Bart Millard used to listen to cassette tapes of Amy Grant and other Christian musicians on his head phones. It was a way that he could get his mind at peace after dealing with an abusive father. There was no peace in the Millard household. His father was quick to squash any dreams that Bart had. Something must have drastically altered his fathers dreams years ago and now he was all about making sure that his son didn’t fantasize with his own dreams. Mr. Millard was a heavy drinker and wife beater. It got so bad that Bart was sent to a camp just to get him out of harms way. His mother loved him very much and thought that the camp experience would be a good retreat for him. Bart was a stranger in the camp which happened to be a church camp. One person that befriended him right away was a girl named Shannon. Even though Bart was slow to open up to her she liked him as he was. Camp offered Bart a disciplined different view of life than he had at home. All of the campers were given journal books and they were required to take notes of what they learned and what was important in their view. Studiously Bart took notes and it became a big part of his camp experience.
After the two weeks Bart came home. Surprisingly he found that his mom was missing. He was angry as he confronted his father as to what happened to her. His father told Bart she wasn’t hurt and that she had left him. Bart was devastated as his mother was the only one that he felt loved him. Through the strained relationship with his father Bart tried to find himself. He liked football and became good at it playing on his high school team. However even in his glowing moments he didn’t get help from his dad. His dad was a star player in high school and after Bart had a big game his dad was quick to squash his victory. “How many of them did it take?”, his father asked. Not knowing what he was asking Bart asked the question back to him. His father was a running back when he played, just like Bart. He explained what he meant. “How many did it take to bring you down?” Bart said “Two or three, I don’t know”. “Two or three couldn’t bring me down, It took the whole team to bring me down.” Through all of the negative Bart still kept his football dreams alive. That was until one play that happened near the end of the season. Bart was running for the goal line when he was hit simultaneously by two different defenders. The result was a broken leg and Bart was left without his football dream.
Bart needed to be in another class because he was not able to play football. He hobbled into the Dramatics class that first day and fielded the teachers questions. “Can you act?” “Can you sing?” Bart told her that he could neither act or sing but that he had to pick up a class to make up for not playing football. His teacher said that he could be in charge of the sound then. Bart began to love the sound position confident that he knew something about sound from his early days of loving the sound of Amy Grant and other top Christian artists. One day he happened to have his head phones on as he was listening to a tape. His teacher happened to walk by. Unaware of her presence Bart was singing along to the music. His teacher couldn’t help notice the beautiful vocals that were coming out of Bart. When the cast for the upcoming musical Oklahoma was announced Bart was horrified to learn that he was cast for the lead. “Oh no, there has been some kind of mistake here” Bart commented as he confronted the teacher. She listened to all of Bart’s reason why he couldn’t do it. The last one was that he had the broken leg. “The play isn’t for six weeks she said. You will be well by then.” She informed him that he would perform in the play if he wanted to pass is class. Through all of the disguise his teacher saw something in him that he didn’t know was there. For that time she took the place of an encouraging parent that see’s things in their children and helps prepare them to use their gifts. Bart didn’t have that at home and for the first time he was given hope.
The play was a great success and Bart was the star of the show! He found his niche in his acting and singing role and everyone who watched was amazed. One of the amazed people was Shannon (his camp friend) who was a high school classmate and Bart’s girl friend. One person who thought he was wasting his time was his father. One day his father was at a bar and he saw a brochure of the play and Bart’s name in the lead role. Then he was overcome with pain and tumbled to the floor. He found himself in the hospital and the reports were not good. Bart’s father was suffering from cancer and he didn’t have that long to live. Bart never knew about this diagnosis. His father kept him in the dark and said that he was fine. After high school Bart could not live with his father anymore. He didn’t know where he was going but he needed to be somewhere else. He hooked up with a band and became their sound man. The band was missing one thing a lead singer. Bart offered that he could help. He mentioned that he could sing and become their voice on stage. That is how he became the lead singer of the group. He also formed the name of the band. His grandmother always said to him “Mercy me Bart” when she was amazed at something he said or did. The band became known as MercyMe.
MercyMe was having moderate success playing to limited crowds. With every little success Bart was living the dream. Unfortunately his excitement with the band consumed him. Shannon felt like she wasn’t important to Bart anymore. She broke up with him and told him they were through. Because of his father Bart didn’t want to let anyone know the real him. He was afraid to dream even as he was having success. Shannon sensed that and was very hurt that Bart’s world really didn’t include her. He felt bad after they broke up and would call her from the road telling her how the band was doing. Unfortunately he was always talking to her answering machine as Shannon had given up on him. The group was fortunate enough to have an agent in the crowd one night. He heard the sound and was somewhat impressed. He liked what he heard but knew there was something missing. The agent agreed to go to the next concert on the groups bus. Once again he noticed the same thing..the music was good, the talent was there, but something was missing. What was missing was discovered when he heard their last long. It was a passionate song that moved the crowd to tears. He told the group he was leaving them, but that he was leaving to find them a bigger venue and to bring some music industry heads to see them. He also told Bart that the concert was just OK but that last song was fantastic. “Try to sing all of your songs like that” was his advice.
