cancelled in my heart
This is a story of eating humble pie.
For the last 15 years, part of my work has been facilitating conversations with young adults about the concept of “vocation,” or “calling.” I worked with Brethren Volunteer Service and a bunch of other faith-based long-term volunteer programs. I traveled all around the country, and over the course of those years, I probably facilitated 100 conversations about how we discern God’s call in our lives. I loved doing that work, and as I listened to young people talk about how they sensed God at work leading them toward lives of faithfulness, my understanding of vocation changed pretty radically.
In the beginning, I used a video of the author Donald Miller to help start conversations. Miller had written a book called “Blue Like Jazz,” which was a NYT bestseller that told the story of how he found his way back to God. The book was so popular that it was made into a movie, and Miller ended up writing a second book, called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, a reflection on what it’s like to see your own life made into a movie. At those vocation sessions, we watched an interview where Donald Miller talked about the second book, and what he learned about the process of story-telling and how that could change the way we live our lives.
It was a good activity. We’d watch Donald Miller, discuss what we heard, and then do an activity where the young people would try to imagine their own lives made into a movie. But after a few sessions, I started hearing interesting feedback: the way Miller talked about how people’s lives change – how the plot advances – was filled with privilege. He had transformed his life by undertaking a cross-country bike trip and hiking Machu Pichu in Peru, but these volunteers were spending their lives working with underserved populations – people in poverty and affected by addiction, violence and hunger. Advancing the plot of our lives by taking an expensive vacation to South America just wasn’t relevant, they said. They – and I – started getting annoyed with Donald Miller for assuming everybody’s life looked like his.
So, we started incorporating that – a conversation about privilege and what other events might change the course of our lives into the discussion. But eventually, I just couldn’t, in good conscience, keep asking these young people to use Donald Miller’s very white, rich, privileged example of story-telling as a guideline for their own lives, which they were attempting to live in solidarity with the poor, oppressed and hurting.
And then, Donald Miller made it even easier for me to delete him from the curriculum: he sold out. I and all those young people I was working with were living on very small stipends, living in community, and dedicating our lives to living simply and radically. Donald Miller wrote his books and then pivoted his fame and success into a very, very lucrative marketing and branding company. I remember when I learned that he was hosting weekend retreats that cost $10,000 to attend. I threw my hands up in disgust, and cancelled Donald Miller in my heart. How in the world, I wondered, could someone who was so obviously motivated by profit and wealth be a trustworthy guide for me or my people who were determined to live by other values? Ugh. Double ugh.
Donald Miller grew his brand, and then grew it some more. Today, he’s a multi-millionaire who never talks about finding God anymore. He used the fame he gained by being honest and vulnerable about his faith to become very, very rich and traffic in ways for other people to get rich, too. Ugh. Double ugh.
I started working in a congregation, and then came to understand that it was time for me to move on. Right around the time I was starting to think about what would be next for me if I left the Manassas CoB, the senior pastor gave me a Christmas gift. “I left it on your desk,” he said. “I saw it and thought it might help you with your discernment.” I unwrapped the present, already skeptical, and laughed out loud. It was a copy of Donald Miller’s newest publication – not a memoir or spiritual reflection, but a personal branding workbook, a course in how to market yourself. I laughed out loud, tucked the book deeper in my desk, and mostly forgot about it.
But my season of discernment continued, and one day, at a loss for how to move forward in deciding what to do or where to go next, I picked up the workbook, opened to a random page, and did the activity there – a way of mapping out your life, like screenwriters map out the plot of a movie, in order to notice patterns and themes. The reflection at the end of the activity opened doors in my brain, calmed my anxiety about what was next in life, and helped me decide to actually resign from the church, even without a new job. I was so MAD that it was Donald Miller, the sell-out, who had gotten me out of my funk.
I kept leading sessions on vocation, and I’d tell this story and use this new exercise from Donald Miller – the lesson being, of course, that you might find direction and guidance even from the person or place that you least expect it. I laughed at myself, the volunteers had meaningful experiences with the new story-mapping exercise, but I continued to think of Donald Miller as a sell-out whose profit-driven, capitalist sin just happened to be helpful for those of us who actively wanted to live very different lives. This went on for a while.
This year, I’ve been in another season of vocational discernment. I spent a few months applying for full-time jobs to complement being a ¼ time pastor, but nothing took root. In December, a member of the Manassas congregation who works in marketing sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in doing some marketing copywriting for him. He had recently done some professional development and was implementing a new marketing strategy for the company that included all new branding and a new, story-telling approach to their product. I’d write several blog posts each month, he said, being consistent with their new marketing language and themes, and if I was interested in learning about the theory and process underlying his new approach, he’d also love to pay me to read the books that had helped him get to this place.
I eagerly agreed, because I like and trust this guy and was curious about what marketing copywriting might entail. It seemed like a good first step into freelance writing, which is what I am doing a lot of now, three months later. Freelance writing has unexpectedly become where most of my energy and time are happily spent. He sent me the title of the book.
Can you guess?
