Fathers–A Loving Fact or Unbelievable Fairy Tale?
About the Guest
Donald Miller, author of numerous books including "Blue Like Jazz" and "To Own a Dragon," talks to Dennis Rainey about the challenges and disillusionment he faced growing up without a father.
Donald MillerDonald is the founder of Storyline, an organization that helps people live better stories. He is the author of several books including multiple New York Times Best Sellers. Donald lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee.
Author Donald Miller talks about the challenges and disillusionment he faced growing up without a father.
Fathers–A Loving Fact or Unbelievable Fairy Tale?
Bob: Donald Miller grew up with a deficit. It's a deficit that many young men experience today as they're growing up. He grew up without a dad, and it marked his life.
Donald: When I was a kid, my mom did a great job of trying to plug me into communities that existed with father figures and those sorts of things. One of those communities was Cub Scouts®. I went to Cub Scouts.
We had to make these pinewood cars, and all the guys' dads were supposed to help me, but they were busy helping their own sons. I couldn't make a car; I couldn't make the car work right; I couldn't figure that out. I don't even think my car had wheels on it. (Laughter)
I never, ever felt like this was because I didn't have a dad. That never crossed my mind. That was too complicated to put that together. I guess the assumption was that, intuitively, other boys my age knew that stuff. I did not make the connection that they had fathers helping them. I felt like there was something wrong with me.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, April 11th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. There is a lot about what it means to be a man that Donald Miller missed out on by growing up without a dad. We’ll hear from him about that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I'm just sitting here thinking about the fact that, in the room today, we really have probably three different pictures of a father/son relationship represented.
Dennis: We do; we do.
Bob: You had a close relationship with your dad; didn't you?
Dennis: I did. My dad's nickname was "Hook,"—“Hook" Rainey. I was thinking what a great dad I had; and even though he wasn't perfect and didn't do it all, he was a man of integrity and a man who was there for me.
Bob: I grew up in a home where I was, I would say, emotionally distant from my dad. He was a good family provider but not really relationally-connected very much with the kids. I knew he was there, and knew he was part of the family. We didn't have any real struggles; we just didn't have much going on.
Dennis: Right; and, Bob, the third part of the picture is Don Miller, whose father—well, really left you and your family when you were a toddler. Is that right, Don?
Don: Yes, I was two or three years old when he took off. I only saw him two or three times from that time until junior high. Then, after junior high, I never saw him again. You know, maybe 48 hours is all that I spent with my dad.
Dennis: That really is a picture, Bob, of what you're talking about—a good relationship with a father, a distant one and—how would you describe, Don, your relationship with your father—non-existent?
Don: Well, yes, non-existent physically; non-existent. I think we all have these sorts of relationships with our dads—as a tangled kind of web in there—with even if we didn't have a dad, that affects us, since there are all those relational dynamics that are there. But, yes, non-existent would be the way I'd describe it.
Dennis: You're a writer. You live in Portland, Oregon; and you've established a unique foundation called the Belmont Foundation. Is that right?
Don: Right, the Belmont Foundation.
Dennis: That's really to help single moms and help mentor the fatherless.
Don: Yes, the Belmont Foundation is going to take ten young men every year from ages nine to 12. We're going to provide ten mentors from our home church. Then, we've established a curriculum—that we are going to take those ten young men through.
For one year, they'll look at finances; character; spirituality, in terms of introducing them to their true Father, God—all sorts of other stuff. They'll actually graduate from that program at the end of the year. Then, those ten mentors, that we've provided—they'll stay with them for the rest of their lives—you know, even up into college and all that—as long as the friendship is there.
Then, we'll pick ten new mentors and provide ten more young men. We just want to keep doing that every year—just ten a year, one church doing ten a year. Then, we want to be able to clone that program on hundreds, if not thousands, of churches, all over the country. Hopefully, 10,000 young men every year would be provided with mentors through the local church.
