“I think it all started for me that year I couldn’t sleep and almost lost my mind.”
In the fall of 2001, singer/songwriter John Mark McMillan sat out on his porch for hours each night, sometimes with a buddy, sometimes with a few, but mostly with God, and the precarious rhythms of late night traffic.
“I had nowhere to go,” he explains. “I’d weathered a break up that left me questioning my sanity and I’d quit my job at the Olive Garden after a woman cussed me out over the price of cranberry juice. With no work, no relationship, and my ‘89 Ford Tempo on its last legs, I found myself emotionally and, otherwise, shipwrecked. My whole world was a guitar and everything I wished I’d said.”
“I think it was during those months that I learned how to write a song,” he continues, “because that was the year I learned to be honest with God.”
As a teenager, McMillan played his first guitar chords on the loading docks behind his father’s storefront church in Pineville, NC. He readily admits that he began playing for the same reason so many other teenage boys do – – to impress girls. Unfortunately, it was a little late in the game for the instrument to become much of a savior. But, he says it did become a friend, an outlet, a way of sorting things out.
Looking back, it makes sense that McMillan would go back to that place on the porch a year later when he found himself against the ropes, this time with another set of issues and another batch of songs.
In November of 2002, while recording in a Jacksonville, Florida studio, McMillan received a call notifying him that two of his friends had been critically injured in a car accident. Later that evening, he received another call from his father who broke the news that one of McMillan’s closest childhood friends was gone.
“I had pages of dialog with God in the days that followed, some angry, mostly confused, but also I wrote a lot of songs,” he says.
It was that time period that shaped verses like “Kiss Your Feet”, a modern vision of Mary Magdalene, and an emotional climactic folk tune called “Ashes and Flames.” The first song of that generation, much of it written the day after the accident, was the song “How He Loves.” McMillan says the song was every bit a “tribute to a friend, a cry for understanding, and the worship that resulted from it all.”
The following years were characterized by an almost confusing contrast. While he lived with an ever-present stinging sensation from the loss, he was enamored with the immense joy of his engagement to “a brilliant, angelic girl” named Sarah Williams. The couple were married in 2004 and have been confidants, band mates, and business partners ever since. In 2008, their son Jude was born to the growling vocals of Kevin Prosch singing, “Praise the Lord, Oh My Soul” over a hospital radio. More than anything, it was this contrast that shaped the ideas that would eventually become the critically acclaimed album The Medicine.
“Up to that point, much of my music, though rarely void of hope, was still born out of loss,” says McMillan. “However, The Medicine, presents portraits of resurrection.”
From “Death In His Grave,” a southern, hymn-like narrative depicting the classic resurrection of Jesus, to “Skeleton Bones,” a worship song celebrating the power of resurrection life, a story of resurrection is present throughout the whole record. Songs like “Ten Thousand” illustrate the ultimate victory of life over the grave as do “Out of the Ground” and “Carbon Ribs” in more abstract ways.
“More than anything, I think The Medicine explores the implications of resurrection in our everyday lives, even the dead places of our lives that need resurrecting,” he continues. “To his own hurt, Jesus, chose to be a part of our world. Why would we pretend that we don’t bring all our love, loss, and insecurity with us into the conversations we call ‘worship’? After all, we don’t serve a God who is unacquainted with grief. He is not surprised by or even unfamiliar with the darkness that can plague a human heart. In fact, he specializes at dealing with that sort of
“That is what The Medicine is about and those are some of the conversations I want to help people have in worship,” he adds. “I want to write songs that give your heart language in the porch lights of your own reckoning; dangerous songs that give you permission to wear your heart on your sleeve before Jesus, unencumbered by the grave cloths of mindless tradition.”