The laws of mathematics and physics have forever been one of our great constants. They are predictable and reliable, not given to strange surprises. But now, more and more, scientists are finding that even the laws of physics sometimes offer unexpected surprises and exhibit a freedom that leaves us baffled. Freedom, it seems, is everywhere.
Novelists have always known this. A novelist creates an imaginary character, begins to write a story, and then discovers that this character doesn’t always want to follow what the author had in mind for her. She becomes her own person, develops her own attitude, goes her own way, and shapes the story in a way that the novelist never intended. In the end, partly independent of the author, each character writes his or her own story.
In a new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller takes this concept and uses it to offer a wonderful challenge within which each of us is invited to edit our own life so as to make our story a better and more noble one.
He does this through a series of autobiographical essays within which he challenges himself to write a better story with his own life and then invites his readers to each edit our own lives so as to build a story which is more interesting and more noble, one which, like a great movie, will leave its audience in tears and longing to do better things with their lives when the final credits roll.
Here’s how he describes this: “So I was writing my novel, and as my characters did what they wanted, I became more and more aware that somebody was writing me. So I started listening to the Voice, or rather, I started calling it the Voice and admitting there was a Writer. I admitted that something other than me was showing me a better way. And when I did this, I realized the Voice, the Writer, who was not me, was trying to make a better story, a more meaningful series of experiences I could live through.”
His writing is brilliant but deceptive. Because of his particular genre, he can seem almost superficial at times, but, in the end, what you get is a combination of David Sedaris (wit, playful self-effacement), Annie Lamott (earthy, disarmingly direct), Kathleen Norris (outstanding common sense, intelligence), Henri Nouwen (an honest look at yourself) and Ignatius of Loyola (good rules for discernment and a bit of a guide to everything). Donald Miller runs all of this through a blender.
Initially, as I read the first chapters, I was taken only by his language and not by his content. He sounded more the comic wit than the wise elder. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, and this is his genius, depth, idealism, Christian vision, disarming common sense, and his real challenge begin to seep through, becoming clearer and more inviting as his story goes on.
Here’s an example of both his writing and his depth. In this a passage he shares how he discerns the real voice of God from the many false, neurotic voices that he, and most everyone else, commonly can confuse with God’s voice:
“As a kid, the only sense I got from God was guilt, something I dismissed as a hypersensitive conscience I got from being raised in a church with a controlling pastor. But that isn’t the voice I’m talking about. … The real Voice is stiller and smaller and seems to know, without confusion, the difference between right and wrong and the subtle delineation between the beautiful and the profane. It’s not an agitated Voice, but ever patient as though it approves a million false starts. The Voice I am talking about is a deep water of calming wisdom that says: Hold your tongue; don’t talk about that person that way; forgive the friend you haven’t talked to; don’t look at that woman as a possession; I want to show you the sunset; look and see how short life is and how your troubles are not worth worrying about; buy that bottle of wine and call your friend and see if he can get together, because, remember, he was supposed to have that conversation with his daughter, and you should ask him about it.”
And that Voice, he says, is forever saying to us: “Enjoy your place in my story. The beauty of it means you matter, and you can create it even as I have created you.”
In the end, this book is a healthy apologetic for faith, morality, decency, and God, the kind of challenge we badly need today. I was given the book by friend who has a twenty-something daughter who has long protested her doubts about God and, not least, her agnosticism about the church. This young post-Christian, my friend said, found the book on the kitchen table, picked it up out of curiosity, and then read it cover to cover, admitting that she was much challenged by it.
Now that’s not a bad endorsement!