Dennis: You get that model created and come back. We’ll help you pick up a few hundred, if not a few thousand churches—
Don: There you go. Give us a couple of years. We’ll be knocking on your door.
Dennis: —because that’s a much-needed ministry.
You've written a book, and I want to read just a section of this. Then, I want you to explain this to our listeners because you said, “In some ways, writing thoughts about a father, or not having a father, I feel as though I am writing a book about a dragon or a troll under a bridge. For me, a father is nothing more than a character in a fairy tale.”
Now, can you explain what you're trying to say there?
Don: Well, I think I was trying to point to the reality of the fact that, growing up without a dad, I was constantly asked the question, or people would look at me with sympathetic eyes, or something. I’d say, “Well, I didn't have a dad.” Their response taught me that there was something odd about that. I wouldn’t have known that there was something odd about that were it not for those responses.
It was that kind of a picture that I was trying to paint for people, who grew up with dads, to try to understand, “Here is what it kind of looks like.”
Bob: There's a sense in which whatever we grow up in is our own definition of normal; right?
Don: Exactly. That’s exactly it.
Bob: So, for you, growing up without a dad was normal.
Don: Normal in the sense that it was my experience. Of course, part of the point of the whole discussion is to say that it’s not normal. I had to come to grips with the idea that this was not perfect or even good, you know, or healthy. Now, God breaks into dark reality all over the place. That's the whole point of Scripture is to show God breaking into a dark reality; but at the same time, there has to be this admission of dark reality.
So, yes, having grown up without a dad, I had to step out of myself and look back and say, “Now, what were the things that I missed?” You know, now that I realize that I was supposed to have a dad—“What did I miss in the process of growing up without a father?”
Bob: When do you think you first became aware of the fact that your normal wasn’t normal and that there was a deficit as a result of that? Do you remember a time or a place, where you went—
Don: I remember a season. It was my mid-20s. A guy named John McMurray invited me to move in with him and his family. John was leading a college Bible study at the church I was going to. He invited me to come in and live with his wife and their kids, Chris, Elle, and Cassy.
It was during that season—it was four years—but it was the first year that I realized such a thing exists as a father because moving in with John and Terri—I thought the system was very strange. I mean, here you have a perfectly normal family—by that, I mean, a woman and her three children. Then, you have this man who fixes the washing machine and still spends the night every night. I didn't understand that.
So, you're just kind of going, “This is a bit weird.” Then, it was that first year of realizing, “No, this is actually a very good system. I get it. I see how this works and how these people work together.” They actually have a very healthy family. It was really nice that I was able to see that.
Then, the secondary question is, “Wait a second, I grew up without this. What did I miss? What did I miss out on?” Without having moved in with a family, I would have never probably asked that question.
Dennis: I want to challenge you on that for a second.
Dennis: You said that was the season when you finally came to the conclusion that there was something missing. Now, as a young lad growing up in a home—going to all kinds of events around school, and athletics, and all the things in childhood and boyhood—weren't there moments in that where you turned around and you noticed, “Every other boy here as got a dad to help him, but I don’t”? In fact, you alluded to it when—was it Boy Scouts—no one helped you fix the derby car?
Don: There were countless moments like that. The realization was, “I don't have a dad”, but never the assumption that, “I should have.” “I was made different,” you know? That's a very sad kind of reality to think about; but, yes, when I was a kid, my mom did a great job of trying to plug me into communities that existed with father figures and those sorts of things. One of those communities was Cub Scouts—I went to Cub Scouts, and we had to make these pine box—
Bob: Yes, the Pinewood Derby.
Don: The Pinewood Derby; right.
Bob: I was in that; yes.
Don: All the guys’ dads were supposed to help me, but they were busy helping their own sons. My mom would just drop me off at meeting, you know?
Dennis: She was making the assumption that there would be—
Don: —somebody was there helping me. I write about, in the book, how I don't even think my car had wheels on it. There was just a lot of WD-40 on the bottom of a block of wood. (Laughing)
Don: So, it wasn't—but that was a very sad—I mean, we laugh now, but that was very, very sad. I remember that being a very sad evening. It was not a happy time.
