Posts Tagged ‘Donald Miller’

This is the sermon I preached on Aug. 7, 2011 at Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church.


Some of you probably recognized the music Denise played just now. It’s the theme to the British science fiction show Doctor Who. Anybody here a fan?

All you need to know for our purpose here is that the principal character, the Doctor, is a super-intelligent alien with a machine that lets him travel anywhere in time and space. With his home planet gone, he is always traveling the universe, usually with human companions.

The show started in 1963 and ran until the late 1980s, and then was revived in 2005.

In the 2010 season, the storyline involved a disruption in time that was on the verge of causing the entire universe to not exist. And not only would it not exist, it would be swallowed into time and never have existed at all.

The Doctor eventually figures out a solution, but it will mean that in order to save the universe, he will have to let himself be erased – to never have existed.

He puts the plan into motion and as it begins to take effect, time starts to rewind for him and he finds himself at the bedside of his current traveling companion, Amelia – but about 15 years in the past when she is just a little girl.

Here’s the reason I bring it up. As he sits beside her while she sleeps, he says these words:

“When you wake up … you won’t even remember me. Well, you’ll remember me a little. I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s okay. We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know. It was the best.”

We’re all stories, in the end.

In this fantasy story, the Doctor’s real life with Amy will become just a half-remembered childhood tale.  And isn’t he right? We are all stories in the end.

When we pass from the world, those who knew us will tell stories about us from their memories. To those who remember us, the stories will bring vivid recollections. But to those who never knew us, we’ll never be more than characters in a story.

And in another generation, no one alive will have known us.

We’re all stories in the end.

There’s a lesson in that. If we’re all stories in the end, we’re all stories in the now. The story doesn’t begin only after our lives are done. We’re living our stories now, day by day, hour by hour.

A choice we make today, even a seemingly trivial one, can reverberate into the future, shaping some part of our lives a week from now, or next year.

Once we grasp that – when we can see ourselves as each the protagonist of a novel – we can become the author as well. We can live a story, to some extent shaped by other people and circumstances, but to a large degree within our control.

So how do we do that? How do we take our lives and see them as stories?  How do we see ourselves as telling a story, rather than being carried along by the stories going on around us?

The first step is simply believing that we can.

Your life is a first-person novel; you are both the protagonist and the author. As protagonist, you interact with all the other characters in your novel. Some are significant supporting characters, some are occasional bit players, but they all can steer our course in big and small ways.

So can events, things that happen unexpectedly that we must deal with.

We begin to write our stories, rather than coast through them, when we make choices that may change our course.

Often, the choices we make aren’t surprising, although they do set a direction. Sometimes, we do something nobody expected, that even we weren’t sure we would do. Whether the choices are big or small, we take up the pen when we choose a direction.

But can we really do this? Can we make true choices or are we prisoners of our genes? Are we limited by our circumstances? Is our free will only an illusion?

In fact, there are some limits on our choices, but they’re not set in stone.

In fiction, good characters are defined well so that who they are limits what they are likely to do,  limits that grow naturally from the character’s beliefs, ethics, desires and weaknesses. When a character we’ve become familiar with does something unexpected that’s not well explained as part of the story, our suspension of disbelief snaps because we know it’s out-of-character behavior.

Can you imagine James Bond running away in panic when the villain’s henchmen shoot at him? Would Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko from the “Wall Street” movies give all his money to charity without an ulterior motive?

Can you imagine Star Trek’s Mr. Spock cracking jokes and flirting with the women on the Enterprise if he wasn’t under the influence of some force that broke his devotion to unemotional logic?

When these things happen in fiction, we in the audience reject it because it’s out of character. The only way it could be even possibly acceptable is if the behavior represents a real change of heart for the character and becomes part of the story.

And there’s the limitation on the stories of our lives: we rarely behave out of character.

Theoretically, turning tail and running from danger is an option James Bond could choose, but because of who he is, fundamentally, he never would.

But in real life, as in fiction, there is a time for out-of-character behavior.

In fiction, it signifies an author wanting to make a serious change to a character’s nature, and will influence all future stories about that character.  It has the same significance in real life.

Our choices become habits, habits become patterns and patterns become character.

For example, imagine that someone insults you at a party.  In theory, you have any of a large number of reactions to choose from.

You can ignore it. You can walk away from the person. You can insult the person back. You can slap her. You can pretend to ignore it and then go outside and slash her tires. And so on.

But in reality, you have a narrower range of choices, and those we’re most likely to take are influenced by our inborn personalities, the ways we’ve reacted to insult in the past, our relationship to the person who insulted us and even our mood of the moment.

Like the prospect of James Bond panicking rather than maintaining his calm demeanor, there are some reactions that are viable options in the abstract but not options we would ever take – at least not without awareness of the factors that influence us and a deliberate decision to defy them.

Whatever way we choose to react, that reaction will add to the patterns already in place. That will influence our actions in the future.

It also will add to the patterns affecting the person who insulted us (just as her insult added a new pattern to our own.)

And that’s where out of character behavior comes in.

When someone who is easily angered chooses to learn deep-breathing calming exercises to help control the anger, he’s changing his own story.

In the past it would have been in character for him to respond to bad service in a restaurant by yelling at the server.  But after he takes up the pen and writes a new aspect to his character, he’s more likely to patiently request another cup of coffee twice rather than grow angry when the first request goes unmet for ten minutes.

From then on, he’s telling a new story with his life, and affecting the other characters in his novel in different ways, a change that ripples out to the characters in the novels that star those other characters.

Those other people.

