Friday, May 10, 2013

Remembering Dallas Willard

Some years ago my friend, Todd Hunter, invited my wife and me to join him and a few other pastors for lunch with Dallas Willard. It was during a conference in Phoenix that Todd and Dallas were leading, and I was excited to meet Dallas and spend a little time talking with him.

The conversation around the lunch table touched on a number of interesting topics. I asked Dallas if he thought that the concept of formal church membership was dying in the US. He said, “If we don’t give people a way to belong, then we leave them to the ravages of consumerism.” How does someone come up with a statement so memorable over a club sandwich and iced tea?

After a while, a young church planter at the table told a remarkable story. He was working with a team to plant a church in Beirut, Lebanon. They had two kinds of gatherings: One for Muslim inquirers who wanted to engage in conversations about faith, and one exclusively for their small group of Christians, where they could talk, pray, and worship freely.

One of the members of his team had become acquainted with a Muslim woman who was a high-profile Lebanese journalist. She expressed interest in hearing more about Jesus, so he invited her to a gathering.

But it was the wrong gathering.

When she arrived on the appointed evening—an evening reserved for prayer and worship—the young pastor was understandably nervous. What would be the consequences of this well-educated Muslim woman experiencing Christian, charismatic worship? It was too late to make any changes in the agenda, so a CD of worship music was popped into the player (no one apparently had a guitar), and the time of worship began.

He said that, initially, the woman just watched the others as they stood, kneeled, lifted hands in the air, and worshipped Jesus with abandon. He closed his eyes and prayed that the Lord would protect them from trouble. When he opened his eyes a song or two later, he saw the woman standing on her feet, hands raised in the air, and tears streaming down her face.

Most of us thought this was a great conversion story. But then the young pastor asked a question that revealed his purpose in telling the story in the first place. He said,

“The thing is, Dallas, that this woman now considers herself to be a Muslim who follows Jesus.”

Before anyone else could respond, Dallas firmly declared,

“How could she be anything other than that?”

After my head quit spinning, I was able to give deeper consideration to his statement. He wasn’t, as some might assume, allowing the woman to conflate Christianity and Islam, creating her own private mix of religions. Nor was he diminishing the lordship of Jesus. He was opening our minds to something that I’ve come to understand a little better over the years: That religion is, for many people, as deeply imbedded in culture as it is in a formal belief system.

For the woman in that story, to stop being Muslim might have been the equivalent of turning in her Lebanese citizenship. It is very likely that her relationship to Islam was tied as deeply to her relationships with family, friends, and culture as it was to her system of belief.

When you stop and think about it, we in the Christian world have our own versions of cultural embeddedness. Perhaps we can understand how our faith becomes much more to us than adherence to a creed. We have traditions, practices, memories, language, and relationships that are deeply entwined in our belief systems.

I continue to be grateful to Dallas for his gift of time on that day. I’ve shared this story many times over the years, especially with my seminary students, and most have found it helpful.

Sometimes I’ve wondered about the intellectual and spiritual loss that occurs when someone like Dallas Willard leaves us. Where does it all go? I’ve decided that it goes into those of us who remain, and our responsibility is to be, to even the smallest degree, that same kind of person for the benefit of others.

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