“I think that, when I die, it might be some time until I know it.”
I wonder if Dallas Willard knows it now. Dr. Willard passed away last Wednesday morning at the age of 77. He leaves behind a legacy of profoundly shaping many lives in many ways – including mine.
I first met Dr. Willard in the summer of 1995. I had resigned from the pastorate in May of that year. That same month a friend called and recommended we take a Doctor of Ministry course under Dr. Willard. We signed up. I preached my last sermon on a Sunday in June, left the pulpit (wanting to have nothing to do anymore with the church), and found myself in a front row seat in Dr. Willard’s class the next morning.
The first thing that struck me was Dr. Willard’s humble, suggestive style of teaching. A brilliant man, he taught like someone who had nothing to prove. Dr. Willard was comfortable in his own skin. I have too often felt the need to prove something. I began to sense that much of my anger and depression was self-inflicted. I wasn’t alone.
Sitting straight in front of Dr. Willard was a pastor with a big chip on his shoulder. From day one, he grilled Dr. Willard – not in a kind way, but a who-do-you-think-you-are? kind of tough tone. He sounded like me at times. On the third day of class, right in the middle of a seemingly aimless rant, this pastor paused – and then began to sob. Right there in front of Dr. Willard. Dallas came around the lectern and embraced the man. They cried. “I’m a mess, a failure… I don’t know what I believe anymore,” was all this pastor could sob. Dr. Willard assured him all was not lost. I shared vicariously in that hug.
Word began to get around campus that week how strange and wonderful things were happening in Dr. Willard’s course. On day two or three, I began to notice other students and faculty sneaking into the back of the classroom. They sat in rapt attention. My first thought was, “Hey I paid for this course – you didn’t.” I had a lot to learn.
That week Dr. Willard was taking us through drafts for his upcoming book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. In it, he writes, “If those in the churches really are enjoying fullness of life, evangelism will be unstoppable and largely automatic. The local assembly, for its part, can then become an academy where people throng from the surrounding community to learn how to live.” Other students and faculty were thronging to taste the fullness of life we were experiencing in class. I began to experience a better way to do ministry.
This is not to say the course wasn’t provocative. Dr. Willard discussed ideas that would be incorporated into The Divine Conspiracy. For instance, he exposed us to what he called “gospels of sin management.” They get people to heaven but lack “any essential bearing upon the individual’s life as a whole, especially upon occupations or work time.” Willard suggested that this truncated gospel is “the basic message of the church as it is heard today.” This explains the anemic state of the church.
Several of us wanted to know further how Dr. Willard felt about the church. We invited him to lunch. This was immediately after a morning discussion on fasting. That tied us into knots. Do we order a hamburger or try to look holy? Dr. Willard ordered a hamburger. After a few pleasantries, one pastor picked up the thread of the conversation and asked, “Dr. Willard, what do you think of the church?” As he took a big bite, Dallas muttered, “It’s a lost cause.”
It might sound strange, but that comment gave me hope. Over the years, bumping into Dr. Willard here and there, I came to see that he hadn’t given up on the church. His reservations had to do with a particular kind of church infected by modernity and elements of the Enlightenment. Dr. Willard helped many of us who longed to face the brutal reality of our present situation without losing hope. Dr. Willard did that by delineating between an ancient faith and the many modern aberrations out there. He hadn’t given up. He invested in churches. That was lifesaving. He turned many beaten down pastors, including that front row pastor and me, back to investing in the church.
Last but not least, I am especially appreciative of how Dr. Willard defined who gets into heaven. In The Divine Conspiracy he writes, “God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it.” Heaven is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s for those who long to be united with Christ in matrimony, nuptial union with Jesus. That’s what Willard meant by “standing” it. For those who pant for Jesus – intensely long for him – passing from here to there feels pretty seamless. The pleasure is so intense that it takes a while for believers to realize they died a few days back. I think Dallas Willard got that right. He got a lot right. I am one of many who will miss him.