In the large hall, college students shuffle by in jeans and windbreakers, but one stands out from the rest. At 30, Jonathan Miller sits in the student center with his mother, waiting for his Intermediate Algebra class to begin. He’s in a sport coat and sits with a Bible open on the table before him, while his mother—always available in case he goes into a seizure—loops yarn around knitting needles.
Jonathan’s brain is damaged, a condition brought on by a cluster of violent epileptic seizures that began when he was 15 months old. College wasn’t something anyone could imagine, least of all the medical specialists who treated him. His parents, Calvin and Joy Miller, were given a pharmacological schedule for their son, reducing his attacks to a week out of every month. But for the long term, doctors warned the Millers that he would one day regress and need to be put in a care facility.
When he was about 2 years old, Jonathan’s mother caught sight of him as he climbed up to the living room couch, dragged an open Bible onto his lap, and settled in to watch Dr. Charles Stanley on television. “I wish I had a picture of that,” says Joy, who has kept a photographic record of the significant moments in Jonathan’s life. The collection is a visual chronicle to help reconstruct memories his seizures took from him. “I’ve been watching and listening to Dr. Stanley since that long-ago day till now,” says Jonathan. “I’ve always had a memory of him.”
When Jonathan speaks, his voice has the timbre of a southern gentleman. There’s a slight lisp that drifts in beneath his Mississippi accent. He takes long pauses before answering a question, as if searching for the precise word to express what is true. One thing he knows with abundant clarity is his purpose in life. “My goal,” he says, “is to be the kind of person God made me and wants me to be.”
Let Me Try
Joy can remember 5-year-old Jonathan pacing across their church platform as she practiced on the piano for Sunday’s service. He was preaching, she says, using Dr. Stanley’s mannerisms and tone of voice as he delivered one of the sermons he had listened to over and over. And then at 8, he was walking around the yard with his Bible, when Joy spotted him. He told her, “Momma, I’m just fellowshipping with the Lord; it’s all right.”
“My goal is to be the kind of person God made me and wants me to be.”
Over time, Jonathan’s condition worsened, and the medicines that restricted his seizures to a small window each month stopped being effective. When he was 11, his doctors decided on brain surgery. Six holes were bored into each side of Jonathan’s skull, up and around his ears. Electrodes were laced through the holes and placed against the brain. For six weeks Jonathan was monitored, with the specialists running test after test, until his seizures resumed. Once they had mapped the trouble, Jonathan’s right temporal lobe and right hippocampus were surgically removed.
Three months after the operation, Jonathan’s attacks came raging back, more intense than ever. The Millers learned of a new procedure, something not yet approved for children, but they were ready to try anything. Jonathan was fitted with a Vagus Nerve Stimulator—a kind of pacemaker for the brain; it is placed inside the chest wall, with a wire running to the vagus nerve in the neck. This nerve controls involuntary bodily functions, and with regular electric pulses sent by the Stimulator, many patients are able to limit the occurrence of seizures. It’s a way for good electricity to counteract the bad. With it, Jonathan was able to eliminate many medications and has remained seizure-free since 2010.
There are moments the family will never get back, memories Jonathan cannot recover, steps in his development that have been missed. Jonathan didn’t play with toys, and he couldn’t understand the concept of a bicycle—how one foot could push forward as the other slid backward. He doesn’t like to be touched, and there are sounds and sensations that set him off—raindrops once felt as if they pierced his flesh, and it took time for him to acquire a taste for ice cream, because he couldn’t feel it on his tongue. There’s a part of Joy that mourns her son. “I’ll never really know him, or how he would have been,” she says. But she has learned to accept her calling. “There are plenty of people who can do all kinds of jobs out there, but there’s only one mother for Jonathan Miller.”
Because their son has already faced great limitations in his life, Calvin and Joy have determined to let few things hold him back. Jonathan has visited cousins in London, swum with dolphins, and ridden a rickety old roller coaster as Joy, her eyes squeezed tight, clutched him with her arms and legs. Show Jonathan a tower, a mountain, or a zip line, and he’s on it—he’s even run over the edge of a cliff to tandem paraglide from 10,000 feet.
But Jonathan’s adventures aren’t limited to personal accomplishments. When he heard of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, he asked that plans for his birthday be redirected toward a trip to the Gulf Coast. His church helped with a rental truck and donations, and off went Jonathan and his parents, traveling south to organize the supplies for those in need.
When he noticed people in his church developing ministries, Jonathan wanted one, too. Before long he was sharing his testimony with 70 inmates at the county jail and returning every Monday to read Scripture and trade stories. Jonathan also collects small change from members of his church to contribute to “Cup of Joe for a Joe,” an online ministry that enables him to treat deployed soldiers to a cup of premium coffee. He sends notes to each soldier, offering encouragement through hope in Christ. In fact, he was young when he first began writing letters about his faith—enclosing what became an eight-page testimony he’d send to celebrities who interested him. Many wrote back.
“I’ve been watching and listening to Dr. Stanley since I was 2 years old. I’ve always had a memory of him.”
But there was something about the notion of going to college that had his parents saying no. High school hadn’t been easy. He fell short of earning what he calls “a real high school diploma,” settling for an occupational certificate. After years of being told he couldn’t enroll, Jonathan assured his parents, “It’s OK if I fail. Just please let me try.”
At school, it takes a little doing to keep up with Jonathan. His steps are quick and deliberate as he leads the way down a corridor. When he introduces a classmate or faculty member, there is something like pride and gratitude in his shy manner. And as he is complimented for his persistent effort and sweet spirit, he blushes.
To see him dressed as well as he is, his back straight and his head up, it might be easy to mistake him for a professor. And some do, until a brief conversation reveals that Jonathan is a grown man who often functions in a winsome though childlike way. Nevertheless, his pursuit of Christ has made him a man of wisdom and godly character.
Ask about his challenges, and he won’t mention the developmental issues that have held him back. Instead, he discloses a long list of spiritual weaknesses, pounding his fist to emphasize how too often he pleases himself over God. “I deceive myself by doing my Bible study every day and then not having the willingness to put into action what I read.” It’s an assessment any serious believer can relate to, and when encouraged that he’s in good company, Jonathan smiles bashfully with a small, happy giggle.
“One time I had an anger problem at home against my parents, and so I got out one of Dr. Stanley’s message CDs that had to do with anger and forgiveness,” he says. “And while I heard him talk about anger, I thought, Oh my, no wonder I’m acting the way I am. Maybe this is something I need to start doing in order to control my anger.” For Jonathan, Dr. Stanley’s teaching is a plumb line, bringing him into alignment with the Lord. “God is using Dr. Stanley to help me understand His Word.”
Each night, Jonathan goes to bed early, since the medications he takes with dinner make him sleepy. But Jonathan has turned these moments into something sweet, carving out an invaluable ritual. There in his twin bed, he sits up with a lap desk, his Bible, and one of Dr. Stanley’s books. He begins with “worship time,” cuing up music on his Kindle, before turning to his nightly fellowship with the Lord.
Jonathan isn’t burdened by thoughts of the life he might have lived. Only once has he asked, “Momma, why me?” That day, as his peers were practicing on the school football field, Jonathan came to understand that he’s on assignment. The challenges that have brought him low, that make him so different from other people, are the tools God is using to teach the rest of us. Jonathan is a living, visible lesson of God’s strength made perfect in weakness. If only we could all be so different.
Photography by Ben Rollins