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Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Near the end of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Blue, the central character of this masterpiece of French cinema, Julie, played by Juliette Binoche, encounters another woman who is responsible for a grievous betrayal. In a moment that takes your breath away, instead of retribution or hatred, we see in Julie a picture of grace and forgiveness in the flesh. And not just run-of-the-mill grace, if there is such a thing, but extravagant grace, grace far beyond what one could even hope for. What struck me about the scene the first time I watched it is that the perpetrator of the betrayal is not surprised by the grace shown to her. With a shy smile on her lips, she says, in effect, “That’s the kind of person your husband said you want to be.”

“The kind of person you want to be.” Not, “The kind of person you are,” but, “The kind you want to be.” What does it take to get from the first to the second?

Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, was published a couple weeks ago. After reading Blue Like Jazz back when it first released, and reading all of his subsequent releases as well as hearing him speak a number of times, I was looking forward to picking it up. A couple days after it hit stores, I was driving home late one night from seeing Andrew Osenga play a show at a coffee shop and as I passed Borders I realized I still had time to run in and pick up a copy. At home with my copy in hand, I selected a couple records to provide my soundtrack for the evening–Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. and a classic jazz record by the Thelonious Monk Septet.  I poured a glass of Kentucky bourbon, and dropped the needle into the first groove. Settling into my reading chair, I reread the cover: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. Three and a half hours later, I turned the last page, closed the book, and listened to the final strains of the Monk record as the evening faded into the past.

I hesitate to call this Don’s best book, the phrase that most reviewers are parroting, if only because it is difficult for me to rank his books that way. I have enjoyed all of them, particularly Blue Like Jazz and To Own a Dragon: Reflections on Growing Up Without a Father, and find they accomplish what any good memoir should: by remembering and examining chapters of their own life, the memoirist provides a space for us to do the same. As Frederick Buechner reminds us, in a phrase oft-quoted here at the Rabbit Room, “The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.”

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years begins with a phone call and subsequent visit from two guys, Steve and Ben, who want to help Don turn his first book, Blue Like Jazz, into a movie. Only there’s a small problem. “Your life is boring,” Steve tells Don. If people were made to watch a movie where the book was directly transferred to the screen, “I think they’d stab each other in the necks with drinking straws.” Steve went on to explain how they could use some of the elements of what makes a good story to craft the screenplay. A Million Miles is the tale of Don deciding to take those principles and intentionally craft a better story for his real life. For example, after watching Lance Armstrong ride in the Tour de France, Don decided he wanted to ride a bike. He writes: “So I started riding a bike. Actually, I didn’t really start riding a bike. I just kind of lifted my legs a little and made a circular motion with my feet while sitting in a chair watching the Tour de France. I made believe I was winning. Like I said, I live in daydreams.” It wasn’t until they reached the point in writing the screenplay where they needed an “inciting incident,” something that would force the character to choose between something easy and something he really wanted to do, that Don realized just wanting to ride a bike wasn’t enough. So he went out, bought a bike, and got a group of friends together to ride in the Portland Bridge Pedal, providing the needed inciting incident. He goes on to write about hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu–the inciting incident there being what has inspired many a man: the pursuit of a girl–and tracking down the father he hadn’t seen for twenty years. And that first bike ride with friends led to him participating in a bigger story, the Blood: Water cross-country bike ride, raising awareness of the need for clean water in Africa. Step by step, he was writing a better story.

Here’s one endorsement for the book: It has already prompted several discussions with friends and family. And isn’t that what any good book should do? A criticism a friend raised in one of those discussions, if it can be called a criticism, is this: “Sure, I agree with Don that you aren’t creating a good story for yourself by sitting around watching TV all day, but I can’t run off and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or go on a cross-country bike ride. What can I do to live a better story?” It’s the small steps that matter, the little changes we make in pursuit of crafting a better story.

Could it be that we become the kind of person we want to be by being the person we want to be? I want to cook more and have friends over more often to share in the miracle of each other and great food, so I sign up for a CSA. I want to create space in my life where I intentionally engage with art and beauty, so I sign up for a membership at the local art museum, I check the calendar on the Symphony’s website. I want to be a servant, someone who can be relied upon, so I help serve meals down at the rescue mission. I find out where I can help at my church. Do all of these meet the desires of the moment? No, most definitely not. They’re not the easiest thing to do, either. But that’s why we must be intentional about creating these moments. Otherwise, for myself at least, I’m afraid I would sit in front of the TV and eat nothing but pre-cooked, tasteless meals, shut off from anything that will challenge me, that will require something of me. I’d live a story not worth retelling.

So we return here to our opening question: Who do you want to be?

Getting back to the book, here is one of my favorite passages, something Don has spent a lot of time talking about over the last couple of years, a message unfortunately contradicted by many of the books that will be sold on the shelves next to this one:

Growing up in church, we were taught that Jesus was the answer to all our problems. We were taught that there was a circle-shaped hole in our heart and that we had tried to fill it with the square peg of sex, drugs, and rock and roll; but only the circle peg of Jesus could fill our hole. I became a Christian based, in part, on this promise, but the hole never really went away. To be sure, I like Jesus, and I still follow him, but the idea that Jesus will make everything better is a lie. It’s basically biblical theology translated into the language of infomercials. The truth is, the apostles never really promise Jesus is going to make everything better here on earth. Can you imagine an infomercial with Paul, testifying to the amazing product of Jesus, saying that he once had power and authority, and since he tried Jesus he’s been moved from prison to prison, beaten, and routinely bitten by snakes? I don’t think many people would be buying that product. Peter couldn’t do any better. He was crucified upside down, by some reports. Stephen was stoned outside the city gates. John, supposedly, was boiled in oil. It’s hard to imagine how a religion steeped in so much pain and sacrifice turned into a promise for earthly euphoria. I think Jesus can make things better, but I don’t think he is going to make things perfect. Not here, and not now.

What I love about the true gospel of Jesus, though, is that it offers hope. Paul has hope our souls will be made complete. It will happen in heaven, where there will be a wedding and a feast. I wonder if that’s why so many happy stories end in weddings and feasts. Paul says Jesus is the hope that will not disappoint. I find that comforting. That helps me get through the day, to be honest. It even makes me content somehow. Maybe that’s what Paul meant when he said he’d learned the secret of contentment.


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