Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

By

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?

millionmilesDonald 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.


20 Comments

  1. Chris Yokel

    Man, I have got to get this! Blue Like Jazz is one of my favorites, and Through Painted Deserts is one of my absolute favorites. I love that part at the end about hope–I’ve been feeling that a lot the past few years. Must get this book soon….

  2. PJW

    I just read this myself last week. My favorite quote, such a lovely metaphor for the struggles involved in the Christian life, is:

    (He goes to Peru to make the climb and the guide explains why they don’t take the easier trail…)

    pg. 139-140: “…if you visited Machu Picchu on a pilgrimage, you had to take the Inca Trail….”Why would the Incas make the people take the long route?’ my friend from Alabama asked. “Because the emperor knew,” Carlos said, “the more painful the journey to Machu Picchu, the more the traveler would appreciate the city once he got there.”

    After they reached the top, Miller relates:

    “We didn’t hike to the Sun Gate the next morning: we ran. We ran on blistered feet and sore legs. We got there, and it was fogged in, so we sat along the rock, on the ruins, and waited for the fog to burn off. We sat and sang songs. And it was like Carlos said, because you can take a bus to Machu Picchu; you can take a train and then a bus, and you can hike a mile to the Sun Gate. But the people who took the bus didn’t experience the city as we experienced the city. The pain made the city more beautiful. The story made us different characters than we would have been if we had skipped the story and showed up at the ending an easier way.”

  3. Drew

    Oh dear. I suppose I shall have to read this book, then. I didn’t care much for “Blue Like Jazz” — I thought it lacked focus to a fatal degree.

    I am such an iconoclast. : )

  4. Nathan Bubna

    Yeah, i found it quite challenging. Good stories resonate deep in the human soul because we were meant to live good stories. We were meant to have “life to the full”. That doesn’t at all mean complete happiness or health or wealth. It means a good story. Quiet interludes, challenges, tension, love, friendship, tragedy, beauty, truth, massive screwups, perseverance, developing character and, in the end, justice, peace and joy. Most of us, in our gross imperfection and sin would not live good stories if we were given complete, constant happiness, health or wealth. So God doesn’t give that to most of us. He’s called–no, commissioned!–us to go and live out the gospel (a very full, meaningful story).

    Life as story is a compelling metaphor for me, literally. It also provides a pretty damn good framework for answering some heavy questions. For instance, why do bad things happen to good people? When you see life as something that is meant to be a good story, those tragedies can much more easily be seen as evidence of meaning and beauty, not the opposite. Just take care not to see this in wholly individualistic terms. This is a communal story. Each of us are just subplots. The whole is something much greater.

    The resonance all people have to good story seems powerful evidence that this is a fundamental principle of the current heaven and earth, and perhaps even of those to come.

  5. Janna

    I have never sat down and read a book cover to cover in one setting and can not imagine being able to concentrate on what I was reading with the Boss singing in the background. But I do like this review, Stephen. The quote makes me think of the time I took the Lord’s supper in church and the pastor talked about how the small portion is not supposed to satisfy; the hunger is meant to linger, for it is only the precursor to the real feast. Truly, many other books will say the opposite.

  6. Connie Solomon

    Thank-you for the big overlowing mug , surely feels like God winking at me.
    I read the first paragraph and thought about my daughter and her step daughter’s mother and a recent example of exceptional grace that has brought hope to a young single mother but the telling of it would surely not be graceful.
    I think about the neighborhoods I have been to lately that are plagued with drugs and robberies and yet God is still answering prayer and there is still hope, people are still asking for help other than financial help. They are asking for help to deal with their fear.
    My fear is no longer will I be harmed but what will happen if people quit living the lives and doing the good things God created for them to do.
    “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?
    Looking toward the wedding feast.

  7. Duane

    I have been waiting for the RR review of this book ever since I finished it last month. I had been kind of disappointed in what I read from Miller after Blue Like Jazz (specifically Searching For God Knows What), but I was excited about this book and I wasn’t disappointed. I found this book to be personally challenging. I have so many “I wish I would’s” in my life, but I never do. A Million Miles isn’t about hiking the Inca trail or riding your bike across country (at least not for me), but what I took from it was that even though things will never be perfect this side of Glory, it doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom and waiting for a story to happen to me either.
    “There’s purpose in every scene…”, Steve tells Don. And in that vein, the book challenged me to try and live with more purpose. Now I’ve got 4 kids and one with special needs, but I’ve always wanted to write a novel. So, I found a purpose, I have some characters and a direction, and am hoping to get started on it very soon. I am re-reading A Million Miles for more encouragment.
    Anyway, sorry for the rambling. Great review. Great book.

