With the tail end of the last chemo treatment leaving his system before the ravages of stage 4 pancreatic cancer take hold, Bill Miller said he’s in a “grace period” right now.
For a man who almost became a Catholic priest but instead spent his life teaching kids to sing, playing organ at area churches and working as a music, prayer and pastoral care leader before becoming an ordained Lutheran minister at the age of 64, Miller has lived his entire life in a state of grace.
Every experience has been “wonderful,” Miller said, and he is looking forward to the next journey.
“I have a profound sense of peace and knowing that things are going to be OK,” he said. “I’m OK with it all, because I have that sense of Jesus holding me.”
Miller, of New London, just turned 74. Currently working as a chaplain at Bethesda in Willmar, he has deeply touched the lives of many individuals through his years of music and ministry.
Now, those individuals are organizing an event dubbed “It’s Miller Time” to celebrate Miller’s life with music, prayer, memories and laughs.
The theme for the day is “joy and gratitude,” said Kathy Hartley, a retired minister who worked with Miller. “The joy we have as people of faith, the joy you’ve given so many people and the gratitude we have for you,” said Hartley, looking directly at Miller during a recent backyard event with the group of friends who are organizing the event.
Former students, church members, musicians, pastors and friends will be part of the June 13 event at Peace Lutheran Church in New London. The in-person event starts at 3:30 p.m. with options for viewing online.
People will talk about what Miller has meant to them, and Miller has been promised time to “rebut” comments that could put him in the crosshairs of a good-natured roast.
“There’s a junior high kid in me that sometimes gets out,” said Miller, whose quick wit matches his passion for the gospel.
A variety of local bands and soloists will provide music, but the highlight will be the mass choir made up of people who learned how to sing under Miller’s direction but have never all sung together before.
When the word went out on social media asking people to sing in the one-time choir, more than 80 people signed up within a couple days — many of them former students from Miller’s days of teaching choir in the New London-Spicer School District. The list continues to grow.
Depending on how he’s feeling that day, Miller plans to direct the choir.
While eager to see the people at the event, Miller is more than a little embarrassed that such a “fuss” is being made over him.
“I’m a farm kid from Stearns County,” said Miller, who had no idea the event was being planned until it was too late to stop it.
Miller said there are more deserving people who should have an event like this instead of him.
“I’m just a normal person,” Miller said to his friends, who pooh-poohed his modesty.
“You are not ordinary,” said Sharon Nelson.
Teacher & preacher
During high school and college, Miller was in seminary for five years and spent a year living in a monastery. He was a couple months from taking vows when doubts caused him to seek a different path.
He obtained a degree in choral music from the University of Minnesota and taught choir at NLS from 1975 to 1992, while at the same time playing organ at Bethel Lutheran Church in Willmar and playing a key role in the Minnesota All State Lutheran Choir.
He spent the next 19 years working as a lay associate minister at Peace Lutheran Church in New London, where he played the organ, led choir, coordinated prayer ministry and did pastoral visits, including visiting jails all across the state.
“You’re a congregation’s dream because you can do everything,” said Hartley.
Around 1989, he led a workshop on prayer in India, which he said was “one of the most moving times in my life” as he saw people “hungry” for the word of God and the power of prayer.
Thanks to the support of his wife, Mary, Miller went back to school at the age of 61 to become an ordained Lutheran minister, while working full-time at Peace Lutheran Church.
“That was such a spirit-filled time,” he said. “There is a passion in me. A fire.”
He served as pastor at Kerkhoven Lutheran Church for 6 1/2 years before taking the role as chaplain at Bethesda in 2018.
Since making his diagnosis public, Miller has been inundated with cards, calls and notes from people testifying to the impact Miller had on their lives — words that typically are said at a funeral and heard by a spouse and kids, he said.
“They’re letting me know now, and that’s such an incredible privilege,” he said. “I’m very humbled by their words.”
While the work of a minister is important, Miller said everyone has their own ministry and can uplift people in different ways that are “just as important” as what a preacher does.
“It’s not about one person, this is about God and how God works,” he said. “And I will preach that until I die because it’s that important.”
OK with it
Miller said he knew in January that something wasn’t quite right with his health.
“I had a sense that this was not going to end up well and I should be preparing myself,” he said.
In early March he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
He was told that by having chemo every two weeks, he could add a couple months to his life.
But the effects of the treatment were harsh.
Miller said he was exhausted all the time and felt like he was “walking on air” because he couldn’t feel his feet. Drinking ice water felt like “little knives” in his throat and the tingling in his fingers made it difficult for him to play piano and organ.
Opting for quality of life instead of quantity, after just several treatments, Miller decided to end them.
“I’m in a grace period right now where the effects of the chemo have worn off but the disease is going to take over — soon,” he said. “They’re saying take it as a gift and enjoy it. So that’s what we’re doing,” said Miller, who’s spending time with his wife, three sons and grandkids.
He has no expectations for a miracle healing.
If it happens, that would be great, he said. But if it doesn’t, that’s great too, said Miller, whose face literally glows while citing Bible verses that assure him that God is with him.
“It’s always going to be a win-win situation anyway because I’m going to be seeing God face-to-face,” he said. “It’ll be so much fun, the conversations that I’m going to have with Jesus.”
Miller said he is now in the position of practicing what he has been preaching to others — including those near death — that God is cradling them in his arms with love and peace.
“I’ve preached about this. So I had better be OK with it,” he said with a beaming smile.
And he is.
'It's Miller Time'
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday, June 13
Where: Peace Lutheran Church in New London
Online: View on YouTube. Find the link at www.peacenewlondon.org