Man of prayer Don Miller, 83, counsels to ‘get alone’ with God
FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--Most days, 83-year-old Don Miller rises at 4 a.m. and goes out to his garden to meet with his Father. In the cool, still half-light of the Texas dawn, he sits down on the left side of a two-person swinging wooden bench, leaving room for his Father to sit next to him.
Miller said his Father is always there. Sitting on the bench at his Father’s right hand, they talk, listen, share each other’s thoughts, and stay in tune with each other’s concerns. At 6 a.m., Miller gently awakens Libby, his bride of nearly 60 years, and then returns to talk to his Father for another hour. At 7 a.m., Libby joins her husband and they talk to their Father together and read His Word.
This is Don Miller’s prayer time. He is the founder of Bible-Based Ministries, headquartered in the sun room of Miller’s tidy little house in east Fort Worth. It is appropriate that a man who for nearly 40 years has taught Christians how to pray describes his own daily prayer time with God in heartfelt terms.
“Prayer is the intimate communication between the heavenly Father and His child,” Miller said during his address at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Pastors’ Conference in Nashville June 19. “It has got to go both ways.”
With each passing birthday, Miller finds he does not make it out to the garden at 4 a.m. with as much regularity as in years past. But regardless of what time he awakens, he starts and ends every day with prayer. In fact, he tithes a portion of every day in prayer. Ten percent, or roughly 2 hours and 40 minutes of each day is given over to time with God in prayer.
Miller has been a man of prayer for more than 60 years. But his walk with God did not begin until he was grown man.
Miller was born on March 9, 1922, in a farmhouse near Bloomsburg, Pa., the youngest of five children born to George and Nina Miller. He said his parents were “good people,” but they were not church-goers. Young Don was not saved as a boy and admits knowing very little about the things of God growing up.
Full of imagination and with a bent toward dramatic arts, Miller hoped to pursue a career in stage and theatre. But World War II was raging, and by the time he was 21 years old he was serving in the U.S. Army Air Force.
“I met a lot of Texans in the military,” Miller remembered. “They always seemed to be so proud to be from Texas and boastful about it. I swore I would never live in either Texas or New York.”
The military sent Miller to Monroe, La., to navigator training school. He became friends with another young navigator-trainee from Alabama who invited him to attend services at the First Baptist Church in Monroe. Miller said his friend’s invitations were not forceful, but persistent.
One Sunday, Miller decided to go to church with his Alabama friend.
“The pastor was L.T. Hastings,” Miller said. “That day he preached a sermon on peace with God. He challenged us to ask ourselves whether we had peace with God. He told us what it would take to have it. I listened and really took it in.”
The fact that Miller was moved by Hastings’ sermon was understandable considering that Hastings had studied under L.R. Scarborough at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, from 1914-1916. Miller did not get saved that day, but Hastings’ sermon stayed with him and pricked his heart. Miller went out and bought a “big, Sears Roebuck Bible” and set about to read it.
At the same time, Miller found out that another fellow air corpsman from Michigan had come under similar conviction of his need for salvation. One evening, they got together to discuss Hastings’ sermons. Miller said they both realized they needed to make a decision.
Sitting across from each other, Miller recalled that he and his friend agreed between themselves “to surrender our lives to Christ for the sake of making peace with God.”
“As we shook hands on it, I felt an inexplicable change of heart,” Miller said. “I didn’t know then what happened. I went and told Hastings about it and the feeling that had overcome me. He explained to me the concept of being born again.”
Sadly, Miller’s parents distanced themselves from him when they learned of his conversion. “They never did understand what had happened to me,” he said.
But even though Miller’s relationship with his earthly father was slackening, his new relationship with the heavenly Father more than filled the void. Pastor Hastings came alongside the young airman and mentored him in the things of God.
“He bought me a big, Scofield Bible and I studied that carefully,” Miller said. Hastings baptized Miller just before Miller shipped out for an assignment in Orlando, Fla.
If he expected shortly to go overseas to the front lines, God had different plans for him.
Miller and three other air corpsmen and officers were assigned to drive a piece of equipment to another air base. Miller, who was 22, was the driver. It had been raining. He maneuvered the Jeep along a narrow road carved into the side of a mountain. There were no guardrails; on one side of the road was a sharp drop-off and, on the other side, the mountain towered above them.
