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Miller’s Time: Donald Miller
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He’s climbed the fabled ruins at Machu Picchu, cycled his way across America and visited the poorest of the poor in African missions. But in his newest book Donald Miller takes a journey inward. As his popular memoir Blue Like Jazz was being scripted into a movie, the author began to see his life as story. Gloria talked to Donald recently about the book born from that new vision, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, to find out what he’s been discovering along the way.

GLORIA: You probably thought when you wrote Blue Like Jazz that you’d revealed all of the inner secrets in the story of your life, but this one sounds like a bigger pursuit of a bigger life. Why did you decide to write this into a book when you were actually doing this to write the movie?

DONALD: Well, it was a fascinating thing to edit my life with a group of screenwriters who actually know what goes into a good story. And to make the parallel between a good story and a good life set me off on a journey of trying to actually live a better story with my own life. And to me it was a fascinating journey. I thought about it so much that I really couldn’t write any other book at the time because this was all I wanted to think about. And so A Million Miles in a Thousand Years was a product of my thought life for a couple of years. I realized that I could easily come to the end of my life and have people sitting at my funeral saying, “Wow, he sold a lot of books.” (Laughter) It was not very exciting to me to realize that’s where I was heading. And I needed to do something about it. So this book is probably a little more personal because it’s more about the heart. It’s more about being brutally honest with myself and saying, “This can’t continue to happen. I have to do something different.”

GLORIA: Someplace in the beginning, you said an intriguing thing — because of what your book turned out to be about — that you yourself love small stories. You love stories in which the writer is not blowing up bridges and driving cars off the end of demolished interstates; rather, you prefer the story that is subtle and beautiful and takes place in the inner-workings of characters. But the truth is, having said that, did you recognize that you were already in a small story? What made you feel you had to make a bigger story?

DONALD: I think it was just envisioning that when the credits rolled, that story wasn’t going to be very interesting. And honestly, Gloria, I was at a point where a story had ended. Since high school, I had always wanted to be a successful writer. So it was a good 15-20 year journey of working toward that. And life was not meaningless during that time. It was quite interesting. But then I got what I wanted. The story ended, and I didn’t start another one. I was just sort of sitting there saying, “So that’s it?” I think I expected that when I finally got what I wanted, there would be this euphoric experience in which I would be able to talk to animals, and all the conflicts in the world would end, and all such kinds of things. And none of that actually happened. Life just sort of kept going on as normal. I don’t think I got depressed, but I certainly had this sense of futility about life. Why keep writing when even if you sell a billion copies of a book, conflict in the world is still the same? And so the story in my life had ended. The credits had rolled up the screen, and I was still sitting in the theater. And nothing new had really begun. And so in writing this screenplay, these guys helped me understand I needed to start another story. And the story is just a character who wants something and is willing to overcome conflict to get it. So I sort of had to get out a yellow pad and say, “What do I want next?

Well, the story that I’m really hoping to tell with a large portion of my writing has to do with an organization called The Mentoring Project which mentors kids growing up without dads. We have really ambitious goals. We want to see 15 percent of America’s prisons shut down because the church has stood up and said, “We will mentor these kids who are growing up without fathers.” There are 27 million kids without dads. There are 360,000 churches in America. The infrastructure is there. The men are there to do the mentoring. And the church could actually stand up and solve an enormous number of social problems in our country. So that’s the story that I’ll tell, probably for the rest of my life, because we’ll obviously not accomplish it while I’m alive. To me that’s a better story than becoming a best-selling author, so I’m encouraged by that.

Now, on a day-to-day basis, you know that the writing process is very boring. You kind of sit around, and you doodle with a yellow tablet. Then you finally get some words typed in. But by the end of it, when the book is out, you have a really beautiful piece of your life captured in those pages. And so every day, I get up and I write on the book I’m working on. But then I write on my life story — which is this mentoring project. It’s not often very exciting, but at the end of the year you look back and say, “Wow, we’ve accomplished so much, and because of the boring, mundane things that I did every day, lives have been changed. And there are exciting times. Yesterday one of our mentors and his mentee were at the White House visiting the President. And supposedly the story is going to be in The Washington Post. So there are these little scenes where you go, “Wow! We have a kid in the White House today! He’s 9 years old and never been on an airplane, but today he’s in the White House with the President.” You just keep working and occasionally God throws you something for which you say, “Thanks, God! That’s awesome!” That’s the story I’ll tell my entire life.

GLORIA: If they can’t buy a hideaway up on the mountain, and if they can’t fly around the world to ask world leaders where they find their hope — and if they can’t take an amazing ride down a British Columbian river gorge or organize a group to cycle across the country — what do you say to single moms who are raising kids like your mom — who somehow got their children to adulthood and sent their child off to a pretty good college? What do I say to them about making a bigger story?