Yep. Building a StoryBrand, Donald Miller’s latest capitalist profit-driven offering. I called my friend Callie, who had been with me through all those years of loving and then hating Donald Miller, who had joined me in bashing him for selling out and laughed at me for finding his later work so poignantly helpful in my own life. We laughed together. I’m still kind of mad about it. And I am chastened, humbled, corrected: that I have found direction for my life’s work from the very last person I wanted it from not once, but TWICE. Donald Miller just won’t leave me alone. Dang it.
I still really dislike Donald Miller. I am still deeply skeptical about the way he used his Christian fame and his story of finding God to become a millionaire. I do not want to pattern my life after his. And also: I cannot escape the fact that his work has, in some strange ways, shaped my life. I keep having to eat that humble pie.
I told this story yesterday morning in a sermon on 1 Samuel 13, the scripture where the prophet Samuel names David as the next king of the Israelites.
Samuel and God have had a long, winding relationship over the years. Before Samuel showed up on the scene, the people of Israel have spent generations being led by judges – they had no king, and God liked it that way. But the people looked around and saw that all their neighbors had KINGS, not a panel of judges, and they thought it sounded like a good idea. They insisted. God relented, and even though he sent the prophet Samuel to warn the people that having a king would lead to no good, he also had Samuel anoint Saul to be the king the people were clamoring for.
It didn’t go well. Saul was big, a military star, and humble to boot. But he couldn’t bring himself to obey God completely, and so God sent Samuel to remove him from his throne. And then, God sent Samuel to the house of Jesse, because God had chosen a new king from that set of brothers.
Samuel shows up, invites the household to worship with him, and explains his task. Bring out your sons, he tells Jesse, so I can see which one is God’s choice for king. So Jesse parades his sons before Samuel, each one bigger and mightier than the last, but Samuel says NOPE to every alpha male in the line. The whole crowd is exhausted by the end, and Samuel sighs: “Is there really no one else? These are ALL your sons?”
And Jesse says, well, there’s the baby, but he’s not even grown yet. We knew he couldn’t be the next king, because he’s barely out of elementary school. We kept him out in the pasture with the sheep while we had this meeting. “Good grief,” Samuel says, “get him in here!”
And so here comes David, a tiny, young, bewildered kid. The way scripture describes him makes it sound, to us, like he’s good looking, a prize of a man. But the Hebrew language makes it clear: this is a pretty boy. He’s not big and muscular, he has no military experience, he’s barely even of legal age. He’s such an unlikely candidate that his father didn’t even invite him to the meeting! But when David comes in from the pasture, the Lord says “there he is! This is the one! Anoint him!”
And so Samuel, long used to God’s strange ways, anoints the kid David as the next king of Israel. And we learn that from that moment on, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him in powerful ways.
The story of King David’s life is long and complicated. He wasn’t always a fantastic king, and he wasn’t always a fantastic leader. But from that moment he was dragged in from his place with the sheep, he was God’s choice. His life shaped the lives of many, many others. God anointed him, and worked through him in ways that no one – not even his own father – could have imagined.
I think sometimes we are amenable to the idea that God works through the people we ignore when those folks are people on the margins. And, honestly, that’s how a lot of scripture tells the story. I wonder, though, how willing we are to consider that God works through people we ignore because they’re NOT on the margins. What if God does show up in the work of millionaires like Donald Miller? What if we DO learn from famous people and politicians? What if we can find ways to draw nearer to God even in the life and work of people we deeply, deeply disagree with? What if God cares way less about our human hierarchies than we do?
That’s hard for me. It is, honestly, kind of offensive. I would much, much rather write those people off, have them cancelled, and never have to consider the complicated realities of their humanity ever again. I would really like to have been able to categorize Donald Miller as a faithless sell-out whose life and work could be tossed in the bin of “never going to be relevant or important for my life.” Unfortunately, it seems like that’s not how God chooses to work.
To be honest, I don’t really like this thing that I’m preaching this morning. It’s much easier to give into our human tendency to categorize people as good or bad, progressive or conservative, with us or against us, and then orient our lives so that we only interact or take guidance from the people we’ve determined to be on the correct side of that line – whatever the line is that we’ve chosen to draw.
But I don’t think God ever cancels people. I don’t think God ever writes anyone off, or throws any person into a bin of “irrelevant” or “unimportant.” And I would like to have my heart shaped like God’s – or at least spend my life in pursuit of that kind of love and grace.
The calling of King David, and the subsequent mash up of his life as King, filled with some good choices and plenty of very, very bad ones, makes me consider the ways that God views us. My own experience with writing off Donald Miller and then having his work shape my life over and over again makes me re-think the way I choose to categorize and interact with people across all the spectrums of life.
I wonder, who in your own life would you be least likely to willingly learn from? Who in our life together have we written off that just might have some priceless guidance or instruction or pathway to God? I don’t know the answers to those questions, and I am, honestly, sort of reluctant to even speak a name aloud, lest I be drawn, again, into the process of having to eat humble pie and realign my understanding of the way the world is organized. But I’m curious enough to hear what you think.