The saying goes that bad stuff happens in threes. I have mourned the passing of three people this month. George Jones. Brennan Manning. And now Dallas Willard.
Dallas Willard, for those who do not know, was a professor of philosophy at USC and a writer of important things in both the academic world and the realm of spiritual formation. I have heard him a dozen or more times in person, the first time in the late 1990's as a seminary student. I have heard dozens upon dozens of speeches/sermons/presentations that he has given thanks to the internet and CDs. I have consumed every word that he has written that is available for consumption. His book The Divine Conspiracy has stained me.
I owe him a lot.
He taught me about life in the Kingdom of God as a present reality when all others had pointed me to a Kingdom that was yet to come. No doubt the fullness of the Kingdom isn't here yet, but the honest student of the Bible can't dismiss the present reality of the Kingdom Jesus declared and made available to those made right with God through confidence in Him.
He taught me about saying things in a way that make people think. My favorite by far: "Oh, I think God will let anyone into heaven who can stand it." That sounds like damnable heresy at first blush and the most glorious truth of God's renovative conspiracy when you think about it longer. In case you need help, think of it like this: those who will want to be in heaven when it's available are those that God is in the process of transforming; and those who continually spurn Him won't want to be with Him until it's too late for them to join Him. But saying the Truth in a way to make it stick is crucial.
I have certainly caught some grief from friends about my near-idolization of Dallas Willard. But I don't mind their critique. Even when I might quibble with something in writing or speech, I always knew I needed to think longer about it before picking too big a fight over it.
But my favorite thing about Dallas Willard was his generosity. I have no idea how generous he was financially but I do know how generous he was relationally.
I spent an entire evening with him around a dinner table at a Shoney's restaurant. There were about 4 college and seminary students right in the palm of his hand. But we never felt that way, because he was always asking questions of us. He genuinely cared and wanted to know about our lives. When I shared about some of the college ministry we were doing, he specifically asked more questions about it and then gave me his email address to send the answers. Although we tried to get him out to our church a couple of times and the schedule wouldn't allow it, I cannot help think about that three hours at Shoney's. It shaped me.
Rest in the Kingdom, dear Dr. Willard. You were a friend and mentor from afar. And I'm the better man for it.