I was a junior in high school when I first heard the song "I Can Only Imagine" on the radio. To hear such a song on a Christian radio station (Life 102.5, to be exact) was one thing; I grew up going to church and my parents (specifically my mother's side) had been listening to faith-based stations in recent years. But to hear this kind of song on a pop station (like Z104 in Madison) was a rare thing. And it was a rare gem for a list of reasons.
This was during a period in my life where high school became a foundation of transitioning from childhood to adulthood (and I'm already making it sound like a cliche, I know). Like I said, I grew up going to church, believing it was something you had to do on Sundays. After my parents divorced and remarried, respectfully, I attended various Sunday school classes and, in middle school, Wednesday night youth group meetings and activities before being confirmed in eighth grade. That's not to say I didn't go through the motions like a lot of people growing up.
Then in high school, during the spring semester of my sophomore year, I began attending a Sunday night youth group bible study. My leaders (we'll call them Dan & Sue) were very generous and caring people, not to mention musically skilled on guitars. Some of my classmates were good camaraderie as well, but Dan & Sue helped lay a foundation for real spirituality and biblical study in my life. And when I began hearing "I Can Only Imagine" by the band MercyMe--and eventually some of their other songs, as well as other music by fellow artists later that year and beyond--on the radio, it opened a door for me (in retrospect) in beginning to understand what real Christianity is and what it meant to have a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, and how it gave me something to look forward to in life.
If not for this song, this band's influence, nor Dan & Sue's leading (and of course, certainly, my mother's amazing example of unconditional love), I would not have been further led down a personal journey (by choice) of my own faith. And I wouldn't have been able to experience all the biblical-related things and other experiences I have since graduating high school, from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in college to fall conferences in Green Lake, WI, to various musicals and choral events in the Fine Arts department on campus, to a trip to St. Louis at the turn of the decade, to understanding the difference between religion and a relationship, to expressing myself through writing deeper and deeper (and counting), and to all the mentorship and friendships I've had throughout the years. (You know who you are.)
For a period of years, however, I hadn't wanted to listen to this song, afraid it would bring me back to (and not allow me to look beyond) where I was in the troubled times I went through or was being tested through. In addition, I would think that the theme of eternity in heaven was something that needed to be saved for every few months or years, or for a later period in life like a remembrance or a eulogy, or that it was (to be brutally honest) overrated in music.
College, in particular, was a series of events that varied from emotional and successful highs to deep scarred lows. But I experienced God's grace and forgiveness through them, and I am grateful for the accountability and friendships and music/songs He has given me to help me through these times. And He's still showing me and reminding me who He made me to be. (I highly recommend the works of Neil T. Anderson, as a resource.)
As far as "overrated," such encouragement is (and should be) far from it.
The release of the new film, based on the song's title and the true story behind it, has now helped me see it and appreciate it in a new and more meaningful way. It's also challenged me in my own family relationships and relationship status, including some elements I'm more at peace with while still working on/growing in other elements. Nevertheless, it's amazing to see how far this life and journey has gone. I can only imagine where it's going to go from here.
WRITER'S NOTE: I had an opportunity to see MercyMe in concert when I was a junior in high school, and it was an amazing experience (despite the fact I knew so little about faith then compared to now). Last night, I went to see them perform at the Target Center in Minneapolis for the first time in fourteen years! And to hear some of their new and recent tracks, as well as some old ones, was both a nostalgic and even more humbling experience.