I wrote this a few weeks ago during a showing of “Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins”. I’ve put off publishing it because I’m afraid it’s a little bit muddy. I know what I want to say, I’m just not sure that this says it. I hate to be misunderstood. I hope this makes sense. Feel free to let me know what you think.
I’m sitting in Mr. Coblentz’ old Sunday school classroom in our church basement. Upstairs we’re playing the 3rd showing of the movie “Ragamuffin”, the story of the gospel musician, Rich Mullins, my brother Wayne (sorry, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to call him Rich). This being the 3rd showing this weekend, I’m kind of reaching critical mass with it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie, in many ways, a great movie, but it’s painful to watch, for me anyway. It’s even more painful, or maybe difficult, or emotional, or uncomfortable are better terms, to watch it here, in the church we grew up in. Not only does it bring back memories of Wayne, but also of Mom and Dad, my sister Deb, Harold and Martha Coblentz, Bill and Betty Cox, Naomi Green, and so many more that I’ll never see again, at least not in this life. It makes me remember how much I miss them all, and how much I owe to them, and to the folks who are still here. I’m not going to mention any of their names; I’m pretty sure that would just embarrass them. Suffice to say, they are the ones who were here when I was growing up. These are the people who, when I moved back home after being gone for 20 years, welcomed me back with friendly smiles and open arms. The people who, most of all, should have known better. These are the heroes of my own paltry faith, and, I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say, of generations of kids who’ve been lucky enough to grow up in this church.
As far as the movie goes, much has been made of Wayne and Dad’s broken relationship in the movie. I can assure you that it was both much worse, and much better than it’s portrayed in the movie. The movie’s portrayal of their relationship seems, as far as I can gather from reading people’s comments on the Facebook, to be helping a lot of people who had dads like mine, and I’m glad. I’m also glad that Mel Fair is a good enough actor to show the pain Dad felt over that relationship. I think he gave an outstanding, nuanced performance in a very tough role. I think though, that a large aspect of that broken relationship has been missed (or maybe it’s just me. I’ve seen this thing about 6 or 7 times, and just realized it this weekend). Everybody seems to get that Wayne’s broken relationship with Dad is symbolic of his broken relationship with God. That he kept trying to get Dad to love and accept him, and Dad just couldn’t do it. That’s true, as far as it goes, but it seems to me that that is the smaller part. To understand the bigger part, I think you have to understand how we all felt about Dad (please keep in mind that this is all based on my own feelings, and my perceptions of my siblings feelings. I do not presume to speak authoritatively for any of my brothers or sisters). When I was little I saw my Dad as God. Not the touchy-feely, “footprints-in-the-sand” God of the New Testament, but the wrathful, “I love you, but for your own good I’ll kick your ass if you don’t do as I say” God of the Old Testament. Dad was everything a man should be, everything the Old Testament said God was. He was stern, he was tough, he was pissed. He was DOING THIS FOR OUR OWN GOOD. He was also perfect, or at least a perfectionist. Dad could make anything, he could fix anything. Things that he fixed lasted longer than one fresh from the store. He could look at a fistful of nuts, and pick out the exact size and thread that he needed. A lot of the reason for the disconnect between Dad and me (and I’m pretty sure the rest of us), wasn’t that Dad was tough, or that he was emotionally distant, it was that we could never measure up. We were all, in slightly varying degrees, totally incompetent at anything practical. We tried and tried, but we were all trainwrecks, a danger to ourselves and others. I think that was the root cause of the disconnect between all of us and Dad. We felt inadequate. It wasn’t that Dad never said he loved us, we knew he did. It wasn’t that he expected us to be as good at things as he was. It was pretty obvious from an early age that none of us were very good at anything practical. He did expect us to do our best, and REALLY our best, not that “I’m doing my best” that we all pull out when we’re half-assing something we don’t really want to do at all. Dad yelled at me all the time when we were working together, but as I think back, I can’t think of a time when he ever said a cross word to me when I really was doing the best that I could. He had more confidence and faith in us than we did. I think a lot of the problem was not that Dad rejected Wayne, but that Wayne rejected Dad, and it is in this that I think Wayne and Dad’s broken relationship represents the broken relationship with God. Of course, it’s possible that I’m just projecting my own issues.
