Tribute to Dallas Willard
By Fred Oaks
And you know of our concern for you from the way we lived when we were with you. – 1 Thessalonians 1:5
This month we were all saddened by the news of Dallas Willard’s passing. Many faculty members in the Oikonomia Network were with Dallas in January when he spoke about economic wisdom and human flourishing at the network’s faculty retreat. This ON retreat, however, was not the first time the Kern Family Foundation worked with Dallas. In July 2010, he spent three memorable days with dozens of Kern Pastors and their spouses at the beautiful Green Lake Conference Center in Green Lake, Wis. The ideas he shared outline a view of human character and formation that serve, in many ways, as a foundation for the integration of faith, work, and economics.
Before the event, we surveyed Kern Pastors to find out whom they would most like to have teach them about character development and spiritual formation in the local church. The overwhelming favorite was Willard. These young pastors instinctively recognized the value of Willard’s wisdom and perspective.
He did not disappoint! Dallas began with the Gospel, challenging the Kern Pastors to consider whether their preaching had a natural tendency to produce disciples, or only consumers of religious goods and services. (See page 58 of “The Divine Conspiracy.”) He sought to inspire all in attendance to fulfill their calling as Christ-followers by being teachers of the nation (Matthew 28:19-20). Dallas offered the idea that grace, defined as “God working in your life,” is not opposed to effort, but to earning. He suggested the disciplines as means of intelligent training unto godliness.
Dallas’s presentations struck the delicate balance described in his book “Revolution of Character”: “So spiritual formation is both a profound manifestation of God’s gracious action through his Word and Spirit andsomething we are responsible for before God and can set about achieving in a sensible, systematic manner” (p. 19). Hours of presentations over three days addressed the vision, intention, and means of character formation in Christian community. His teachings were permeated with biblical references recited from memory.
During the retreat, several Foundation program staff members were invited to speak about the goals of the Kern family’s philanthropy. Imagine our delight when Dallas, rising to speak after we had described our programs, enthusiastically blessed us by saying he believed the Foundation’s mission was central to Christ’s will in these times!
Those who had the privilege of meeting Dallas in person have often remarked about the quality of his character. He lived as he taught. The young pastors and spouses at this retreat sensed Dallas’s deep concern for them. The Foundation provides free copies of the conference’s media products to Kern Pastors upon request.
Dallas’s influence will continue through his many writings and presentations, and through the lives of those he taught and inspired. We who remain might do well to petition the Lord, as did Elisha of old, for a double portion of our mentor’s spirit (2 Kings 2:9).