DONALD: My mom is a great example. A good story involves a character who wants something and overcomes conflict in order to get it. When I was 21 years old, I left home, moved to Oregon, and my mom, at age 55, went back to night school and got her Bachelor’s degree and then her Master’s, then took her boss’ job and became a professor at a college. And then she retired! (Laughing) She has this fascinating story. The most beautiful stories are not necessarily stories about riding your bike across America. A story about rebuilding your marriage is a great story — or a story I share about a family who decided to build an orphanage in Mexico. These things are actually very doable for all of us. Even the story of The Mentoring Project started with nothing. We didn’t have any money. It took us a long time to raise money and such.

We are tempted to say, “I don’t have the resources to tell a great story.” Well, that’s not true. It doesn’t take resources. It doesn’t take a lot of resources to tell a great love story for example. It doesn’t take resources to tell a good story about sharing the gospel or sharing the love of Christ with our friends. Those are all terrific stories.

GLORIA: That’s what was waiting for you to write — the book about seeing the story you’re in.

DONALD: Yes! Seeing the story you’re already in. I think, Gloria, there’s this need for all of us to understand that because we exist — just because we exist — God in His sovereign love has decided to make us characters in this wonderfully epic, beautiful story in which He gives us this sort of blank page to say, “You write something with this. I’m going to give you the trees and the mountains and the rivers. I’m going to give you other people. Embedded in the story is a great deal of conflict which really only serves you and makes the story better. I’m going to give you all these things.”

So even the fact that we exist — if we can just come to grips with how remarkable a story that is and how special we are and how loved we are by God that He would create us to enjoy himself—I think it’s the first step. And then the second step for me is that He does give you the ability and the permission, if you will, to write a really beautiful story with your life. And that story is going to have to involve risk. It’s going to be scary at times. Finding my dad and going to be with my dad after 30 years of not knowing who he was—that was incredibly scary. But I’m so glad I did it. It turned into a really beautiful story. So I think realizing that God has put us in this story and that He has given us permission to tell a beautiful story of our own . . . I think is a huge part of the journey.

GLORIA: You mentioned working around your liabilities. Sometimes it’s actually using your liabilities. In the Scripture it seems every one of the disciples, especially, took his liability and let that become a part of the Bigger Story. Along the way, we discover that it isn’t just our story — that we are in a bigger story — and that’s why our piece is so eternally important. In your case, I think growing up without a dad is one liability that you have turned around and said, “OK, I will use this liability because it’s not just my story. This piece of my story has taught me that there are 27 million kids growing up without fathers in America!” But admitting that feeling in that book gave you the permission to identify with 27 million kids. I can’t identify with 27 million kids.

DONALD: That’s what’s beautiful about what God does with conflict. Conflict existed before the fall of man. Adam experienced conflict when he was lonely and couldn’t find a suitable helpmate So conflict is not this terrible thing that exists. God actually embeds it in our story, and He does it to shape our character. He does it so we appreciate the things He gives us. The reason Adam felt lonely for a long time was so that he would appreciate Eve. You know? But there was conflict. There were negative emotions in his story, even though he was walking with God. And that’s something that a lot of Christians don’t understand. They think that there’s not supposed to be conflict in their story. What that Scripture says to me is that I should always be thankful for the conflict that comes into my life, no matter what it is. If it’s conflict that I’ve created then God has given me a negative reaction to that conflict in order to teach me not to do that anymore. What a blessing that is to actually have God create that conflict. If it’s conflict I didn’t create—for instance my dad leaving — if I have a really positive attitude towards that conflict, I can turn it into something beautiful. So, if it weren’t for my father abandoning me and going through all that hardship when I was young, perhaps millions of kids wouldn’t have a positive male role model years later. That’s the beautiful thing that God can do with conflict in your life. And we shun conflict. But I think God wants us to face conflict with courage.

There’s this other thing that exists in the story; it’s called the climax. That’s when all the conflict ends, and it happens in most stories about three minutes before the end of the movie when Harry finally kisses Sally or when Rudy finally makes the football team or when Jack Bauer finally disarms the bomb. We’re all looking for something that’s going to take the conflict out of our lives here on earth. But the truth is (theologically, in the Bible) that ultimate climax in your life doesn’t take place until the wedding feast of the Lamb. So this intuitive knowing that something isn’t right in the world . . . we’re going to take that to our graves unless the Lord comes back before we die. And what’s really beautiful about knowing that is that we don’t get fooled. So when the inappropriate affair entices us and says, “This is going to take the conflict out of your life if you just sleep with this woman or use this drug . . .” we actually have the stability as Christians to say, “That’s a lie. The conflict will be taken out of my life at the wedding feast of the Lamb. And nothing else is going to do it except for Jesus.” And so what I have is the hope and the patience that Paul tells us to have. It helps me endure conflict.