Most of the problem between me and Dad came not from Dad, but from me. I knew I couldn’t be as good, or as tough, or as hard-working, or as right as he was, and so, I rebelled. I couldn’t understand how he could love me as I was, because I knew I wasn’t good enough. I’d find some other way to prove I was good enough. So, as years went by, I found myself constantly looking for his approval. I tried so hard to do the right thing, on so many things, and fell short on pretty much all of them. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t him I was failing, it was myself. Dad loved me just the way I was, even when I was doing some just remarkably stupid things (and if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s finding remarkably stupid things to do). Unfortunately, Dad died just as I was getting old enough, or mature enough, to really appreciate him, and to really know that, although he didn’t approve of the stupid things I did, that he loved me just as I am. I think that a lot of the reason that Wayne didn’t feel God’s love, that many of us feel that way, is that we believe in God, but we KNOW us. I mean seriously, how could a perfect God love me? I know what kind of stupid things I get up to. I know that a lot of the things I really want to do are things I shouldn’t do (but man, do they look like fun!). I know I don’t measure up to God even in my everyday life, when I’m trying to do the things I’m “supposed” to. I know I’m not cutting the theological mustard even on the little things. I know I eat too much, drink too much, cuss too much, smoke too much, don’t pay enough attention to my kids or wife, don’t make enough money, aren’t a good steward of my blessings, and God help me if he comes back in the evening, because it’s far more likely he’ll find me watching Game of Thrones or The Wolf of Wall Street than reading the bible. I also suspect strongly that I am not alone in this. How could God love losers like us? You’d have to go all the way back to Exodus to find another bunch as venal, fickle, unfaithful, self-righteous, and dim-witted as I am. And I’m talking about those of us who go to church regularly, and really try to follow God. Well, you might not have to go back to Exodus. Take a good look at the disciples sometime (I know I don’t measure up to those guys, and they lived with Jesus for 3 years and still didn’t seem to get it, so how much do I suck?). So a lot of us rebel. We’ll be as good as we can, and that’s gonna have to be good enough for God. After all, we’re still a lot better than a lot of people we could mention. I mean, aren’t we all the way God made us? Then, because we know in our heart of hearts that that’s just a load of rationalization bullshit, we feel even worse, like even bigger losers, and push God farther away. It seems to me that what appealed to Wayne about Brennan Manning’s message is that it seems to say (to me anyway),“You are as God made you. You’re not perfect, but he loves you anyway. So stop trying to make him love you, and be the YOU that God made. Do your best, your REAL best, and when you fail, and you will, remember that God will always love you.” Now I’ve read that some people believe that the Ragamuffin Gospel is just a lot of new-age hippie, I’m ok, you’re ok bullshit, but I disagree. I don’t see it as a license to just do whatever you want because, “That’s how God made me.” It seems to me that it is a way to move the stumbling blocks that keep us from loving God, to keep from just giving up. To remind us that God is bigger than we are, is bigger than our sin, our weakness, so that we can always see him, always find our way back to him. I think the question we’re really asking isn’t, “How can God love me?” but “How can I make him stop?” Because we just get tired of feeling like losers all the time, and if we can get him to turn his back on us, we won’t be reminded constantly of how far short we fall. Fortunately, it’s not up to us. He loves us whether we want him to or not, whether we deserve it or not.
A common (I think) way of referring to God as “our rock”, and he is. He is always there, and always Himself. But there’s a big old ocean of crap out there too, and we’re us. We’re prone to want to slip down the Rock, just to soak our feet, and end up getting washed off. But when you get washed off, you don’t say, “Well, that’s it for me, I don’t deserve to be on the Rock. I’ll just drown in this ocean of crap. In fact, I think I LIKE this crap. This is great crap! I can’t believe I was missing out on all this crap!” Well, you shouldn’t anyway, but that’s exactly what a lot of us seem to do, and so, down we sink, sucking in as much crap as we can, all the while congratulating ourselves on how much smarter and more sophisticated we are than all those poor saps sitting up there on the Rock. In fact, we’ll just be our own rock, or make our own rock, out of sex or drugs or booze or money or power or whatever trips our own particular trigger. Some of us even manage to be quite happy in our ocean of crap, sitting on our own personal rocks. But it is all a lie. There is only one Rock. Accept no substitute.
All of which brings me back to Dad. Dad didn’t bust our asses because he was mad at us. If he was mad at anyone, it was himself (most of the time anyway). He was hard on us because he loved us, and he knew the world wasn’t about to give us a break. If he hadn’t taught Wayne the value of hard work, Wayne wouldn’t have worked so hard at writing and performing. If he hadn’t taught Wayne to be tough, the music business would have chewed him up and spit him out like it has so many others. If he hadn’t taught Wayne that there are more important things than success and money, Wayne wouldn’t have been able to walk away and stay himself, the Wayne that God made and Dad trained.
And that brings me back to Whitewater Christian Church. I let myself get washed off the Rock as a young man, and I sucked down as much of that ocean of crap as I could. It took me quite a while to recognize my mistake, and as a result, I did a lot of damage, both to myself, and to those I love. Eventually though, I found a tractor big enough and powerful enough to pull my head out of my ass, and I started swimming back to the Rock. Our church has helped guide me back. Thinking about the example that those wonderful, loving, flawed people had set for me when I was a kid gives me hope for myself, and I think about them every time I set foot in that church. I know that they weren’t perfect (and to be honest, most of them would probably horrified at the pedestal that my generation has put them on), but they had the courage to try, and the patience and love to keep trying. I’m also comforted when I look around and see so many willing to take their place and continue the tradition established by our forebears. I don’t know that any of us will ever have the positive impact on the kids that those older had on us, but it’s encouraging to see so many willing to try. I feel lucky to be a part of it.