Miller still does not remember the accident. He said the Jeep was a mangled mess. He remembers waking up in a hospital and learning that one of his passengers -- an officer -- had been killed. Miller had a broken back and severe head injury, including a concussion and skull fracture.
“They told me I was lucky to be alive,” he said. “They did not know how we ended up colliding with the mountain instead of tumbling down the ravine. They said it looked as if the Jeep had been pushed or swept into the side of the mountain.”
In addition to losing consciousness and a lot of blood, Miller also lost his memory in the accident.
“I could only remember two things,” he said. “I could remember who I was, and I could remember where I would go if I died.”
Then he quipped, “As a Christian, that is all you really need to know, isn’t it?”
The military put him on leave to recuperate. Miller said he could not go back home to Pennsylvania because of the estrangement from his parents. It seemed clear to him that “home” was Monroe, La., and the fellowship of believers at the First Baptist Church. So he headed down there for a furlough.
He resolved to rebuild his memory by memorizing Scripture passages. Slowly, over the next several months, Miller rebuilt new memories centered on the Word of God. Amazingly, God restored Miller’s older memories, too. Miller said that memorization works the brain much like exercise works muscles. Scripture memorization has been a key ingredient in Miller’s ministry and teaching ever since.
“Scripture memorization keeps that which is most important to you, near to you,” Miller explained.
During that recuperative sabbatical in Monroe, two more life-changing events occurred.
Miller was invited over to dinner at the home of some church members. One of the guests was a young woman from Mississippi whose family had moved to Monroe several years before. Her name was Libby, and Miller was immediately smitten.
“Yes, the moment I saw Libby, bells rang,” Miller said. “But, I had been praying that the Lord would lead me to a Christian wife, so in a way I wasn’t surprised.”
Libby was living at home and working as a secretary in a shipping office. She, too, had been praying for a Christian spouse. Soon, Miller was courting Libby. Their courtship continued by correspondence after Miller’s furlough ended and he was sent back to Orlando.
On July 7, 1945, Don and Libby were married in Orlando.
Miller’s second life-changing event in Monroe was a two-week revival held at First Baptist. For those two weeks, Hastings turned his pulpit over to W.A. Criswell, who at that time was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Muskogee, Okla.
Miller was sensing a call into fulltime ministry. He took full advantage of the close proximity of this man of God.
“I ate with [Criswell] and spent time with him during those two weeks,” Miller said. “I benefited greatly from him.”
Miller asked Criswell about the kind of preparation he would need if he was to become a preacher. Criswell spoke highly of his alma mater, Baylor University.
When Miller applied for admission, he was denied a place because they had met their quota for new students. Miller wrote to Criswell and told him of this turn of events. Criswell wrote to Baylor in support of Miller’s application.
In late 1946, Miller was discharged from the Army Air Force and he and Libby moved to Waco, Texas, for him to begin studies at Baylor.
While studying theology fulltime, Miller also pastored small churches. He completed his bachelor’s degree in theology in three years. Libby worked in a department store for a little while, until Roger, their first of four children, was born in 1947. Since then, Libby has been a fulltime mother and wife.
The Miller family grew. Gary was born in 1950, Joy came along in 1952 and Ken in 1955. Today, Don and Libby’s four children have given them 17 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
The same year their second child was born, Miller moved his burgeoning family to Fort Worth to enroll in the school of theology at Southwestern Seminary. He named several professors who had a profound impact on him. Thinking that God was calling him to foreign missions, Miller said he “fought” to get into any classes taught by Cal Guy or Jack Gray.
While in seminary, and for eight years after graduating, Miller pastored Forney Avenue Baptist Church in Dallas. He led the church to build a new building and eventually to relocate to larger facilities. But he continued to feel a burden for missions. He made some inquiries to the SBC’s Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board).
“In those days, though, they were not sending missionaries with teenaged children to foreign mission fields,” Miller said. “Since our oldest son was entering his teen years, we knew we couldn’t go overseas.”
However, along the way Miller had struck up a correspondence with Paul James, a pastor who was planting churches in Manhattan. James told Miller about the spiritual needs in that great city and invited Miller to consider coming there to help spread the Gospel.
Miller applied for an appointment through the SBC’s Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) and was accepted. In 1960, he sold his house in Dallas and used the equity to move Libby and their four children to Farmingdale, a town in the center of Long Island.
“That seemed like a ‘foreign’ mission field to us,” Miller chuckled.