GLORIA: I love your statement that the reward you get from a story is always less than you thought it would be. The work is harder than you imagined. The point is never about the ending. It’s always about your character. So life plays out exactly as you explained. So many times I’ve asked audiences, “For how many of you was the time that you learned the most, grew the most, discovered more about God, felt like you were connected with eternal truth more than any other time in your life — for how many of you was that when everything was going great?” (Laughter) And almost nobody — I mean nobody raises a hand. Evidently we grow much through struggle. On the other hand, we tend to miss the magic in regular days. Often, if we pay attention, right smack in the middle of the conflict, suddenly your child glows or your wife sparkles or your husband is a pillar of flame or the ground you’re walking on is holy and every bush is on fire. So what part, does suffering in real life — and that’s conflict in story — play in the real life of the Christian?

DONALD: Not only the Christian, but in every human being. Most often, the only way character can change is through experiencing pain. In stories — all screenwriters know this — if you want the character to change from bitter (like Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning) to giving and charitable (like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end) you have to take that character through very, very difficult pain. And in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge is visited by the third ghost, he says to the ghost, “Spirit, I fear thee more than any ghost who came before you. But I know that you are here to bless me. Take me where you will.” That has to be our attitude toward conflict. It has to be, “I’m afraid. I don’t like this. I’m praying, ‘God, take it from me, but whatever happens You are going to make me a better human being because of it.’” Some of the most joyful people that you’ll ever meet are people who have gone through intense conflict. The perspective that the hardship has given them often leads them to joy in a relationship with God that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. And so I think conflict only serves us, blesses us. And I think when you really understand story, you are able to do that.

GLORIA: Your suffering where you are as a single man, losing your love, having to meet your father — that’s your journey. I could tell you a million stories from women, especially moms, who have put their lives on the back burner for Lord knows how long (maybe forever) every dream they ever had because of that life-altering moment when you look at your child and say, “This is worth it.”

DONALD: No, you can’t have an inspiring story without suffering. A lot of people who are the most bored in life are people who don’t have any suffering. Think about how many people are at the top of their careers and commit suicide or start using drugs to numb themselves out.

GLORIA: It is most often at the points when life reduces us to our most common denominator, that we fight the hardest. I think it will be interesting to see the sequel to this book of yours because you know, as scary as it is, you’re not going to stay here.

DONALD: Yeah, I know. God has a beautiful story to be written. It will be interesting

GLORIA: It really will. What do you see happening to you personally as a result of two things — the mentoring program and the movie? I mean those are two different new pieces of the journey for you. Do you have any predictions about that?

DONALD: I have no predictions. I think The Mentoring Project is going to become more and more a part of my life. And you know, it’s the field that I’ll plow for the rest of my life. And it’s shaping and changing and humbling me as the years go on. Hopefully we’ll be able to make the movie. They’ve raised about half the money that they need, and everything is in place to shoot the film. It’s a really beautiful movie, and it’s in that first group of films that Christians have made that actually starts to change culture where both Christians and non-Christians can be moved by it as opposed to a movie where mostly Christians see and are affected by it. I hope it just has a powerful impact on culture.

GLORIA: It certainly will change you. I love that you’re doing a project that requires a very personal responsibility for making it a living part of your story. To take your story and say, “I will impact this. I will take personal responsibility for at least as many as I can touch of these thousands of kids who are growing up like I did.” You ended the book with that Frankl quote: “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the past which it consistently sets before an individual.” I keep feeling as I’m talking to you — that it is a preface to an even bigger story to come.

DONALD: Hmm. I’m so glad to hear you say that. I feel the same way, but I’ve never actually put words to it — that it’s the beginning of something.

GLORIA: Of something in you . . .You’re going to write.

DONALD: Well, hopefully . . . It certainly helped me take risks. And instead of saying, “That’s too scary — I’m not going to do that,” it’s made me think, “No, I think I want to try this because even if it ends in tragedy, it’s going to be a great story.” (Laughing). I won’t have been bored!

GLORIA: Well, it’s a delight to talk to you. And I cannot wait to talk to you again. I really am interested in where God’s story is taking you. He is shaping your character for something huge. I can’t wait to see what that is.

DONALD: It’s scary, but I’m excited. Thanks Gloria.