Dennis: Yes, that's where I was going to take you on that. We're laughing about that; but, for a boy, he's looking at his buddies’ cars, which are—
Don: —at least finishing.
Don: They're at least rolling.
Dennis: Yes, yes—
Dennis: —and yours doesn't even have hardly any wheels on it.
Dennis: What did you feel at that moment? Do you recall?
Don: No, I do recall. The way I felt was—and this was a constant feeling, having grown up with those situations, consistently happening—I felt like there was something wrong with me. I never, ever felt like this was because I didn't have a dad. That never crossed my mind. That was too complicated to put that together. “There was just something wrong with me. I couldn’t make a car. I couldn’t make the car work right. I couldn’t figure that out.” I guess the assumption was that, intuitively, other boys my age knew that stuff. They were just good at making Pinewood cars, and I was not good at making a Pinewood car.
At the time, I did not make the connection that they had fathers helping them. You know, just way too insecure to make that connection. You’re just—at this point, you’re just—you’re sort of fending for your life, you know? You’re just trying to matter, you’re trying to—you know, those kinds of things, and—
Dennis: You know, Don, I want to just hitchhike off the point you’re making there because it’s so simple; and yet, it’s so profound. Boys were made by God to have daddies.
Don: Oh, yes, yes.
Dennis: They really were.
Bob: And girls too; right?
Dennis: And girls too, absolutely; but in this culture, where six out of ten young people today are spending part of their first 18 years of life with one parent, that’s not an assumption that we necessarily embrace as a culture. The last verse in the Old Testament talks about the coming of the Messiah; and to me, it’s a great statement of a value—the value of being a father to your child.
Malachi, Chapter 4, verse 6, “And He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” This connection, this—I can’t even describe it—it’s a mysterious connection of a father/son, father/daughter, relationship. Somehow, it’s a preventative to a nation, some kind of protection for the longevity of the ability of a nation to continue. It’s that vital.
What we’re speaking to today—and the reason we wanted you to share your story with our listeners—Bob, we have a nation full of young men and women, who like Don, reflect back on their childhood. It really is like the troll and the dragon—it’s a fairy tale. There was no father in their lives.
Bob: So, your sense was, “Something’s wrong with me.” You look back on it and say, “Well, what was wrong was I didn’t have somebody helping me understand what manhood is all about.”
Don: Exactly; and I really understood that only a couple of years ago, when I started this book. I was watching a documentary—I think it was on Animal Planet®, or the Discovery Channel®, something like that—and it was about these elephants in Africa. There's a wildlife refuge where they have taken—15 or 20 years ago, they took 25 orphaned, very young elephants. They rescued them. They brought them to this wildlife refuge in Africa.
Twenty years later, the male elephants are reaching adolescence. It's a slower process in elephants. When this happens to them, the elephant routine is they'll enter into a musk cycle. That musk cycle will last a few days. Then, it will be over; and that's sort of their entry into adulthood.
These elephants entered into musk cycle—the young men—and did not come out of it. It was three days, and then a week, and then two weeks, and then a month. It never stopped. They began to behave extremely aggressively, which is not like an elephant at all. They began to kill rhinos. They were isolated from the community. They fought with each other in very violent ways. The people that worked the refuge were trying to figure it out.
They went back, and they studied why the elephants are doing this. They discovered that this musk cycle lasts for three days in the young men until they enter into a mentoring relationship with an older elephant. It's upon—that musk cycle is a cue for the older elephant to come alongside that younger elephant and teach them how to be a man elephant—how to be a grown elephant—what the muscle is for, what the strength is for, how to protect the community—these kinds of things.
