I never met Dallas Willard, though I came embarrassingly close in 2009. (My wife arranged through a friend to have the book pictured above signed and sent to us.) He was my hero, and though I had been reading and re-reading his stuff for a decade at that point, plus listening to any recording of him that I could get my hands on, I had never heard him speak in person. Then, it happened that I had moved back to Texas and Renovaré was going to have its international conference in San Antonio that year, so I was eager to go and sign up for anything that had Dallas' name on it.
One way I did that was that I signed up to be a participant in a breakfast where he was going to speak, and to my joy I ended up in the buffet line right behind him. It wasn't to my joy that the person in front of him in the line was apparently just as happy as I was to have an opportunity to talk to him, and that person was apparently much more extroverted than me, and therefore had plenty to say. Even though I was standing right next to Dallas at that moment, I wasn't having a very Dallas-ish attitude toward that person and even invented a term for them in my mind: conversation hog. (If you're as introverted as I am, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you're as extroverted as I am introverted, you probably are one without even knowing it, but my attitude is better toward you now.)
After we waited through the line and got to the point of putting food on our plates, the–um–extravert apparently either ran out of things to say or became more focused on food selection. So, it was my chance. Among all of the people on the planet with whom I had never spoken, I was standing next to the human being with whom I most wanted to have a conversation, and I said absolutely nothing. In my mind, I wanted to give him a conversation break from the previous fifteen minutes. But actually, I guess it had to do more with my introversion taking over and I couldn't come up with anything appropriate to say while standing there next to the scrambled eggs and muffins.
Dallas died of cancer this week, and I've spent more time than ever before thinking about my time standing behind him in the breakfast buffet line in San Antonio. I haven't thought about it with regret about not saying anything; I still don't know what words I would have used. I certainly could not have conveyed my gratitude to him very well while also trying to allow him to choose between blueberry or banana nut. More than anything, I've just been grateful for the opportunity to have heard him in person which only added to his influence on me.
But the news of his death has been harder for me than I expected. I knew that he had been sick, and I knew that it would be a sad day for me when the day of his passing would come. Even though I expected it to be sad, because I never met him and didn't know him personally, I didn't expect it to have as much of a sense of real grief for me as it has.
I haven't really even wanted to talk to anyone about it, because it seems like it would sound silly to admit that I'm in mourning for someone with whom the closest I ever came to personal contact was that he might have handed me the muffin tongs. Thankfully though, my wife gets it–she knows how much Dallas influenced me, and she was able to help me see the issue for what it was the night that he died, while I was surprised at how hard of a time I was having with it.
She said, "You've lost both of your heroes." She was right. There are a group of people whom I sometimes describe as being "among my heroes," but only two men that I have referred to with words like, "he is my hero": Dallas and my Dad.
So I've given myself permission to grieve over Dallas, while also–alongside so many others–experiencing deep gratitude for his life and teaching. The day that he died, I had a sense of, "I have to write something about him," but I tried to start a couple of times and nothing good was coming out. I just couldn't figure out where to start, where to try to end up, or what to do in between to try to point at the extent to which Dallas' teaching has been helpful in shaping my life with God.
Then, again, my wife was very helpful and suggested that I write a series of posts communicating things I learned from him. Writing stories of my dad's life has been incredibly helpful to me since his death, and though my third-person experiences with Dallas are obviously of very different nature than my life with my Dad, I think I can tell some good stories about things Dallas has taught me through the years.
So, much more to come about life with God and how Dallas helped me into it.