Libby sees poetry in the fact that the first church Miller planted in Farmingdale was inside a gladiola-bulb barn. Farmingdale Baptist Church was constituted with 37 members in January 1961. Southwestern President Robert Naylor flew out to preach at the church’s inaugural worship service.
With characteristic zeal, Miller threw himself into reaching the Farmingdale community for Jesus Christ. The population was mostly Roman Catholic with some pockets of Jewish people, he said. Within a year, Miller’s church had more than quadrupled in size and had 12 deacons.
“I gathered those 12 deacons together and shared with them a vision to start Bible study groups around Long Island in people’s homes,” Miller said. Eventually, they made a plan for the deacons to work together and they started four new Bible studies.
“That really opened up the door to the Gospel, and especially to believing Jews who wouldn’t otherwise come to the church building,” Miller said.
After about three and a half years in Farmingdale, Miller spent a couple years back in Texas and then returned to Long Island to plant a new church in King’s Park.
“We built that new church literally from the ground up,” Miller said. “It seemed like the whole town helped build the building. Even teenagers would come by to help where they could.”
The sanctuary in King’s Park comfortably seated 200 worshipers. The music leader was a Jewish man whom Miller had led to Christ and baptized there.
“During those years in New York, there weren’t many Baptists. So, I wore a lot of hats,” Miller said. “At one time or another, sometimes at the same time, I was a pastor, Bible study leader, evangelist, associational director of evangelism, and associational director of missions.”
Once a week, Miller said he would drive to Harlem and train black church leaders to be more effective in their ministries.
“Prayer was always a vital part of our ministries in New York,” he said. Over the years, he said he put together materials he would use in training sessions to teach pastors, deacons and new Christians how to pray.
Around Christmas 1975, Miller moved his family back to Dallas for treatment and surgery of some health problems he started having. For the second time in his life, he was hospitalized for an extended period of time. The future was uncertain.
As Miller prayed and read the Bible, he said the Lord revealed to him that he was to have at least 40 more years of effective ministry. Miller said that even though he was sick, God used that time to encourage him and give him a vision for the future.
By March 1976, around his 53rd birthday, Miller had recovered enough to preach the day after getting discharged from the hospital, and it was about this time that Miller began to have the idea for Bible-Based Ministries.
“Bible-Based Ministries is about three things,” Miller said. “It is about prayer, evangelism and growing Christians in their faith.... Many Baptists have never been taught to pray.... More is said about prayer in the Bible, but it seems to be the least used or understood thing among Christians.”
He has identified 750 passages of Scripture that relate to prayer, evangelism and growth. In a Bible, Miller has marked 250 verses related to each discipline. Miller conducts Bible-Based Ministries prayer conferences at churches, usually over the course of three or four days. He takes conferees through all 750 verses over the course of the conference.
“When people see these verses laid out like that, their eyes are opened,” Miller said. “It transforms their lives.... The Scriptures teach them that prayer is not talking about God, but talking with Him.”
Since launching his prayer conference ministry, Miller has traveled around the country conducting as many as five conferences a month.
“We have traveled more than 2 million miles,” Miller estimated.
Libby travels with him wherever he goes. “Always together,” he said. “And not once has a church ever had to pay for her airfare; God has always provided a way for her to travel with me.”
“Oh, I don’t do the teaching,” Libby said. “Mine is more a ministry of encouragement and support. I sit in the front row while he preaches and am there to encourage him.”
Don and Libby are preparing to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this summer. When asked for the secret to their long and loving relationship, Libby is quick to reply.
“Prayer,” she said. “We start and end each day with prayer together. Prayer has made our marriage sweeter and stronger each year.”
At the Pastors’ Conference in Nashville, Miller explained some of the basics for effective prayer.
“Keep prayer simple,” he extolled the pastors. “Don’t complicate it. Leave that to the theologians.” The pastors laughed in appreciation.
“Real prayer is the language of loneliness,” Miller continued. Turning to Luke 9:18, Miller described how Jesus would “get alone” with God.
“There is a difference between getting alone with God and getting,” and here Miller stretched out the syllables, “alone with him. You no longer hear airplanes, trains or barking dogs. He and I are alone. He hears me and I hear Him. I call this ‘insulated praying.’ He needs it. I need it. We all need to get alone with Him. Turn off the TV set. Nothing but trash comes off those tubes. Nothing else really matters, but Him.”