instant viral news, and so, like many others, I didn’t find out about Rich’s fatal Friday night car crash in Illinois until that Sunday morning, when a student in my youth group told me. How could so many people feel in those moments that they had lost a close friend? Though I did meet him twice briefly during his amiable barefoot after-concert conversations, we were still strangers (or as Rich would write, “prisoners in these lonely hearts”). 

And yet his lyrics, essays, and extemporaneous concert homilies exegeted so many of the key moments of my life. There were songs sympathetic to a broken relationship, or resonant with a lonely season, or faith-bolstering in episodes of fear. His music still anchors my winding-mountain-road soundtrack, and I blame his song “The Color Green” for a pricey speeding ticket. Rich’s music inspired me to buy a hammered dulcimer and embrace the agony of trying to keep a 56-string instrument in tune. I defaulted to guitar, and led my student ministry in sing-alongs of “Sometimes by Step” (the full song, people, not just the chorus) and “Nothing is Beyond You.” 

Rich was not a performer so much as a fellow pilgrim, accessible and real and Indiana-clay earthy. He spoke the common language of a sinner-and-saint ragamuffin, a unique place from which to serve as what Amy Grant called, “the uneasy conscience of Christian music.” His blunt perspectives on the idols of easy suburban discipleship called us to a more obvious but more difficult climb, and he led the way, barefoot.

Today, I’m a pastor who writes about birds. When I think back to how this odd synthesis came about, I realize that Rich probably fanned that flame of “ornitheology” as much as anyone. With a heart captivated by the glory of God, he mined the poetry of the natural world, birds included, singing of “a single hawk burst into flight” or the “fury in a pheasant’s wings.” He imagined the lively wren incarnating the transformation of a hollow heart. He centered a whole song around the image of an egg hatching. He borrowed from many scriptural bird references like the mystery of an eagle’s flight (Proverbs 30:19, in “Love’s As Strong”), the simple provision of sparrows (Matthew 6:26, in “Hard”), or the contrast of bird nests with the life of a homeless savior (Luke 9:58, in “You Did Not Have a Home”).

There’s a slowness and attentiveness that invites discovery, and the slower we go, the more we’re likely to see. I think I learned that from Rich.

Kevin Burrell

Recently in a radio interview, I was asked how people find the time to birdwatch. My answer was, first of all, that you need to go to places where, uh, there are birds. This rather obvious advice is easy to apply, because birds are ubiquitous; right now as you read this sentence, there’s probably one outside your window, just waiting to be noticed. (Go ahead and check if you want; I’ll wait) But the second part is harder. You have to slow down and look up. There’s a slowness and attentiveness that invites discovery, and the slower we go, the more we’re likely to see. 

I think I learned that from Rich. He would sing, “There’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see. But everywhere I go, I’m looking.” He exemplified a creation-attentiveness that saw the divine fingerprint in the bluffs on the banks of the Cumberland, warm light on cold Dakota hills, or crashing waters on the New England coast. Those who traveled with him, whether on tour or in the woods, say that the experience often involved an impromptu examination of grass patterns, stargazing, or even the study of moss. He relished the “motes of dust in these beams of light.” Rich truly slowed, enough to hear the prairies calling out God’s name.

Rich was criticized by some for writing the song “Here in America” on the beauty of the American landscape. His reply: “There are people who think it’s a waste of space to write a song just about America—about how America is a beautiful place to live. But I think it’s a waste of eyes not to notice.” That bird outside your window right now would concur. After all, Jesus told us in Matthew 6:26 to “consider the birds.” It’s probably not the most important command in the Bible, but hey, it’s a Greek imperative, and so I take it as a savior-sanctioned hobby. At Rich’s encouragement, “Everywhere I go, I’m looking”—not just for birds, but for the lessons they reveal and the sparrow-watching Savior they portray.

Well the eagle flies
And the rivers run
I look through the night
And I can see the rising sun
And everywhere I go I see you.

Fellow Ragamuffin Jimmy Abegg said, “I think if it weren’t for his faith in Christ, Rich could have been a pantheist.” But for Rich, landscapes were the lens through which to see the grander realities of a King and a Kingdom. “There’s more that rises on the prairie than the wind and more that pulses in the ocean than the tide.” Antelope, goldenrods, and canyon walls framed a greater portrait— an eternal power and divine nature so clearly on display as to leave us without excuse (Romans 1:20). He used our physical setting to raise our spiritual sights, something greater than the stuff of earth. “While we live in the world that you have made, we hear it whisper of a world, of the world that is to come.”

Rich’s lyrics spoke of a world shaken forward and shaken free by the realities of a Cross and a Resurrection. His poetic observations of the natural world were always a signpost to a greater hope, a thirst that would “soon drown in a song not sung in vain.” He held forth the created order rightly as a lens through which to savor a deeper longing and remember an earnest promise. Rich had a better capacity to describe that beauty than most of us will ever have, but this also allowed him to clearly see the heavy discontent of the land of his sojourn, and a longing for a better home—heaviness and hope borne out in tandem, in both his life and his music.

There’s fury in a pheasant’s wings
And it tells me the Lord is in his temple
And there is still a faith that can make the mountains move
And a love that can make the heavens ring

Rich’s natural capacity for creational slowness drew us all further up and further in, to a world intent on pouring forth speech and revealing knowledge and boasting in the splendor of the one who made it (Psalm 19:1-3). And in doing so, he whetted our appetite for a capital-H Home. Twenty-five years later, I remain grateful for this troubadour who exhorted us to see the intricate worthiness of God’s creation while still yearning for the one-day experience of all things new. At Jesus’ encouragement and Rich’s example, I will continue to consider the birds.

Kevin Burrell is a pastor, husband, and father in Charlotte, NC who writes about birds and faith in his spare time at ornitheology.com. In recent years his pastoral responsibilities have begun to include an increasing number of “Hey, what bird is this?” inquiries.


4 Comments

  1. JamesDWitmer

    Thank you for this, Kevin! Besides helping me understand Rich better, you’ve described beautifully the life-giving way I experience being out in creation, bird-watching. 

  2. Nathan Bubna

    Around the same time Rich died, the world was mourning the much more famous Princess Di and Mother Theresa.I mourned Rich. I still do. His songs formed a backbone for my faith through my teen years. They still help me see God in everything, everywhere i go, in everyman. They were steeped in Scripture, soaked in Creation, and helped me to love both.

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