Sojourner Patriotism: What Rich Mullins Teaches Us About National Belonging

24 years following Rich Mullins’ death, what can we learn from him about national belonging?

The Appalachian Mountains, “waking with the innocence of children”

“And I’ll call you my country, and be lonely for my home”

***

On this day in 1997, Rich Mullins was killed following a car accident in rural Illinois. He was 41. The news sent shockwaves across the Christian music scene, the English-speaking church, and beyond. 

I grew up listening to Rich Mullins through my Dad, right around the time of Rich’s death. I’m not sure what album he bought first, but I remember The Jesus Record, Songs and Brother’s Keeper being played on our living room CD / Vinyl turntable, and via the CD player on caravan trips through France. Before university, I remember branching out and listening to A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band. And only in recent weeks, at the instigation of a fellow pilgrim, have I picked up the two volumes of The World as I Remember It

It was Rich’s heartfelt passion and honesty that made the first and lasting impression. These hallmark qualities of Rich’s faith have brought me back to his music time and again. As Hannah Rich has recently argued, such genuine faith has often put Rich at odds with the mainstream Christian music industry of his day, and ours. For Mullins, faith had to be “active” to be truly alive (as Rich commented upon moving to the Navajo reservation on the Arizona border: “I can make records for the rest of my life and talk about love, but it won’t mean anything until I love somebody”. Faith spoke truth to power. It was not personal and private but political. It was honest to God about its doubts (the demo version of Hard to Get was a dear friend to me through many a long, dark night of the soul at university). It was also honest to God about its joys. This faith challenges our many false dichotomies, all of our “vain imaginations / and misguided pieties”. 

On the 24th anniversary of Rich Mullins’ passing, I want to focus on a slightly different paradox within his music. This is the curiously neglected theme that I consider to be a leitmotif running throughout his works—the experience of home. For Rich, the theme of home relates deeply, though not straightforwardly, to experiences of national belonging, since both have to do with one’s roots, the stuff of which we are made. In what follows, I want to briefly consider the following question: what might Rich Mullins have to teach us about national belonging and patriotism, about belonging to home and, conversely, the experience of homesickness? I will suggest that there are two animating experiences which exist in tension within Rich’s account of home: the first is the passionate desire of the lover who celebrates the particular place to which she belongs; and the second is the homesick longing of the sojourner who is lonely for his true home with God. 

there are two animating experiences which exist in tension within Rich’s account of home: the first is the passionate desire of the lover who celebrates the particular place to which she belongs; and the second is the homesick longing of the sojourner who is lonely for his true home with God.

“When You Get Born Here”: The Passionate Desire of the Lover 

“Nobody tells you when you get born here / how much you’ll come to love it” (Land of My Sojourn) 

One of the first things that immediately strikes me as I listen to Rich’s music, is that there is a “here-ness” to it. His songs are soaked in the particular places, landscapes, and national experiences of his homeland. This specificity is in some ways surprising, given Rich’s extensive travels and his apparent lack of passion for America (“I’m not particularly patriotic”). 

In many ways, Rich appears to be the consummate “Anywhere” (to use David Goodhart’s language). We even find this in his lyrics—“I am home anywhere, if you are where I am”, he writes in one song, and “Everywhere I go, I see you”, in another. Rich’s time in Thailand and his move to work as a music teacher to Navajo children were often perceived as an attempt at escape, at flight from wealth and fame. Yet Rich explained his move to Arizona not as an escape but as a kind of homecoming and a call to rootedness and community. “If you don’t love your neighbour where you live, you’re not going to love them in another place”, he told Greenville News in September 1995. “I just happen to like this region, and so my neighbours are going to be Navajo”. Rich’s admission to being at home anywhere was not, therefore, a detached assertion of so-called blissful isolation [1]. To many, there is an undeniable tension between Mullins’ rootedness and itinerancy, between having a lonely heart and yet finding a home somewhere. And yet the key to easing, if not resolving, this tension was the calling of God. His home was wherever God called him. And where ever he went, he learned to see the image of Christ in the diverse faces of the people he met. 

