I just heard the news that Dallas Willard died of cancer. What a loss for us and a gain for Heaven! Dallas’ impact on the church – and on my life – has been profound. As much as anybody in the last few decades, he has helped us think deeply about discipleship, spirituality, and what it means to live fully in and for God.
In the days to come, there will be many tributes to Dallas, as well as reviews of his seminal thinking. I thought I would add a couple of personal remembrances that speak volumes, not about Dallas Willard the theologian, but about Dallas Willard the person who embodied what he taught, who lived the Gospel he proclaimed and interpreted.
My first exposure to Dallas came in the late 1980s, when I was Pastor of Education at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I invited Dallas to come a teach an adult education class on Wednesday evenings. He was gracious enough to accept my offer. For ten weeks, he taught the substance of what later appeared in his book, The Divine Conspiracy.
My first impression of Dallas (over the phone), was of a kind, gracious man. Meeting him in person confirmed this impression. Here was a man of extraordinary intellect and reputation – a highly regarded professor of philosophy at USC – who treated each person he met with extraordinary respect.
I’ll never forget one thing that happened during one of Dallas’ classes. He had been explaining what it means to live in the kingdom of God, when a member of the class shot up a hand. When I saw who had a question, I cringed. This man lived on the edge of sanity, as did many of the street people who attended Hollywood Pres. From experience, I knew that his question would be a distraction from the point. Sure enough, the man asked a question that asked Dallas to explain something he had just finished explaining. It was asked in a way that insinuated Dallas was misunderstanding the Bible. As the questioner droned on, the tension in the room – and in my stomach – grew.
Dallas listened patiently, gazing intently at the man with the question. Then he responded. I can’t remember his exact words, but I do remember the way in which Dallas answered this man. He spoke with deep respect for the man and his question. Dallas did not take offense at the way the question had been asked. Rather, after thanking the man for his question, Dallas explained what he had said earlier with clarity and greater simplicity. He seemed eager to help the questioner understand the answer. But, even more striking was Dallas’ obvious desire to offer deep love and respect to this man who was, in many ways, a misfit.
In the last twenty-five years, I have remembered this event hundreds of times. I have been inspired by Dallas’ example to speak to people with great respect, even when they and their questions or comments bug me. I have thought about Dallas when responding to blog comments that were meant to be unkind as well as critical. I have tried, by God’s grace, to be someone who honors every human being as someone created in God’s image, much as I once saw Dallas Willard do in that Sunday School class.
It’s one thing to be a great thinker and writer, a person of significant influence in the church and the world. Dallas Willard was these things, to be sure. But he was also a Christian of deep love and Christ-like character. How thankful I am for Dallas and the way he influenced my life.
I’ll share another personal remembrance in my next post on Dallas Willard.