That’s the other dimension here. Our stories are not limited to ourselves.

They begin before we are born, with our parents. With their parents. And so on back.

We exist, and live the lives we do, because of thousands, tens of thousands of small decisions that people made before we were even here, and that we, and others, have made since then.

This is a concept that you find strongly in some neo-pagan traditions. In Asatru, a pagan religion drawn from Scandanavian lore, it’s called wyrd. W-y-r-d.

It simply means that who we are is shaped by who our ancestors were, and that wat we do, our decisions, continue to shape us, and ultimately our children and grandchildren.

It’s something similar to, but not quite the same as, the concept of karma.

It reminds us that causes of our decisions don’t start with us, and the effects of our decisions don’t stop with us. Our decisions affect those around us.

They affect our children, grandchildren and, as we affect them, they make choices influenced in part by us that will affect their own children.

Those of you who were here for Bruce’s Question Box sermon last week may recall what he said about his influences. He told us of his grandfather, who left Germany with his wife and daughter just before World War II.

He came to the midwest ofAmerica, and eventually became an enthusiastic Unitarian. Because of that one decision, and the decisions that flowed from it, Bruce’s mother found a husband in the heart ofAmerica, and raised her children as UUs.

They might have been German Lutherans instead, but one man’s decision to flee his homeland changed all that.  And all of it shaped Bruce’s early life and led to his becoming a UU minister.

That’s storytelling.

Bruce’s grandfather is, to us, a story. We’re all stories, in the end. But that story shaped Bruce’s story in profound ways. Our stories are driven by an interwoven thread that binds together what has been, what is becoming and what will be.

So how does this help us live a better story?

Recognize, when you have moments of choice in your life, that your first inclinations are going to be strongly affected by your past, by the accumulation of choices and habits little by little. Your natural impulse may be a good choice for your story but if it’s not, you have the power – with courage – to make another choice.

Here’s another example: Donald Miller, a Christian essayist, wrote a memoir called Blue Like Jazz, and later, some independent film-makers decided to make a movie of it. But first they had to turn Miller’s rambling memories into a tight, coherent plot suitable for film.

Miller wrote another book about the experience of editing his life, called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. In it, he tells about attending a seminar on storytelling taught by a writer named Robert McKee. And soon after that, he visits a friend whose daughter is dating someone the father doesn’t like or trust. Miller goes on:

Then I said something that caught his attention. I said his daughter was living a terrible story.

 “What do you mean?” he asked.

 To be honest, I don’t know exactly what I meant. I probably wouldn’t have said it if I hadn’t just returned from the McKee seminar.

 But I told him what I’d learned, that the elements of a story involve a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Even as I said this, I wasn’t sure how it applied to his daughter.

 “Go on,” my friend said.

 “I don’t know, exactly, but she’s not living a very good story. She’s caught up in a bad one.”

Miller and his friend talked a while longer, about novels and movies and what makes for a good story, and the visit ended. But, he writes:

 A couple of months later I ran into Jason and asked about his daughter.

 “She’s better,” he said to me, smiling. And when I asked why, he told me his family was living a better story.

The better story in this case was a radical one.

Miller’s friend had thought about the conversation and decided to take deliberate steps to improve the story his family was living.  He hooked up with an organization that builds orphanages in third-world countries and committed the family to build one in Mexico, at a cost of about $25,000 they didn’t have.

Most of us would not consider such a step. I wouldn’t. But you have to admit, that’s a hell of a story.

It’s when we make those pivotal choices in recognition that we need not be limited by the choices we’ve made before that our lives can turn dramatically.

Donald Miller’s friend and Bruce’s grandfather are examples of people who made profound changes to radically alter their stories.

But it doesn’t have to be a big and dramatic shift. You don’t have to abandon your life and go build an orphanage to live a better story. You don’t have to flee your homeland and start a new life in a new place.

Often we change our patterns, our habits, just a little, in a way that will be in play as the threads of our lives continue to weave together. But that small course correction, almost imperceptible at the time, can eventually lead us to a place miles and miles from where we would have been had we not made it.

Another key ingredient it living a better story is clarity of ambition.

Remember what Donald Miller learned in the story seminar: a story is about a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.

Clear desires make for strong stories. Muddled, ambivalent lives make for muddled, ambivalent stories.

In any compelling drama, you should be able to point to any major character and be able to say, succinctly, what the person wants in that moment in the story.

Think of a film you’ve seen or a novel you’ve read that had a lasting impact on you, and it’s likely that part of the reason is because it was clear what the main characters wanted.

Think of a story that seemed uninvolving or left you feeling unsatisfied, and it may be because the characters lacked direction – we don’t understand why they do what they do, because a poor storyteller doesn’t know just what it is they’re trying to achieve.

A clear objective gives the character a path to travel, engaging the obstacles along the way.  Often those obstacles come from other characters, living their own stories. Sometimes they come from within, weaknesses in our characters or simple mistakes in our perceptions that we must overcome.

Living your life as a story isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s a way of thinking about life that can open new doors for us.

In the Doctor Who episode that we started with, Amy and her fiance Rory remember the Doctor just as  a story, as he said they would, until the vividness of the story starts to feel real in their minds and he’s able to return to existence.

It’s a metaphor of course, and it’s a powerful one: Stories matter.

Compelling lives make for compelling stories.

Compelling stories can have a power that lives on after the person at the center of them is a memory.

We have the power to write our stories as we go and, if the need arises, to deliberately choose to live a better one.

We’re all stories in the end. We’re all stories in the now.

Make yours a good one.

Make it the best.


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