Biochemically, the musk cycle ends upon the relationship with the older mentoring elephant. There were no older, mentoring elephants on the wildlife refuge. These were all young elephants, growing up together. There was nothing there to stop the musk cycle. They actually brought in some older elephants, a couple of older elephants. Immediately, the bonding sort of took place. The musk cycles ended, and everything turned out fine. It was watching that that made me realize that it was probably more than just, “I didn't learn to make a pinewood car.”
There is something actually that we learn relationally by having an older, stronger, more-together, wise man, around in our lives that we just sort of—there's a feeling of security there, a feeling of comfort. There's a kind of an adoration and sense of, “I want to be like this man. I want to”—and there's a kind of guiding principle. A lot of it has nothing to do with sitting down and learning to throw a baseball. It's just intrinsic in the family dynamic that is created.
I began to wonder if it wasn't also true for humans, the way it's true for an elephant. It's something like that. Then, you find out, you know—I went on and read this very academic book about the fatherless crisis in our country. It talked about 85 percent of men in prison grew up in homes completely without a father—85 percent. Another 10 percent or so had very bad role models, in terms of father figures. So, 95 percent of the people in prison did not have good fathers or fathers at all. I thought, “That's a very real picture of this sort of elephant analogy.”
You know, I had mentors and mentoring relationships in my life. John McMurray was one of those guys, but I wonder where my life would be without even that little bit of father-figure mentoring stuff.
Dennis: You also compared the hand-off that occurs, father to son, to an airplane trip you took—where you plugged in and listened to the pilots talk to one another, back and forth—because I think this further illustrates the very point you’re talking about.
Don: Yes, yes. I had, for years, had a problem with authority and didn't realize I had a problem with authority. I just thought people were wrong. (Laughter) I mean, that's very important—as comical as it is. I think there are probably a lot of people who will identify with that. “I don't have a problem with authority. They're just wrong.”
Dennis: Rules are—
Don: Rules are not correct.
Dennis: No, they're meant to be broken.
Don: Exactly. I had a problem with that for years and was on a flight, out of Chicago flying to Portland. You know, how sometimes they'll let you plug in and listen to pilots talking to each other? The pilots—they still have this system, where on a popular route like that, where there is a lot of plane traffic. There are planes flying to Portland all the time. They will call back weather patterns to the plane that's behind them, and they will receive calls from the plane that's in front of them, by an hour or so.
They’re constantly receiving signals from the people in front of them saying, “Hey, there’s choppy air. You're going to want to go up a couple of thousand feet and get over this storm,” or whatever it is. Then, the pilot, who was flying my plane, will then call back, an hour or so behind, and say, “Hey, everything looks smooth here. We’re getting some disturbances an hour ahead, but we’ll keep you posted on that when we get there.”
I really thought, “Well, that’s such a beautiful picture of what I’m missing in my life. Nobody is calling back to me by 20, 25 years and saying, ‘Hey, you know, work ethic looks like this,” and, “Here is how you should manage money’”—
Dennis: —“and this is how you care for a woman.”
Don: —“here is how you care for a woman, and here is how you raise kids.” That was simply not happening because of my distrust and dislike for authority, which all stems from father stuff.
Here is what I mean. If you didn’t have a dad, you kind of hang out at the Pinewood Derby car race; and you feel like you don’t belong. The thing that makes you feel like you don’t belong are these other older males. Well, if these older males are giving you signals that, “You don’t belong,” you tend not to like them. I mean, you tend to go, “Well, if I don’t belong, you don’t belong,” or, “If you don't like me, I don't like you.” There you have the whole establishment of not trusting, or liking, or wanting authority.
So, if somebody comes in and says, “Hey, I want you to do this,” you've kind of got this feeling, “Man, you’ve told me”—even if you never met this guy—“You've told me, all my life, I don’t matter. Now, you want me to do this? You’re just using me. I’m not going to do it.”
Bob: Not only that, but you wind up hanging around with other young men—
Don: —who feel the same way.
Bob: So, that herd, that elephant herd, now is on the loose.
