The five elements of plot in the story of Hope for the First Nations — and how God can use your life story

by Emily McFarlan Miller

I’ve read “Blue Like Jazz” now three times: Once, when I was a freshman in college at a very liberal university, not unlike Reed College, the setting of Donald Miller’s book of “nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality.” I read it again immediately afterward when I led a small group at my church based around the book, that same group that included a Mormon and a number of nondenominational Christians I later mysteriously would convert to Catholicism. I just finished it for the last time in preparation for the release of the movie, in theaters last Friday.

But it’s possible I like Miller’s sort-of sequel “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” even better.

“A Million Miles” is about what Miller learned while editing his life, his nonreligious thoughts, into a coherent and compelling movie script.

It was published in 2009, but I’d been playing with the same idea of story since at least 2007. That’s when the pastor at the church I’d attended while growing up asked me to come talk during the sermon part of the service about the work I do with my nonprofit, Hope for the First Nations, ahead of our annual summer mission trip. I decided to talk about how my life story had been a kind of foreshadowing for this kind of work, the same way Miller’s led him to start The Mentoring Project, the same way your experiences already might have pointed you to your part in the bigger story God is telling through the world.

The movie reminded me of all this.

So I dug up the sermon, titled “The five elements of plot in the story of Hope for the First Nations,” arranged not dissimilarly to the elements of story Miller outlines in chapter three of “Blue Like Jazz”: setting, conflict, climax and resolution. This is the way Miller and filmmaker Steve Taylor also arranged the movie adaptation of “Blue Like Jazz.” And this makes me happy because it tells you it’s not just a sermon from me. It’s not just an idea from Donald Miller. It’s something God is telling His people, from a New York Times-bestselling author on the West Coast to a then-recent college grad, looking for God’s direction where to live, where to work, etc. It may be something He is telling you.

I’ve broken the sermon into a series based on the elements of plot so it doesn’t seem so very long (as sermons often do). You can read those over the next two weeks here. Here’s how it started.

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I think that’s how you start a sermon. Clearly, I’m not a pastor. And it’s funny: You don’t really think about how a sermon starts until Pastor Berg grabs you one day and says, “Hey, do you want to give the sermon?”

What I am is a recent college graduate and current professional intern; I start writing for a newspaper in Naperville on May 1. Most importantly, I help run a nonprofit organization on the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. At least, that’s the part of my life story Pastor Berg has asked me to talk to you about: What I do on the reservation, why I do it and why I’ve kept doing it for the past eight years.

Photo credit: Hope for the First Nations. Arrows divider via IROCKSOWHAT.