I Can Only Imagine begins with someone interviewing Bart Millard, lead singer for MercyMe who wrote the song, I Can Only Imagine. She asks, “Who could write this? What did they have to go through to give this gift to me? This is hope. Pure hope.” Bart says something about how he just wrote it in like 10 minutes, but she wisely counters, “Bart, you didn’t write this [song] in 10 minutes. It took a life time.” This movie, then, is about the lifetime it took to get him to the place where he could write the song that would go on to become triple platinum and the best-selling Christian song of all times. A lifetime filled with abuse, pain, daddy and mommy issues, abandonment…and a God who heals and restores.
Three Questions: I had the absolute honor of meeting one of my heroes, Don Stephens, this past week, founder and president of Mercy Ships. (If you don’t know about Mercy Ships, read his book, Ships of Mercy—it’s an amazing story!) He shared about his first meeting with Mother Teresa (which totally blew my mind), and the three questions she asked him. 1. Why were you born? 2. What is your pain? (Because God will use it to suit you for the call on your life.) 3. What are you doing about it. With those questions ringing in my ears, I saw Imagine, and they are the underlining questions of the movie and of Bart’s life.
God Uses All Things for Good: An injury took Bart out of football for good, which was a crushing blow because Bart was trying to earn his Dad’s approval through football. The only available elective was musical theater (or something along those lines) so he was forced into probably the last elective he would have ever chosen. Through that, Bart discovered why he was born. He had a talent for singing, and a passion for music as it had ministered to him in his dark hours. Sometimes we don’t know why we were born. Sometimes we don’t dare consider why we think we were born, because some authority figure/hero of ours has their own agenda for our lives and we let them answer the question, rather than asking God. Bart got a little nudge from God (and his music teacher). Sometimes God shows His great love for us by taking away our other options until we come to realize that His plan really is best.
Before we can step into the Promised Land, we may need to heal. Before the Israelites could go into the Promised Land, God required that they all be circumcised. He wanted them to be His, fully His.
When the circumcising of the whole nation was finished, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed. 9 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” And so the name of that place is called Gilgal[b] to this day. (Joshua 5:8-9)
But after that, He gave them time to heal. There is such a sweet tenderness in God’s heart towards us in this. He didn’t ask them to go into the Promised Land wounded and hurting. He gave them time to heal.
Bart was hurting. He hadn’t healed from his relationship with his Dad, and his mentor saw that. Brickell pointed out that when Bart was performing, many times he seemed fake and disconnected, as if he was singing things he didn’t believe, and that was why producers weren’t responding well. BUT, Brickell also saw moments of raw honesty in Bart, and in those moments, he was brilliant. It’s just that he had a tendency to hide from that raw vulnerability that others needed to see. “Let me ask you something: What are you running from?” Brickell asked him. “Stop running from it. Let that pain become your inspiration and then people will [have something they can relate to].” He basically said what Mother Teresa told Don Stephens that day, to let God use his pain. Rather than running from it, lean into it, face it…and let God heal it.
So Bart took some time off to go home and confront his pain. God used that time to heal his relationship with his Dad. (See here God’s heart to return the hearts of fathers to their children and children to their fathers?! Malachi 4:6.) Bart risked a lot, leaving a fledgling music career, hoping his bandmates would hold a spot for him till he got back. And in that time, God circumcised his heart, removed the reproach of his father (and the feelings of slavery and bondage he had because of his father) and gave him time to heal. It was only after he had healed that Bart wrote Imagine and entered his proverbial Promised Land. That is the goodness and tenderness of God. He gives us time to heal before we walk into our inheritance.
The Manna Gets us to the Promised Land. Just after the Israelites healed from their circumcision and celebrated Passover, the next day, they ate of the produce of the Promised Land. And interestingly, the day the Promised Land provided food for them, that’s the same day the manna stopped. “There was no longer manna for the people of Israel, but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year” (Joshua 5:12). Bart had the exact same experience. His father’s parting gift to him before he died was a monthly life insurance check which he wanted to fund Bart’s pursuit of his music dreams. The month Imagine hit number one, the life insurance checks stopped. Just like the manna, they lasted exactly as long as he needed them.
We never know the impact we have. Bart’s relationship with his dad was incredibly painful. The movie doesn’t portray Bart as someone who was praying for his dad’s salvation. He was too much in survival mode to lovingly pray for his dad. But, as he went home to face his father, he was surprised to discover his dad had become a Christian…through his music. Bart had sung for a worship service that was on the radio, and his dad had listened to his son, and then after to the preacher. His dad who felt like he didn’t belong in church, who never told Bart he was listening, who had just smashed a plate upside Bart’s head…he had listened to Bart sing, and then to the preacher… and he had been changed. It was a slow process, as change usually is, and it took years for Bart to know (and even longer for him to believe it/accept it), but still it happened. His Dad, who was all about being practical and having a smart, realistic plan for life (a good job, etc.), was saved—not through any “realistic” or intelligent approach, but through the beauty of music. He was touched by the intangible.
I’m so struck by this. Bart never knew who was listening. He never knew who was being impacted by his music. He simply did as he was compelled to do. He gave his gift as an offering to God, and God used it to bless others. Art is such a vulnerable act of faith. Many things we give, we know the difference it makes in the world. We know when we serve someone a meal or do their taxes, for example, how we have helped them. But art? When we create a thing of beauty and put it out in the world, we don’t know who is touched by it. We don’t know if anyone will read or look or listen. And if they do, will they like it? Will it make a difference? Art is blind in that respect. And it’s an act of faith. We create because we must, and we then pray God uses it. God used Bart’s music to touch the world, but before the world was touched by Imagine, his father was touched. In that way, Bart’s music saved them both. It saved his Dad, and that saved their relationship, and that new relationship brought healing to Bart…out of which came Imagine, which touched the world.
Questions for Discussion:
- How did Bart’s relationship with his Dad impact you? Can you relate to any aspect of their dysfunction? How have you been hurt by your parents?
- Why were you born? What is your pain? What are you doing about it (the reason you were born)? (How would you answer these 3 questions according to Bart’s life? According to your life?)
- God used Bart’s injury for good—to get him into music. What “bad” things in your life has God used for good? When “bad” things happen in your life, how do you respond? In anger, in faith that God will work good out of it, or something else?
- What do you think God may want to heal in you before you go into your Promised Land? Are you giving him the space and time to heal that area in your life?