Donald Miller on Life as a Solo Son

The best-selling author of Blue Like Jazz reckons with his fatherless childhood—and offers hope for single moms and their sons.

Among the few memories Donald Miller has of his dad is the Christmas Eve he showed up on the back porch with a garbage bag full of unwrapped toys. Then there was a lunch or two. That's it. Donald Miller grew up in a world of women—his mother, sister, and a nearby aunt.

Donald is in his 30s now, but the best-selling author of Blue Like Jazz has much in common with the current generation of young boys, 40 percent of whom, according to a recent Newsweek report, are being raised without their biological dad. In his book, To Own a Dragon (NavPress), Donald explores the unique challenges of a fatherless boyhood. Written with friend and mentor John MacMurray, the memoir vividly depicts the emotional and psychological ramifications of being fatherless and provides snapshots of people who helped him grasp what it means to be a "real" man and accept the love of God the Father.

Donald Miller recently spoke with TCW about the importance of mentors in the lives of fatherless boys, his plan to turn the momentum of To Own a Dragon into a nationwide movement to support single moms and their children, and the best thing his mom ever did for him.

Eighty-five percent of the men in prison grew up without a father. I'm convinced hope for America lies with the church stepping in to mentor the fatherless.

How did growing up without a father affect you?

I felt perpetually out of place, like I didn't belong on the planet. My mom was wonderful, but there was only so much she could do. I remember a pinewood derby my Boy Scout troop held. My mom dropped me off the night we were to build the race cars, trusting that the fathers in the garage making their sons' cars would also help me make mine. They didn't. And I didn't care. I just wanted to goof off anyway. On race night I don't think my car even had wheels on it! Just a lot of WD-40 on the bottom of a block of wood and a stripe down the side like the car from the Dukes of Hazzard. (laughing) I knew I didn't really fit in anywhere, but I didn't connect that with the fact I didn't have a dad.

So when did you start to realize its impact on you?

In my 20s Father's Day became painful for me. I forced myself to go to church that day without my dad, feeling as though God must not love me since he left this out of my life.

I also became increasingly aware of how I'd isolated myself from others. I always thought I was wired to be extremely independent. But the truth is, I was scared. My dad didn't love me. Maybe no one else would, either.

How did growing up without a father affect your view of God?

Guys who grow up without dads don't believe God shows up. I believed he loved me, but I believed it was an absentee kind of love. There was no real intimacy.

But when I was in my mid-20s, I lived with John MacMurray and his family for four years. During that time I saw a real man be a father and husband for the first time. It wasn't always easy or fun—for John or me—but I learned a lot.

John showed me how even he, a very hands-on dad, needed to introduce his children to their real father, God. As much as John loved his kids, God loved them even more and would be their guide long after he was gone. I liked the idea that despite the very real pain of my earthly father's absence, I had a Father in heaven. I hadn't been completely abandoned.

Since then, I've learned to process my faith in God in a way that reflects a Father/son relationship. God is molding me in his likeness—through the work of the Holy Spirit and other people in my life. He's fathering me. And the thing I learned about fathers, at least in John's case, is that they always have their kids' best interests at heart. That concept changed everything for me.

How so?

Matthew 6 says God will give us what we need, not necessarily what we want. So when I don't get something I want, I can trust God that it isn't something I need. And I can trust him now because I understand, thanks in large part to living with John, what it means to be a father.

Mentorship is a big component of The Mentoring Project, the nonprofit program you've launched to help the church address the epidemic of fatherlessness. Tell me about the program.

At my church in Portland we've initiated a plan that forges mentoring relationships between men—all undergo thorough background checks—and boys ages 9 to 12. We want to see a significant number of men in our congregation be a part of this, but it's important to involve their wives as well. Often couples mentor as a team. The Mentoring Project also provides practical support for single moms—help with household repairs, for example—and other resources. We hope to create a ministry prototype that can be cloned in churches nationwide. Eighty-five percent of the men in prison grew up without fathers. I'm convinced America's hope lies with the church stepping in to mentor the fatherless.

Is it really possible for the church to tackle such a huge problem?

Look at what the church is doing post-Katrina in New Orleans! I recently sat next to a couple of women at a coffee shop who weren't Christians but kept talking about "this church." They meant the body of Christ as a whole; they were impressed with how, while the government was tied up in bureaucracy, the church was rebuilding New Orleans. I thought, What a beautiful witness!

John 17 is being fulfilled across the Gulf Coast—people are seeing that we are Christians by our love. And I have this vision that in the same way "this church" is tackling rebuilding New Orleans, we can tackle fatherlessness.

But even a devoted mentor can't replace a biological dad.

It's true. Someone recently said to me, "Don, there's no hope for me. I grew up without a father, and I'll never be normal." I told him nothing could replace his dad's absence, but even 10 percent of a dad is a miracle. So go get your 10 percent. And churches can provide that via ministries such as The Belmont Foundation.

What can churches do to address fatherlessness now, before The Belmont Foundation goes nationwide?

One idea is to host a Saturday seminar. Take boys fishing, teach them to knot a tie and balance a checkbook and interact with women, how to handle their emotions appropriately.

Also, churches can make an effort to meet the practical needs of the single moms in their midst. Part of The Belmont Foundation's* vision is for handymen and women in the church to come alongside single moms and help them with some of the practical demands of running a household—fixing a washing machine or changing the oil in a car—so these moms can spend some leisure time with their kids. If you can ease a single mom's workload even a little bit, that's a huge blessing.

What advice do you give single moms?

I encourage them to look around at the men in their church communities to find mentors for their sons. Then, when you have a candidate, approach the man's wife first. This is critical. Explain your situation and ask them to pray about the possibility of being a mentor in your son's life. If the couple has any doubts, ask them to say no. It's hard for single moms to admit there's something missing, but it's not your fault. And it's so important that you initiate something. My mom brought several men into my life—including David Gentilles, the youth pastor at the church I grew up in—and I'm blessed because of it.

Tell me about your relationship with David.

In early junior high a good friend and I discovered an easy way to break into houses, where we stole loose change from jars on people's dressers. At the same time, David recruited me to write for the youth group newsletter. It wasn't like I was deciding which person I was going to become; it's more like I was swimming in a river and there were two equal currents. I easily could have ended up in prison—first breaking into houses, then falling in with the wrong crowd, then drugs, and so on. But David threw out a rope and pulled me in a safer direction.

In addition to introducing you to David, what was one of the best moves your mom made as a single mother?

When I went into high school, my mom let go of me. I wasn't a rebellious kid, so she didn't have to worry about that. But she let go emotionally; she didn't become needy. I'm eternally grateful for that. Also—and I realize this sounds cliché—my mom prayed, as did my Aunt Evelyn. They prayed for me every day, and I'm convinced those prayers saved me.

For more information about Donald Miller, read TCW article "The Offbeat Evangelist" and visit Miller's website, www.storylineblog.com. And for more information about The Mentoring Project, visit http://thementoringproject.org/.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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