And so, upon deeper inspection, we find that his music betrays a deep love for particular places, including his own nation. Even before we get to the lyrics of Rich’s songs, we experience this quality of “here-ness” in the melodies and instrumentation. Take the graceful use of the hammered dulcimer. Native to the Appalachian mountains (“for my father / he was born there”), the dulcimer features throughout Rich’s oeuvre, most famously in “Creed”, “Calling Out Your Name”, “Sometimes by Step”, “Sing Your Praise to the Lord”, the instrumental “78 Eatonwood Green” but also in pieces that never made it into albums, like this heart-warming waltz which Rich wrote for his niece. There’s also the tin whistle, a knowing nod to Rich’s Irish heritage, which lends its piercing notes to the “Color Green” or “Boy Like Me, Man Like You”

This “here-ness” emerges more obviously in Rich’s lyrics, and speaks profoundly to Rich’s attachment to place. Local references to places in the US saturate the words of his songs. Rich readily acknowledges his origins as “a good midwestern boy” (“Hard”) who “grew up around Indiana”. Rich recalls the Appalachian mountains where his father was born and which wake each morning “with the innocence of children”. Rich does not shy away from oikophilia, the love of place. “Nobody tells you when you get born here / how much you’ll come to love it”. There’s that here again. 

It almost seems as if, for Rich, God is known even, or perhaps especially, in this particular place, which acts somehow, mysteriously, as a portal to heaven. “Calling out your Name” is a particularly good example of this imaginative exploration of the American landscape, as Rich poetically makes reference to the brooding western frontier, with “the prairies calling out your name”. Local topography calls to mind the stories of old; both land and myth form us in deep ways. As “the wind moves past Nebraska / spilling laughter on them cold Dakota hills”, we can contemplate “the angels dancing on Jacob’s stair”. The “fury in the pheasant’s wing” (the pheasant being the native bird of the state of South Dakota) tells us that “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”. Though firmly aware that the end of time will bring its measure of change and discontinuity, Rich can’t help but compare the new heavens and new earth to the specific places of his earthly experience here and now: “And heaven is waiting / Just past the horizon / Just over the mesas / Across the great divide”. 

It almost seems as if, for Rich, God is known even, or perhaps especially, in this particular place, which acts somehow, mysteriously, as a portal to heaven.

As the first verse of “Land of my Sojourn” demonstrates, Rich saw rich echoes of the biblical narratives in the stories and landscapes of America. Through complex lyrical layering, he interweaves America’s origin stories and the biblical narratives of Rahab and Eve, the Founding Fathers and Adam, both of whom “are lonely for someone to kiss them”. It is hard to tell where the Israelites begin and the American settlers end. Yet this is not romanticised or trite. In a later verse, Mullins goes on to speak of the illusion of the American dream: “the lady on the harbour / holding out her torch” guiding the “immigrants’ children”, “yearning for a freedom that still eludes them” and to “bright dreams shattered”. To truly love one’s nation is to see it for what it is, warts and all. 

Part of knowing oneself is to know where one comes from. Rich frequently commented on how learning about his family history was a major part of his growth (see this interview form 1994, for example). Confronting his own genealogy led him to see the legacy of the Christian faith in his family and national history. “I don’t know that the United States is ‘God’s Country’, but the church has been so strong here, and because of its influence, we hold life to be sacred and we believe that individuals have dignity. This is part of our legacy”. Rich goes on to explain the importance of liturgy and legacy (the title of his 1993 album): “Liturgy gives faith its bones. Legacy gives faith its flesh. Together they make us who we are. Liturgy is something we submit ourselves to, so it can shape us – reciting psalms, singing hymns, saying prayers. Legacy gives us our perspective. It’s those things handed down from the past that helps make us who we are”. 

Rich’s here-ness is therefore not simplistic or jingoistic, but sits alongside, and sometimes in tension with, God’s concern for the cosmos. One finds the universal scope of the church (“the calling of the ancient stars / and assembling of the saints”) alongside the particular expressions to which he belonged, whether nationally (“here in America”) or more locally in the Navajo community among whom he worked. In “Hatching of a Heart”, as well as discussing all the mundane and ordinary things that make for maturity and growth, Rich also presents a very personal reflection on the God of the universe’s providential care for the individual (“you said / look at the stars on the face of the sky / they’re the same ones Abraham saw”). “Boy Like Me, Man Like You” combines the universal experience of childhood, and questions what the childhood of the Christ was like: “I was a boy like you once was / was you a boy like me? / I grew up around Indiana / you grew up around Galilee”. Rich Mullins’ music perhaps brings home the fact that there’s nothing as universal as the particular. It’s true that particular places and cultures can be inaccessible and cut off from us. Yet, with a bit of explanation, there’s a universal aspect to specific experiences. The fury in the pheasant’s wing speaks of God’s abiding presence in all the nooks and crannies of creation, causing each of us to ask: What can I see of God from this landscape? What can I learn of him from the fauna and flora of my own locale and nation? Particularity speaks to particularity in a strangely universal way. 

