This year marks the 20th anniversary of Rich Mullins’ death in a car accident at age 41. To commemorate this occasion, I am writing my memories of his music—not so much music criticism as memoir-via-music.

I didn’t know the signs.

Rich Mullins sang “Creed” as I and the rest of the retreat’s super-secret Prayer Team revealed ourselves first in a passion play and then in a sign-language performance. I flubbed my way through the signs, and I told myself—I remember this, though I admit it might be a little too on-the-nose to be true—that it was fine that I didn’t get the signs exactly right. The retreatents were crying and exhausted, I hadn’t slept in a couple days, and I was the leader of the Prayer Team. So, like, it was fine.

Right?

Part of my adult maturation has been recognizing how often I have pursued leadership without really trying to do a good job. Just in my first 2 years of college, for example, I was the sole member and then president of a major political party’s club at a small university, followed by, improbably, an all-expenses-paid trip to a closed-to-the-public presidential retreat and another to New York as the de facto president of said party’s state college movement. But ask me, go ahead and ask me, whether I chatted up rich old activists or read books on political philosophy or organized fundraisers or protests or speakers. I think you know the answer. I transferred out-of-state, and the real leaders took over. In short, I loved the attention and the perks but did not do the work.

At the college I transferred to, I found my way once again into the hearts of an adoring audience by converting to Catholicism. My conversion was absolutely sincere and never really went away—even in the many years since in which I have been officially Protestant. Nevertheless, it’s true that I loved being the golden boy who crossed the Tiber for the few years that I was Catholic.

I declared my conversion at an Awakening retreat (based on Cursillo, but generally focused on college students and young adults). I remember coming back to my dorm and planning out, in the post-retreat haze, how often I would go to Awakening retreats, always on Prayer Team, always doing the Passion play, always surprising a room full of emotionally and physically exhausted young adults. The drama of this moment attracted me powerfully. I didn’t want to do anything else.

Well, I made quite an impression at that first Awakening, and I applied to be on Prayer Team for the next year’s edition, just like my hazy daydream. I had done Prayer Team at another college by then. I remember pretending to my mom that I was hesitant to take on the responsibility, and she just laughed and waited for me to say that I had said yes. And I did, and I did exactly as poorly as paragraph 1 suggests.

Here is when I knew that I did a bad job as Prayer Team lead: a friend of mine took the job the following year and described his preparation, which included praying for the retreatents in advance and for wisdom in assigning roles for the passion plays. I spent a lot of time worried about the soundtrack.

That may sound like over-apologizing, which by the way really is a thing, but I assure you I am being honest. I am certain that either while conversing with my friend or soon after, I thought about not only my obsession with the soundtrack but also flaking on a planned working meeting and casting myself as Jesus in the passion play, more or less without thinking about it. The team member who offered her apartment to host the working meeting sent me a terse email after the established time had come and gone. The word “frustrated” may have had a starring role. Well, at least I know what she thought of me. What did everyone else on the team think of me casting myself as Jesus without any discussion? How transparent was my self-aggrandizement to everyone around me?

And when I get caught pursuing reckless self-aggrandizement now, how obvious are my motives to everyone else?

I chose “Creed” for the final song because it seemed really super-Catholic to me. Most of the song is a slightly reworded Apostles’ Creed. I wasn’t completely off-base—my summary of much of Rich’s songbook is, “Seriously, evangelicalism?” I would like to investigate this more to find out his actual intentions, but I am certain that he wanted to draw our attention to the relevance of our shared past in modern worship. But it’s not just that, and I think that if I would have listened to the song that I failed to practice signing, I might have behaved differently. In particular, there is the chorus, which adds Rich’s interpretation of the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe what I believe
Is what makes me what I am
I did not make it, no it is making me
It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man

I thought this chorus was yet another bullet point about the fullness in truth of Catholic doctrine. Of course, I never considered that my obsession with drawing distinctions between those around me—distinctions that remained mostly in my mind rather than conversation starters with actual people, because evangelism is for Protestants amiright?—could be seen as an “invention.” While I was agonizing over the soundtrack, not praying, and skipping appointments that I had planned, the Creed was “making me,” but not in the way I wanted. The Creed, as Rich knew when he wrote his song, characterizes the utter fallibility of human endeavor and the necessity of grace.

I think the proof of grace in my story here is that I didn’t get upbraided for my stewardship of the Prayer Team; instead, I had a silent moment of understanding when someone else explained how he was approaching the role without reference to my previous attempt. The people who were dissatisfied with my lack of leadership were incredibly kind—some even made small talk with me on Facebook for years afterward. But the realization that I had done poorly and the ensuing grace didn’t fix me. I continued to fumble around for more recognition in the many churches I frequented in the years to come. I still don’t know how to be a parishioner, and my thoughts tend toward leadership during sermons. For a long time, I thought this was because I was called to the pulpit, and now I realize that regardless of my eventual calling, my pursuits have been largely for myself—just as impetuously leading Prayer Team was an expression of my spiritual immaturity. Such patterns are only becoming visible now, and that is how the grace explained by the Apostles and Rich Mullins is making me. And apparently he’s not done making me, which is a huge relief.