It was 1970, and I had just received my seminary degree and been appointed to a small church plant in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. The church, I am sure, would probably rank me as a marginal failure on the ecclesiastical scoreboards, but I was excited to convert the world--at least by tomorrow!
Included in this little congregation were Dallas and Jane Willard and their children, John and Becky. Even before I met Dallas, I knew of his reputation as a world-class philosopher. (This was before the publication of his monumental Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge. Dallas' enormous philosophic work is the great area of his writing and thinking that is least understood, but which might in time prove to be his greatest contribution.)
However, in our small fellowship, Dallas was simply the person who led the singing (what we today would call the worship leader) and Jane played the organ (remember those days!).
Early on I observed the love and care that Dallas shared with Tony, another member of our fellowship. Tony was a construction worker with a third grade education. Tony could not possibly have understood Dallas' philosophic work, but no matter. There was between them a bond of love and fellowship in Christ that was astonishing for me to watch. Dallas and Tony would gather once a week, just the two of them, to study the Bible and pray together. It was for me a vivid example of Christian koinonia.
That was my early introduction to Dallas and our friendship grew quickly. He would join me and a small group of men weekly to share and pray together. One young man, Bob, who was just as rough as a cobb, would also join us. He would often blurt out startling things. One night he was telling us about how he had gotten a hold of a bunch of habanero peppers and stuffed them into his mouth.
"They were so hot," he declared, "that they would burn the hell out of ya!" Dallas turned and said with that serious wit of his, "Give me a thousand of them!"
Dallas and I would trade off teaching at the church. I have often explained that when I taught folks might show up, but when Dallas taught they brought their tape recorders. Me too.
He taught many courses. One of the early ones was an astonishing series in the Book of Acts. That is where his now famous sentence was born: "The aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God himself at the very heart of this community as its prime Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant." He also taught a course on the classical disciplines of the spiritual life, which broadened our horizons to encompass the whole people of God throughout history. What wonderful sessions. Little did I know then that, years later, these ideas would lead to the writing of Celebration of Discipline.
But nothing compared to the series Dallas taught our little fellowship on the Sermon on the Mount. As a teenager, I had read Detrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship over and over again so taken was I by Bonhoeffer's analysis of The Sermon on the Mount. When Dallas immersed us into this most important of Jesus' teachings on virtue ethics, I was absolutely captivated. I knew the literature in the field; I knew the varying approaches and interpretations of the text. So I recognized immediately that what Dallas was teaching us was stunningly creative and life giving, and at the same time deeply rooted in classical thought. The material was essentially what we today have in The Divine Conspiracy.