In the same way that Rich was not immune to romantic idealism in his patriotism, he was also never one for overly romanticised views of living in community. “Brother’s Keeper” is one example of Rich reflecting honestly and humorously on the messiness, pain and sheer annoyance of living alongside others, cheek by jowl: “they say that she’s a fallen angel / well, I wonder if she recalls when she last flew”. So too is “Peace (A Communion Blessing from St Joseph’s Square)”, which speaks of the inherent riskiness of love in community, where strangers love one another, and yet still remain somehow strange and alien to one another (“though we’re strangers still I love / I love you more than your masks…though I love you still we’re strangers / prisoners in these lonely hearts”). In his moving ode to his own family life (“First Family”), Rich Mullins reflects on his parents who “gave love wings”. They were “never picture perfect / just a plain man and his wife / who somehow knew the value / of hard work, good love and real life”. As with family life, and individuals in community, so too with the nation do we see that love is offered and received, in spite of the many flaws in the recipient. Indeed, family and national life are the arenas in which one learns to love. 

“A Stranger in this Land”: The Homesick Heart of the Sojourner 

“the lover’s got a lonely heart” (Brother’s Keeper) 

“The lover’s got a lonely heart”. These six words in many ways sum up the paradox of Rich Mullins’ reflections on belonging. Rich relates these themes of love and loneliness directly and most profoundly to the experience of national belonging in his song, Land of my Sojourn: “Nobody tells you when you get born here / how much you’ll come to love it / and how you’ll never belong here / So I’ll call you my country / and be lonely for my home”. Man loves, deeply and profoundly. And yet, for all that, he remains lonely. He seeks a home, and yet remains homesick. Even in those places where he should find a home, he is a stranger (“If your home is just another place where you’re a stranger”). There is a longing in the heart that only God can fill. 

“The lover’s got a lonely heart”. These six words in many ways sum up the paradox of Rich Mullins’ reflections on belonging.

The lonely, homesick heart is, in many ways, home-less, never quite belonging or fitting in. One becomes a sojourner and stranger in one’s own abode. Home-less-ness and the status of stranger and sojourner permeate Rich’s lyrics. They also reflect his personal experience. Rich’s increasing dissatisfaction with forms of mainstream American church and culture have been well documented (“I just kind of got tired of a white, evangelical, middle class sort of perspective on God”, Rich is recorded as saying in a slightly offbeat interview in 1996). This seems to have instilled something of a personal loneliness, and deep depression within him: “there’s people that’s friendly / but they’ll never be your friends / sometimes this has bent me to the ground…this life has taught me / how we’re mended and how we’re torn / how it’s OK to be lonely / as long as you’re free” (“Elijah”). 

Rich appears to have found comfort in the figure of Abraham, the sojourner par excellence

“sometimes I think of Abraham / how one star he’d seen had been lit for me / he was a stranger in this land / and I am that no less than he”. 

“you said / look at the stars on the face of the sky / they’re the same ones Abraham saw”. 

A variety of other sinner-saints inspired Rich’s settled wandering. St Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most obvious, giving inspiration to Rich’s “Kid Brothers of St Frank” troupe. But it was the homeless Christ, “the man of no reputation” that seems to have spoken most deeply to Rich’s sense of alienation. “The hope of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man”. We can, of course, nit-pick over the historical inaccuracies here. It’s probably more accurate to describe Jesus as itinerant, dependent on a rich network of homes and families for his daily needs. Home ownership looked slightly different in the ancient world. Rich probably could’ve cared less about such a distinction. What seems to have mattered to him, is that we can’t “own” Jesus in the way that we own property. Our attempts to box him in and make him in our image will inevitably fail—“he came without an axe to grind / and did not toe the party line / no wonder sight came to the blind / ‘cause you had no stones to throw”.

Did Rich also see in the homeless and lonely Jesus a radical challenge to depend on others? The all-sufficient Son of Man nevertheless depended deeply on others for the human needs of food and shelter. Though living in divine perfect community, he led and lived and loved among a rag-tag bunch of ragamuffins. And the same is true of us. Though we remain lonely-hearted and awaiting our true home, we are called to love and live in the here and now, with all of its joys and tears. Loneliness reminds us that we await a final anchoring in our harbour home—but we are no less anchored on this side of the Jordan, as we live among other lonely and longing souls. Perhaps the challenge is not to be aloof in our loneliness but to be driven towards loving God and others, and loving dependency on God and others.