  8. Profile photo of Stephen Lamb

    Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    PJW: I loved that passage – such a cinematic moment.

    Drew: I think this book is tighter, more focused, than Blue Like Jazz. So don’t let that stop you.

    Nathan: Agreed. Chesterton wrote some great stuff along the same lines, about why good stories resonate with us.

    Janna: I love that picture of the Lord’s supper. Wish more people looked at it that way. And I’ve gotten into the habit of trying to read a book cover to cover at least once a month. It has to be the right kind of book, either memoir or fiction, but I love being able to absorb a story or the main ideas of a memoir in one sitting.

    Duane: I love to hear that kind of story. I wish you all the best in your novel writing. And I agree, that is exactly the point of the book, a reminder that “there’s purpose in every scene…”

  9. Tony Heringer

    Stephen,

    Thanks for the post. I first heard about this book on Steve Brown ETC. You all need to listen to this podcast. They tried to interview Don, but couldn’t get him on the phone. So, the show ends up being them reacting to the book. There a couple of stories shared that model this “inciting incident” idea. Here’s the link:

    http://stevebrownetc.com/podcasts/steve-brown-etc/a-million-miles-donald-miller-on-sbe/

    Miller’s been one of those guys on my reading list but I’m not there yet. This may be the book for me at some point, but they all sound like good reads. Steve Taylor and Don have a website up for the “Blue Like Jazz” movie: http://www.bluelikejazzthemovie.com/ Looks like a Rabbit Room type proejct.

    The initial part of this post reminded me of a line from “The Perfect Space” a song by the Avett Brothers: “I wanna have friends that I can trust, that love me for the man I’ve become not the man I was.” The music on “I And Love And You” is outstanding and I’d love to see it reviewed here. But, overall, it fits the spirit of what I take to be Miller’s writing style – what little I know of it.

    These two lines from the excerpt jumped out at me. First, this bit about the Gospel as infomercial:

    “I think Jesus can make things better, but I don’t think he is going to make things perfect. Not here, and not now.”

    To which I’d add “not yet” because He’s coming back and when He’s back then “all the sad things will come untrue.” (Yes, a shameless Jason Gray plug!)

    Second:

    “Maybe that’s what Paul meant when he said he’d learned the secret of contentment.”

    What has always struck me about this verse in Philippians is that Paul says he learned it. Not that he knew it or Jesus gave it to him out in the desert period, but that he learned it. That doesn’t take the frustration out of the daily lessons I get on this subject, but it does give me peace about the process and that my Teacher knows what He’s talking about whether I get it or not.

    Good food for thought lad. Thanks for sharing the subject and also the description of how you read the book. That was a fun way to tackle a meaty topic.

  10. Scott

    Stephen,

    Thanks for your review. It’s rare to have a book change the way I view my life. This is a book that will stay with you. Go get it and read it.

  11. Marc Petersen

    I like the question – “Who do I want to be?” It is something I need to ask myself more often.

    It is so important to not only talk about the needs of the world – but get involved in what is happening. I think that service and being available is key to living a good life.

    You mention Blood:Water Mission in this post and it is a great cause. In fact there is an opportunity to get involved by helping to raise awareness this fall over at their website.

    http://thefallcampaign.bloodwatermission.com/

    Anyway – thanks for a great post. I need to get this book now.

    Marc

  12. Jesse

    I have a small fear about this book (which I have not completely read, though I hope to finish it soon – I spent an evening reading it in Barnes and Noble but didn’t have the money in the budget to buy it that night), but it’s only a small fear. I fear that there will be those who read it and think that in order to live a great story they’ll need to do more exciting things, like hike epic trails and travel the world. But the truth is that I can think of so many who have touched my life through their own quiet, gentle stories of faithfulness to their families and dedicated service to their friends. Sure, we ought to all strive to better our lives – to let the Spirit do the work of sanctification – but Don’s transformational actions should not be looked at as a blueprint.

    There’s a great beauty in the small stories, in lives lived in the humility of the background, just as much as there is in the grand adventures. And truly, what drives the great stories is the depth of the characters they contain, not the deeds the characters perform. I hope that no one reads Miller and comes away with the wrong idea. And once again, Miller himself may address this in his book. Like I said, I haven’t finished it.

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *