I’ve been reading a book lately which is a collection of reflections on the life and teaching of Dallas Willard. Dr Willard was a philosophy professor at USC for 47 years, and his thinking, writing and speaking about the Kingdom of God and formation into Christlikeness have been (and continue to be) pivotal for the Christian church. My own thinking and understanding of Christian spiritual formation and discipleship has been influenced tremendously by Dallas Willard, either directly through reading his books and listening to his lectures, or indirectly by reading others who have been mentored and taught by him (many of whom contributed to this book I’m reading).
Almost 2 years ago, in May of 2013, Dallas Willard entered into the presence of His Lord and King after a long battle with cancer. J. P. Moreland, now a distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, studied under Dr Willard for his doctoral work, and in his reflection on Willard’s life he wrote the following: “Among those who have influenced me most, [Dallas] stands out like a giant oak in the midst of saplings… We have lost a five-star general in the armies of God, and the world is not what it was when he was among us.”
I had a few opportunities to hear Dallas Willard speak at conferences or smaller gatherings. One thing that always struck me about him was his humility and approachableness. Reading this book now and hearing from many people who knew him and interacted with him far more than I ever had opportunity to do, gives further evidence that he was indeed a very humble and kind man–a man whose brilliant mind did not keep him from being fully present with each individual person whom God brought before him. Dr Steve Porter, also a philosophy professor at Talbot, said this about Dallas:
“Dallas did more than win me over conceptually and theologically. He was for me–and I daresay for any other person who encountered him–compelling evidence of the truth of Jesus’ way. How disappointing it would have been if Dallas possessed a deep, penetrating analysis of Christian formation and yet himself turned out, once you met him, to be a rather lackluster individual. To be clear, Dallas was a very ordinary person in many respects–he certainly was not slick or polished. Rather, the evidential force of Dallas Willard was the extraordinary quality of his presence that emanated through an otherwise ordinary man…. This was an ordinary man who had become increasingly receptive to the grace of God, and it was contagious.”
Dallas Willard had a God-given and often-practiced ability to be fully present to whoever God brought across his path, and God used him greatly through that “quality of his presence.” What makes me–and many others–love that in Dallas Willard is that it reflects something of Jesus. Jesus did not get wrapped up in His own pain or problems or possibilities, but He was fully present to the person or situation that was in front of Him. Even in His darkest hour on the cross, when humanly speaking He would have had every right to ignore those around Him and focus only on His pain and loss, yet from the cross He noticed His mother, He prayed for the soldiers, He dialogued with the repentant thief. He was fully present.
That kind of “presence” is something I desire in my own life, and I am thankful for men like Dallas Willard who have modeled that so effectively for me, and above all else, who help me to see that in Christ.