A Tribute to a Timeless Leader — Dallas Willard: 1935 – 2013

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He was a man fully awake to God’s constant presence. He once said he hoped to be so close to God that he would hardly know he had died until hours after.

When news of Dallas Willard’s death lit up my Twitter feed this week, I rolled my chair across the room and looked to the “Ws” on my bookshelf. I discovered three of his books and found out that four others were missing because I had loaned them out. That’s how it should be.

Dallas Willard’s engaging, calm and surprisingly funny voice burst into public notice with publication of The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life with God in 1998 — when he was nearly 63 years old. Of course, Willard had been writing and speaking about the with-God kind of life for decades before. Most of North American Christianity was simply decades late to the party. It pleased the Father to elevate Dallas Willard to national prominence with that book, and since 1998 he humbly accepted the role of mentor and encourager to the church at large.

He was a man fully awake to God’s constant presence. He once said he hoped to be so close to God that he would hardly know he had died until hours after the event.

I count Dallas Willard among my mentors. Like so many other of his students, I never met the man. In the chambers of my thought-life, Willard sits with C.S. Lewis, quietly welcoming honest questions from anyone willing to look the real questions of life directly in the eye. Like Lewis, Willard chose an academic setting in which to serve Jesus. And like Lewis, Dallas Willard did not present himself as the trendy flavor of the month — just try to imagine him in scarves or plaid flannel shirts or skinny jeans, his hair filled with product. And yet Willard’s old-school manner resonated with Millennials and Baby Boomers alike. His was the authority of authenticity.

When I encounter a heart hungry to know God, I immediately recommend Willard’s book, Hearing God: Developing a Conversation Relationship with God, where Willard explains the issue isn’t really about hearing God; it’s about becoming God’s friend. After all, we listen to our friends. There’s no shortage of hunger for God in our age, but there is a shortage of people who have been shown how to seek him. As a sometime adjunct at a small Christian university, I’ve taught Willard’s book, Renovation of the Heart, to college kids — Christians — who never imagined the mind-bending possibilities of life with God. At the end of the course one semester, a college junior commented, “This is the first time I’ve ever read a whole book.” That sums up Christianity in North America: a mile wide, an inch deep. Dallas Willard was part of God’s deepening project.

It’s one of the ways I determine whether a “Christian bookstore” is serious about its mission: I go to the “Ws” and look for books by Dallas Willard. I’m headed to one today to replace my missing copies of his other works, because whoever borrowed those books should just pass them along to someone else and introduce another person to one of the great teachers of our age, Dallas Willard.

Ray Hollenbach, a Chicagoan, writes about faith and culture. He currently lives in central Kentucky, which is filled with faith and culture. He's the author of amini-devotional: "25 Days of Christmas" ~ designed to for incredibly busy people (available at Amazon.com)

More from Ray Hollenbach or visit Ray at http://studentsofjesus.com

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  • http://www.facebook.com/clayimage Art Kelly

    Thank you Dallas Willard for your authenticity, your depth, and your love for Jesus. I will miss looking forward to any new material you would have created while here on earth. What you have left us is inexhaustible.. And I am grateful for the picture you have given me of Heaven while I’m here instead of just Heaven when I die.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hannah.buerano1 Hannah Buerano

    Dallas Willard was an impactful man of God in the academic realm. I am so blessed to be one of his many students throughout his tenure at USC. He left a rich legacy and it was an honor to know him.

  • peterhamm

    Thank you, Dallas!

  • Scott Uselman

    Willard was not trendy and did not seek attention. I place his books at the top of my list, outside the Bible, as those that teach us how to follow God. Thanks Dallas Willard.

  • slybygrace

    This article reflects my sentiments. Dallas Willard was one of my treasured ‘book’ mentors. What a wise, insightful, ‘challenge you to grow to be like Jesus to follow Jesus with all you have’ mentor. May we all dig into the truth deeper, and live lives of integrity and honesty so we shine like stars to this generation as he did to us.

  • Geoff Bynum

    Very well written Ray. Thanks for your thoughts on Willard’s ubiquitous influence.

  • Joe McKeever

    I feel embarrassed to say I never knew him or even heard of him. Would you have done well to have included some biographical material with your tribute?

    • http://www.crazyrev.blogspot.com/ C.Brian Ross

      Me neither! Perhaps his influence simply didn’t make it “across the pond” (I’m in Scotland!). However, having read this tribute, I will be making a point of checking out the shelves of my local Christian Bookshop as soon as possible.

      I love the Enoch-type quote: “He once said he hoped to be so close to God that he would hardly know he had died until hours after.” I’m pretty certain that that is exactly what it was like for that dear OT saint.

      Blessings, and shalom

  • PastorMelJHOW

    One of the BEST for sure! I’ve been blessed by his work.
    See you in the morning DW!

  • http://twitter.com/leighgilliland leigh l. gilliland

    Dallas Willard’s work has profoundly influenced me regarding spiritual discipline AND disciplines. He was uniquely gifted in communicating elusive theological concepts into simple, ordinary articulations. “Becoming more like Christ” = “Habitually doing what Christ would do, as if he was in your place.”

  • marieh99

    I am so grateful for Dallas Willard and for discovering his books about 8 years ago. “The Divine Conspiracy” rates as my all time favorite “christian teaching” book other than the Bible. Dallas has had SO much influence in my life as a Christian and in my ministry. I never had the pleasure and honor of actually meeting him but his teaching is deep within me. I celebrate his life and look forward to someday chatting with him in heaven.