After the concert in the new venue Bart and the group sat in the dressing room awaiting the results. Their agent was talking to the elite’s of the industry when Bart could not stand it anymore. Against the wishes of the band Bart got up and disrupted the meeting. He wanted to know what they thought. The hard truth hit him like a brick in the back of the head. They see hundreds of groups and to them MercyMe was nothing special. They rated them as a local group that would never be anything more than that. The combination of their words and the words that his father put in his head years ago was too much for Bart. He returned to the rest of the band and told them he was through. Maybe he was wasting his time after all.
Bart returned home to find that his father was treating him wonderfully. Not knowing how to respond Bart let his father have it. His father told him he had been thinking a lot about how he had lived and had been listening to a lot of christian music. He had asked God for forgiveness. Bart was not in the forgiving mood. In his mind his father had destroyed his dreams and he was bitter. Later he happened to be looking through some papers and there was the medical report on his father. Now he knew his father was dying but the bitterness remained. Bart was having a battle within himself that came to a climax when he found his father collapsed in the barn. Instead of mercy he found himself with a baseball bat in his hands. “Go ahead”, his father urged. But slowly Bart put the bat down and helped his father up. The act of helping his father as he put all of his weight on Bart seemed to open the door of forgiveness and mercy to Bart. From that time until his father died Bart was his best friend.
After his father died Bart was in a state of self reflection. He was amazed at the change that his father had demonstrated. At the same time he realized he needed spiritual depth in his own life. He reflected back to the time when he was at camp and took those notes in his journal. He actually dug out his old journal and started re-living his thoughts at that time. Page after page he noticed one line that was getting embedded in his head. The line written numerous times in his journal was “I can only imagine.” He got back with the band and that phrase was in the front of his mind. He started writing a song from just that title and the words just seemed to flow. They made a tape of the song and sent it to their agent. Right away his agent knew they were onto something. Bart sang the song with compassion that he had never heard before! The agent sent it to people in high places in the industry. Amy Grant heard the song and fell in love with it. She wanted to do the song on her comeback tour with the groups permission. Bart was in the audience as Amy was about to sing the song. When the magic moment came Amy couldn’t do it. Instead she called Bart from the stands to sing his song. The crowd was in awe as Bart passionately sang his song that he dedicated to his father. Deeply moved they gave him a standing ovation. Amy gave the song back to Bart and the band and it became a number one hit on the Christian music charts along with a hit on the main stream charts too! It was the song that launched the group MercyMe to heights nobody had imagined for them. I Can Only Imagine was voted the number one song of the year! They would go on to record other powerful hits because instead of just lyrics Bart was singing with a passion he had never had before.
In our christian walk like Bart we can lose the passion that we had when we first believed. Slowly we may start questioning as the world puts their views into our minds. The result is a dead listless doubting believer who has lost their uniqueness in the world. Jesus addressed this problem in Matthew 5:13.
- “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its
- flavor, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing,
- but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men.
In Bart’s case as in many of us our salt loses it’s flavor by our lack of forgiveness. In life there are people or circumstances that if we let them can cause a deep dark unforgiving spirit to come over us. This is not the will of God. He wants us to have our hearts pure so that his love can flow through us. Everyone who listened to Bart noticed how talented he was. However his words alone weren’t able to move people. It was only when he let God change his heart and take away the hurt that Bart was free to express his love and compassion. The same thing affects many of us today. We may say all of the right words but we are not convincing. The flow of love has been blocked by hurt, anger, and an unwillingness to forgive. Our passion has been replaced by the religious ritual of trying to do the right thing without true love in our hearts. By forgiving everyone we open the door to God’s love and blessing. When Jesus died on the cross for our sins he demonstrated his mercy for all of us. By having mercy on those who have wronged us we exhibit his living love within us. What miracles could God do through us when we all have a forgiving spirit? Using Bart’s words “I can only imagine.”
footnote: Shannon saw the change in Bart’s life and today they are married with 5 children. MercyMe has released some of the most powerful Christian music in the last few years that were able to crossover to the adult contemporary stations! A movie was made called I Can Only Imagine and it hit the big screen in 2018. The description of the movie was stated as follows… Based on the incredible true-life story that inspired the beloved, chart-topping song, I Can Only Imagine is a song that brings ultimate hope to so many – often in the midst of life’s most challenging moments. Amazingly, the song was written in mere minutes by MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard. In reality, those lyrics took a lifetime to craft.