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Mar 08, 2012 | The Rev. Dr. Bob Lively

Commentary: Remembering Keith Miller

I first heard of Keith Miller about 40 years ago when, as a recent seminary graduate, I faced the daunting challenge of growing into the role of a useful pastor in a large Presbyterian church in Dallas.   A colleague loaned me a small book bearing the intriguing title: The Taste of New Wine.   I more devoured, than I actually read this book. Somehow this colleague intuited that a bit of Keith Miller’s sagacity was precisely what this insecure and terribly anxious, mistake-making young pastor needed. 


Honestly, I don’t remember all that much about the book, and yet his message of striving to be consistently authentic and real with other people and with God has remained written upon my heart for more than four decades. 


Twenty-five years ago, I moved to Austin where I met Keith Miller for the first time.  Oddly enough, he and I were summoned to attend a meeting where the two of us assumed opposing positions on a particular issue.  Keith was, of course, a brilliant advocate for his point of view, while I did my best to provide even so much as a cogent argument against his sound reasoning.   There could be no question in anyone’s mind that Keith and his wisdom, which was predicated upon an uncommon dedication to compassion, won the day. 


As the meeting broke up, Keith approached me with his hand extended.  He didn’t gloat, nor did he attempt to set me straight like so many others had done in the past.   No, he simply welcomed me to Austin and then told me he was genuinely glad to meet me. What surprised me most was that I believed him.


A year or so later I read his book, Sin, the Ultimate Deadly Addiction, and because of him, I decided that working the 12 Steps of recovery might be a way for me to live more fully the Christian life.  After joining a 12-Step group, I wrote my own book on the 12 Steps that framed recovery as a way of following Jesus even as a flawed human being.


Soon after his book was released, Keith formed a recovery group for sinners and, as an active pastoral counsel, I began referring clients to Keith’s group on a regular basis.  One spring afternoon, I was surprised to hear a voicemail containing Keith’s deep resonant voice thanking me profusely for sending hurting people to his group.  He then said, “I’d like to be your friend.”


The day following that call, I joined Keith for lunch at a Mexican restaurant, and before we were done, I realized that, in this amazing man, I not only had discovered a new friend but also now had a very strong advocate.  He recommended me to his literary agent, a brilliant woman, who would later sell three of my manuscripts to mainstream publishers, Moreover, he became a writing coach and “manuscript doctor” to me and I recall telling friends that one hour with this giant was like attending school for a full semester.


Five years ago I survived a massive stroke that left me partially paralyzed and unable to think clearly, much less write or teach.  I lay in a bed in a dreary hospital room where, under a layer of blankets I pondered my future, as I was sure I would live it, imprisoned in the darkness and maddening confusion of severe cognitive impairment. 


Suddenly I was aware that someone had entered the room.  Fearing my latest visitor was yet another surly nurse poised to scold me for keeping my room untidy, I did my best to appear asleep. Whoever this unknown visitor was, he or she sat directly behind me.   All I could hear was the sound of someone thumbing through a book.


Suddenly, my visitor cleared his throat before reading aloud in his deep, resonant “radio voice” the preamble to St. John’s Gospel. It was Keith.  As best I could manage, I uttered his name as I reached my one good hand blindly into space. He took my hand into his own as he continued reading the first chapters of St. John.


When he was done reading, with my hand still in his, he walked to the side of my bed where he peered into my tear-filled eyes for the longest time before saying, “Bob, I love you.” All I could do was offer a weak nod, but that seemed to suffice for both of us. He offered a brief prayer and made his exit as quietly as he had arrived.


Three thousand years ago, the writer of Proverbs bequeathed to the ages a distinction between friends and family in these inspired words: “A friend loves at all times and kinfolk are born to share adversity.” While in most situations this snippet of wisdom proves true, Keith Miller was the kind of friend who willingly and courageously shared the suffering of those he loved.  He was a most rare man and in the inimitable words of my late East Texas tenant-farming granddaddy, “His kind just don’t pass this way very often.”