Don: Yes, it can be. I mean, when I was in junior high, we were already breaking into houses, stealing loose change and stuff from people’s dressers. That would have escalated—I’m pretty confident it would have escalated—but there was a man named David Gentiles. He’s the first guy who kind of took me under his wing, in a way, and provided a mentoring relationship. It was at that very critical time.
You know, I don't know if it was all Dave or what it was; but there was just this sense of, “I kind of want to be like that guy,” and, “That guy isn’t breaking into houses, stealing loose change off of people’s dressers. That guy has a job, and a family, and he seems to be a pretty well-together kind of guy.” That is what rescued me from—and ultimately, it was God because Scripture tells us that He is going to provide for us.
Bob: You know, when my sons have been in junior high and high school, one of the questions I’ve asked them is—I’ve said, “Look ahead of you, four or five years, and just pick somebody—who would it be? Pick somebody that you think, ‘Five years from now, that’s the kind of guy I’d like to be like.’” You know, they are doing that, whether they are doing it intentionally or not. I’m just trying to make sure that they’re thinking about who they would like to be like rather than just deciding; you know?
Dennis: Or getting their marching orders from the herd—
Dennis: —as we’ve just been talking about here. I think there are a couple of key applications here, for a father, that I don’t want to miss.
Number one: Your children need a relationship with you. They don’t just need your presence at the games. They don’t just need you to show up. They need a heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul, intentional relationship with you, where you tell them, “You love them,” you tell them, “You are proud of them,” you communicate that , “You’re glad and you’re privileged to be their father.”
Secondly—and I think this is what I got from your book, Don, as I was reading it. Dads today have to be intentional with young men and with young ladies around issues of masculinity and femininity. They need to define, for their sons, what a real man is, and what a real man does, and how a real man behaves. They need to do that, not once, but over, and over, and over again.
As we do that—as we, as fathers, do that, even so imperfectly through our own mistakes—I think that’s where the hand-off occurs, like you talked about from the lead airplane calling back to the next airplane that’s 25 years younger and affirming those things that are found in Scripture.
Bob, I think today, men, more than ever, need training, they need encouragement, they need help. For many, they may need—they may need to reflect upon their own relationship, or lack of relationship, with their father like Don has written about in his book.
Bob: The book is called Father Fiction. It’s a book we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. If our listeners are interested, they can go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on the book and on how you have reflected on this issue, as one who grew up without a dad. Again, the title of the book is Father Fiction. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on the book.
I should probably mention here that the book, Blue Like Jazz, which is probably your best-known book, has just been turned into a movie and is coming to theaters this weekend. I haven’t had a chance to see it, but I know a lot of people are curious about the film and how your story in Blue Like Jazz gets translated to the movie theater screen. We want to let people know about that, as well.
Again, for more information about the book, Father Fiction, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. You can order from us online, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”.
Now, let me take just a minute and say, “Thanks,” to the folks who help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today by making a donation from time to time to support what we’re doing. We are listener-supported, and it’s your donations that help cover the cost of producing and syndicating this daily radio program. We appreciate your help with that and your participation in this ministry.
This week, if you are able to help with a donation of any amount, we’d like to send you as a thank-you gift a copy of Barbara Rainey’s brand-new devotional guide for families. It’s called Growing Together in Forgiveness—seven stories about what it means to forgive and to be forgiven—designed to help foster and cultivate an attitude of forgiveness in your home.
We had a number of you get in touch with us recently to request a copy of this book. We still have copies available, and again, it’s our thank-you gift to you when you help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today this week. If you can make a donation online at FamilyLifeToday.com, all you have to do is click the button that says, “I Care”. When you make your online donation, we’ll send the book out to you automatically; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Make a donation over the phone; and ask for your copy of the book, Growing Together in Forgiveness, by Barbara Rainey, when you get in touch with us. We do appreciate your support. Glad to have you on the team, and we appreciate your listening to FamilyLife Today.
I want to encourage you to be back with us again tomorrow when we’re going to hear again from Donald Miller—find out more about what it was like for him, growing up without a dad.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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