"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
John 3:16 (ESV)
I froze in my tracks.
Just three notes is all it took.
I remember it vividly.
It was the summer of 2000 and I was headed out of the dining hall at Frontier Ranch, a Young Life camp nestled in the Rocky Mountains in Buena Vista, Colorado. I was hoping to trot quickly to my bed and sneak in a power nap while my cabin girls killed a couple of hours by the pool, but then those three notes happened.
The lyrics pierced my soul even as the music held me paralyzed...
I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me...
Cold chills ran up the back of my neck while the hair on my arms stood up...
Surrounded by your glory
What will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus
Or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence
Or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing Hallelujah
Will I be able to speak at all...
Tears leaked out the sides of my eyes...
I can only imagine when all I will do
Is forever, forever worship you
I can only imagine...
Still frozen, I must have looked like one of the stone statues in Narnia. Until the sun hit my face, as warmly as Aslan's breath, bringing me back to life as it peeked out from behind a cloud in a most timely fashion, flooding the dining hall with its rays. The song ended. I turned around to find members of the summer staff and work crew gazing intently at me. They must have seen the desperation in my eyes when I pleaded for someone to tell me the name of the song, the artist, and the album, (more likely they wanted me to hurry up and get out so they could finish cleaning the dining hall and grab their own power naps), because several of them moved quickly toward the stereo cabinet to retrieve the info for me. On their indie album titled "The Worship Project," a then little known band called Mercy Me had recorded the song, I Can Only Imagine. It would still be another year before large scale Christian audiences would become attached to the song, and three years before the song would make the leap into the secular music world.
In the wake of a picture perfect Easter weekend here in South Carolina, I pause to think of those lyrics again. And I realize anew:
I cannot imagine leaving heaven to come to earth
I cannot imagine knowing what He knew or the pains of His ministry
I cannot imagine not being recognized as the promised one by those who waited for Him
I cannot imagine the beating, cursing, spitting, mocking, and humiliation He endured
I cannot imagine the weight of mankind's sin - past, present, future
I cannot imagine the devastation, loneliness, and abandonment when God turned His back
I cannot imagine being in hell, then being resurrected
I cannot imagine being doubted and unrecognized by those who knew Him best before death
I cannot imagine leaving loved ones behind for a second time to return to heaven
I cannot imagine the deep, profound longing for every man, woman, and child to be saved
Such sobering thoughts hold me just as captive as the lyrics did nearly two decades ago.
On March 16, the movie bearing the same title as the song opened in theaters. The story of family dysfunction at its finest. A tyrannical, monster of a father. An abused, abandoned little boy. Hate. Resentment. Unforgiveness. Then Jesus...
And so the story behind the song is essentially the gospel. Everything I cannot imagine makes no sense and is filled with despair. Until Jesus. Then all that I can only imagine becomes a steadfast hope filled with grace and mercy.
"Then he [the criminal] said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Jesus answered him, 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.'"
Luke 23:42-43 (NIV)
Three hauntingly beautiful, unforgettable notes.
Three crosses at Golgotha.
Between hopelessness and heaven, there is Jesus...