I Can Only Imagine
- Tuesday, June 29, 2004
"I can only imagine."
They were just four simple words. A phrase I scribbled in notebooks and on scraps of paper in the months after my father died, trying to make sense of an unimaginable loss. I was still in my teens when cancer took my dad from me, and the well-meaning words of others – "he's in a better place" or "he wouldn't want to be back here" – did little to comfort me.
Years later I would stumble upon that phrase and, still hurting, I would turn it into a song in an attempt to help myself heal. In the beginning, I wasn't trying to imagine what Heaven was like out of some Christian sense of wonder. I simply was trying to make sense of my father's early death. I had heard all the stories about how wonderful the next life would be, but I was still grieving, struggling to figure out what could be so wonderful about Heaven that my dad would be willing to leave me so soon.
And the song did help. Dad had been a godly man, and imagining my earthly father meeting his heavenly Father helped me heal. Pondering what he was seeing and knowing he was free of the physical limitations he'd had here on earth helped bring me peace. "I Can Only Imagine" seems to help others who were hurting as well. So while it didn't necessarily fit on the worship album we were recording at the time, MercyMe began to perform the song at every live show.
Even with the positive response, though, my band mates and I had no idea then how God planned to use that song or how, a decade after his death, it would help my father fulfill a promise he made to continue to take care of me.
We could see the impact the song was having on others by the expressions on their faces when we sang it each night. Afterward, they lined up to share their stories. At times it was overwhelming, looking at their photos of lost loved ones, seeing their pain and grief, and hearing how the song had been played at a funeral or memorial service. Some nights the band would return to the bus, and we would just break down.
Although each person's story was unique, there were many common threads. After hearing hundreds of tales, I began to anticipate them, to prepare myself for another emotional story. But just when I thought I knew what was coming, I would be surprised. One man came through the line after a show, his three sons in tow. As he began to tell of losing his wife, I nodded in understanding. But as I began to offer my condolences, the father stopped me. "That's not what I wanted to tell you," he insisted. Then he went on to share how all three of his sons had accepted Christ that night. They had only agreed to come to the show because they wanted to hear "I Can Only Imagine," one of their mother's favorite songs, and they left with their lives and hearts changed.
God continued to use the song in my own life as well. Before he died, my father set up an annuity, which ensured I would receive a check every month for ten years. It wasn't enough to go crazy, but it allowed me to work on my music without having to deliver pizzas on the side. Even though the money would only arrive for a set amount of time, my father promised me before he died that he would still provide for me after that ten years was up. As a teenager, you don't want to think about a parent dying, let alone what will happen after, so I kind of blew him off and didn't give much thought to what he said.
In January 2002, "I Can Only Imagine" was running up the charts. I had been watching its progress with interest, waiting to see if it would land in the number one spot. But then my son was born, and the charts faded from my mind. Not until I was doing a radio interview did I find out "I Can Only Imagine" had reached the top spot. As the DJ congratulated me, I was overcome with emotion – but not because my song was a success. A bigger story was unfolding.
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