Over the years there have been times when I have wondered what heaven is like. I confess that for a long time I pictured heaven as an eternal church service, and though there are a lot of things that I enjoy about church, the thought that heaven could be like that made me a bit nervous. I know this doesn’t sound very spiritual, but, after a while you want the service to end so that you can go to lunch with family and friends, right?
I have had the wonderful opportunity in my life to get to know Dallas Willard. I met him briefly after a few years of being in campus ministry at the University of Southern California where he served as a Philosophy Professor for decades. Shortly after that meeting I spent two weeks with him and 15 other people in a Catholic Retreat Center talking about spirituality and ministry. It was a DMin class through Fuller Seminary. I believe that what I learned from Dallas may have kept me from leaving ministry. There is no doubt that Dallas has been the teacher that has impacted my theology, ministry, and my understanding of the gospel more than anyone else. After that class I would see Dallas at least a couple of times a semester, either over lunch or coffee or in various teaching situations. One time I was at a lunch with several university types and Dallas and I were at the same table. Dallas told everyone at the table that he and I had gone to school together. When I realized that was all he was going to say about that I clarified that he had been the teacher and I the student. I have more stories about Dallas than there is room here to tell, but here is one.
I left USC to do campus ministry at Purdue. Though I went back to visit family several times, it had been about 7 years that I had not seen Dallas. I decided to email him and ask if my husband and I might have lunch or coffee with him on our next visit to L.A. that summer. He wrote back that he would be in seclusion working on a book. Would we be willing to come to his house? (!!) Of course we agreed. He said that it would be best to meet before noon. We took that to mean that he needed us to leave by noon so I arranged for us to come at 10 am. We came to his simple home in the hills on the edge of the San Fernando Valley. We sat in the living room and his very gracious wife brought in a tray of crackers and jam and she sat with us a while before she returned to something she was working on. We talked for some time about all sorts of things, but mostly about important things. Noon came and went and yet there was no hurry on his part for us to leave. Finally, we realized that it was after 1:00 and that we had better get on our way. On our way back to where we were staying my husband and I basked in the experience of such a wonderful visit. I decided that if heaven were like that, having that kind of unhurried, meaningful, generous conversation like the one we had had with Dallas, then I think that I could definitely stand it.
Over the years Dallas taught me to understand that the Good News that Jesus came to bring was that through him the Kingdom of God was accessible to us. Not just in the future, the Kingdom of God can be experienced even now. Dallas taught me that spiritual disciplines were not an obstacle course put here for me to do in order to impress God—like God is up there somewhere with a checklist to see what I do each day: “morning prayer and Bible reading, check; Sunday morning worship, check; sharing faith with someone at the bus stop, check.” Instead spiritual disciplines are activities within my power to bring about transformation in my life that cannot be accomplished by direct effort. Instead of duties to be checked off, they are activities which create space for me to be open to the work of God, to be sensitive to the presence of God in my life and in the world around me. The more I experience this transformation the more I am actually becoming more and more accustomed to living in the Kingdom of God, which is a reality that goes on eternally.
Today, Dallas began to experience the Kingdom of God in a fullness that can only come after death. Yet, I believe that death was a simple and gentle transition for him to that Kingdom as he had experienced it on this side. Today, I am sad. Even though I haven’t been able to see Dallas that often in recent years and I didn’t know when the next time I would see him, I miss him.
I know that I am only one of literally countless people that God has touched and taught through Dallas Willard. But I will always and especially treasure those encounters and conversations that seemed like a taste of heaven. Thank you, Dallas.