The loneliness of the sojourner ultimately stems from, and is a signpost towards, our future restoration. In his apocalyptic “Calling out Your Name”, Rich taps into our innate sense that we still await, with groaning creation, our final redemption. “I see the thunder in the skies / I see the sky about to rain / and with the prairies I am calling out your name”. The eschatological overtones of this song underline the fact that we await our liberation at the end of all things: “the lord shakes us forward and shakes us free / to brim wild with the hope / the hope that this thirst will not last long / that it will soon drown in a song not sung in vain”. 

A Sojourner Patriotism: Realism, Rootedness and Reassurance

“If I weep let it be as a man / who is longing for his home” (If I Stand). 

How do these two experiences—of the passionate lover and the homesick sojourner—relate and fit together? 

In one sense, living both of these realities would seem to amount to a tortured and schizophrenic existence. 

In actual fact, for all of its difficulty, the experience of the sojourner patriot has three great benefits to it: it instils a realism that avoids cynical and idealistic notions of the homeland; it is rooted in heaven for the good of the earth; and it brings rest and assurance when we experience both the joys and loneliness of existence in our earthly home. 

  • Realism 

The sojourner patriot is freed from idealism and idolatry—“my friends [and extending this further—my nation] aren’t the way I wish they were / they are just the way they are”. Love of and for one’s country and family, “can only take you so far / as far as [they] can”. In the end, we all “need something more to guide [our heart[s] / as we grow”.

The sojourner patriot is also freed from a cynical disdain for those “who get born here”. While there are occasions for challenging certain forms of destructive insularity, this best stems from a love and concern for this place and its people. 

In short, the sojourner patriot is freed to love one’s nation as it truly is. 

  • Rootedness

The question of home is a question of loves. We can perhaps distinguish between small-h home and capital-h Home (and the same with love for country and Love for God).2 I love my country but Love God. I find my home here but my Home with God in the new heavens and the new earth. Just as Abraham pitched his tent and followed the call of God, so too is the Christian called to sit lightly to national belonging. 

Our citizenship to Home re-orders all other allegiances to home. “The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance / I owe only to the giver of all good things”. When we are aligned to our true Home, we are thereby freed to serve with open eyes, sometimes by criticising that which is destructive to our national life, and at other points by preserving and bringing out that which is good, like salt in food. Those who are heavenly minded are of the most earthly use. 

Our Love for God chastens all other loves. “…who have I in heaven but you Jesus / and what better could I hope to find down here on earth… “save me from those things that might distract me / please take them away and purify my heart / I don’t want to lose the eternal for the things that are passing”.

This dual citizenship also has the potential to fuse the experience of the Somewhere and Anywhere in fresh and exciting ways. Everywhere we go, we are called to see Christ, in the particular individuals of each particular place. 

  • Re-assurance 

We are not only challenged by the prospect of holding these two experiences in tension. We are also reassured. Love and loneliness are core to our human experience. Yet we are naturally bewildered by the strength of our emotions and the combinations of conflicting feelings of being at home and yet homeless.

We will inevitably feel great moments of affection for our country, our people and institutions. This is as it should be.

We will also feel profound moments of loneliness, when we feel adrift from the values or experiences of our countrymen and women, of our loved ones…from our very selves, even. This is also as it should be, because it reminds us that it is not always the way things will be. 

“Beneath the confusion that runs so deep”, the deepest question of home haunts our hearts—where do I belong? Which is another way to ask, am I loved?

“Beneath the confusion that runs so deep”, the deepest question of home haunts our hearts—where do I belong? Which is another way to ask, am I loved?

Like the prodigal, who has “gone so far from [his] home”, we are nevertheless loved with an everlasting love: “And our Father still waits and he watches down the road / To see the crying boys come running back to his arms”.

In a powerful reflection on home and loneliness, Rich remind us that in Christ, we find the blessed assurance that our deepest longing and need—to be loved by God—are fulfilled: 

“…if there’s any meaning in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s this: that there is a God who created and who loves us so much, that he would stop at nothing to bring us to him. And I really suspect that of all the things we think we want to know, the only thing we want to know, is that we are loved. If Jesus means anything, he means that you are loved”. 

[1] This a reminder that the problem is not with being an Anywhere per se, but when one’s anywhere-ness results in disdain for others, particularly those who have come to find a home somewhere. I discuss this problem (and its reverse), in this piece

[2] I borrow this Augustinian distinction from the final few pages of James KA Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist.

Photo by Justin Campbell on Unsplash

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