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.
Our little group hung onto every word. We are onto something big, I thought to myself, something really big. Such teachings completely transformed our little fellowship, especially in terms of substantive character formation. Friends and neighbors saw these changes in the people, and our fellowship grew.
But it was not all sweetness and light. One dear lady who was absorbing the teaching like a sponge latched onto the words of Paul about Christ, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13, ESV). She, however, turned this biblical concept into a wooden literalism, inviting a homeless drug addict into her own home to minister to him, thinking, I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me. After peppering her with questions for 48 hours straight, he raped her and burglarized her home. We found her a day later under the kitchen table in a fetal position. She required six months of intensive therapy to recover. The next Sunday Dallas spent the entire time tenderly teaching us on our human limitations.
Sometimes Dallas could help us as an entire congregation with a simple comment of accumulated wisdom. One Sunday morning, I was preaching on how Moses had to learn to do the work of the Lord in the power of the Spirit. He, of course, had tried to do God's work in the flesh by killing the Egyptian, and it had failed miserably. So God had to put Moses into the desert for forty years to learn to do the work of God in the power of the Spirit.
In the context of Quaker worship, it is perfectly appropriate for any person in the congregation to speak a timely word from the Lord. So, as I was beginning to wax eloquent, in my enthusiasm I said something like "We want to learn these lessons so that it won't take us forty years like it did Moses." Dallas in his great wisdom simply spoke up so everyone could hear, "I doubt it."
Of course his comment stopped my sermon right in mid-sentence--and it needed to be stopped! His remark forced us to consider the hidden preparation through which God puts his ministers. It deeply influenced the manner in which we did ministry from that day forward. We were learning the delicate balance of not running ahead of the Spirit, nor lagging behind. We were learning the cosmic patience of God and how to come into the rhythms of the Holy Spirit.
I could continue with story after story, but allow me just say that I will always treasure the love and friendship of Dallas Willard. When we were ministering together I would often go to his home study, and we would sit together discussing and praying for the people in our fellowship. The grace and love and care that he carried for each person was so moving to me as the pastor of this little fellowship. Then, often we would slip into complete silence--a listening silence of course. Sometimes the phone would ring or someone would knock on the front door, but Dallas would never flinch. He was present to me and present to the Lord. I will always cherish those times of silence, for we had not only come together, but we were gathered together in the power of the Lord.
I was with Dallas and Jane just a few days before Dallas was ushered from this life into greater Life. I had come to say goodbye to my friend. I solemnly read to him the poetic words of Charles Wesley:
If death my friend and me divide,
Thou dost not, Lord, my sorrow chide,
Or frown my tears to see;
Restrained from passionate excess,
Thou bidst me mourn in calm distress
For them that rest in Thee. I feel a strong immortal hope,
Which bears my mournful spirit up
Beneath its mountain load;
Redeemed from death, and grief, and pain,
I soon shall find my friend again
Within the arms of God. Pass a few fleeting moments more
And death the blessing shall restore
Which death has snatched away;
For me thou wilt the summons send,
And give me back my parted friend
In that eternal day.
Dallas sat listening quietly. Then with trembling voice, I said, "We may not see each other again . . ." Our conversation was interrupted as we needed to take Dallas to the hospital for hydration. Once we arrived, the customary flurry of doctors and nurses and medical staff went on so that we were not alone again until that evening back at his house.
As I was preparing to leave, Dallas quietly spoke as if to continue the conversation of the morning. He smiled and said ever so kindly and firmly, "We will see each other again!" And so we shall.
"Well done, good and faithful servant.... Enter into the joy of your master" (Matt 25:23, ESV).
Richard J. Foster is the author of the now classic Celebration of Discipline and a number of other books. He is the founder of Renovar é, a community of Christians seeking continual spiritual renewal in Christ.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more