|By November 2003, MercyMe was ready for a well-deserved rest. The stratospheric
popularity of their single “I Can Only Imagine” and the endless
touring that came with it kept them busy much of the year.
“We kind of had the attitude that we were off the clock,” says frontman Bart Millard, “it even kind of felt like we were [saying] that to God: ‘We’ve worked really hard, we’re off.’” But the band’s work of ministering to the hurting and broken was far from done. In fact, MercyMe was just getting started.
In early December, a pregnant friend that Millard and his wife had grown up with lost the twins she had been carrying for five months. Because she was so far along in her pregnancy, it was necessary to deliver the babies. “It was devastating,” Millard recalls. At the funeral, Millard sang “I Can Only Imagine,” a song inspired by the early death of his father that has been played at countless funerals since its release.
Moved by the service, Millard wrote what would become the chorus for “Homesick.” But fearful of belittling the moment by “putting it into four or five minutes of music and trying to make it rhyme,” he tucked away the unfinished tune.
Then the funerals continued. Band member Jim Bryson lost his father. Other deaths in Millard’s hometown followed. “It seemed like every other day someone close to us was passing away,” Millard says. “It was overwhelming. And already having a heavy heart, at times you just feel you’re being beat down, like it’s never gonna stop.” In a period of less than six weeks, the band lost eight people close to them.
The eighth, Millard’s 20-year-old brother-in-law, Chris, was a godly man who had recently been struggling. He hit rock bottom in the early hours of Jan. 3, 2004, and paid his sister and Millard a visit. “He just wanted to know God was real. He didn’t want to doubt anymore. He wanted to see him face to face,” Millard recalls. “We went back and forth for several hours. We said all the right things.” Then Chris left around 4 am, only after promising to meet later that day with a friend of Millard’s who ran a local church’s college group. But Chris never made it to that appointment. On the way home, he fell asleep at the wheel and was killed instantly.
A heartsick Millard finished “Homesick” in time for the band to sing it at Chris’ funeral. Despite his grief, he was glad for the ministry opportunity it provided. “We had this amazing opportunity to share the gospel and talk to his friends,” Millard says. “And that was pretty much the end of the song. It wasn’t meant to go anywhere else so I wadded up the lyrics and threw them away.”
Unlike “Imagine,” which was less of an “I miss my dad” song and more of a pondering of Heaven and what we’ll find there, Millard says “Homesick” “was really just for the situation, for me and my wife and her family. We were confused and angry and broken. The truth is there’s no goodbye in Christ, but the waiting can hurt just the same.”
That may be why Millard’s mother-in-law urged him to share the song, saying “I think it’s a tragedy to write something like that, knowing how other people go through what we’re going through, and for them not to hear it.” Millard didn’t know how to respond to that. Then he recalled what Holly, the mother who lost her twins, had said following their death: “I wish my twins could have lived long enough to make a difference.” It all added up to a change of heart and it filled Millard with joy to be able to tell Holly, “because of what you went through, [this song] could reach millions of people. So don’t ever say your twins didn’t live long enough to make a difference.”
And that difference was felt almost immediately. The studio version, featuring the famed London Symphony, appears on MercyMe’s latest CD, Undone. But even before it hit stores, the song was having an impact. On tour, Millard told the story each night to packed houses and the band was bombarded with email about the song.
“I was real reluctant to talk about Chris on a regular basis,” Millard says. “It was very taxing on me emotionally and physically because it was so fresh.” Some nights, after telling the story, it took Millard several minutes to compose himself enough to be able to sing the song. But it was something he felt strongly about. “After everything we went through, I knew other people needed to hear it, needed some comfort.”
Millard received another blow when he unexpectedly lost a favorite uncle
earlier this year, but he and the band remain willing conduits. “For
whatever reason, God will not allow us to leave that season of helping
people grieve. So I’ll do it with great joy.”