In 1999 I was so past burn out from being a senior volunteer leader at a large mega church in the Midwest for the past fifteen years, leading hundreds of men and couples in a vibrant small group ministry. I would ask myself daily why the habitual sin, why the feeling that God has abandoned me and at the same time why all the fruit (we measured fruit by numbers in the environment I was leading in) in the ministry ?
Then in the fall of 1999 we had our yearly Small Group Coaches retreat and it was announced that Dallas Willard would be speaking. My exposure to Dallas at that time was casually scanning his Spirit of the Disciplines book when I had time to read. What I read I liked and I was greatly anticipating hearing him speak. The retreat began and Dallas began to hold court. I was mesmerized by his countenance and authority when he spoke, I called it Spirit power bathed in humility. He began opening door after to door to the way out of my dilemma as he spoke of The Golden Triangle of Spiritual Transformation. After the first session I asked our Pastor who ironically at that time was John Ortberg to introduce me to Dallas. I remember exactly what he said so enthusiastically “George, I want you to meet Dallas Willard.” Well that was the beginning of a long friendship and mentoring relationship that hit the” pause” button Wed, May 8, 2013.
I would not meet up with Dallas again till 2003 at a Renovare conference but from that point on we would meet at least every 12-18 mos at a conference or exchange emails.
Dallas was the inspiration behind the forming of Renovator Ministries in 2005 and he knew it and would offer me encouragement by email.
In 2004 my wife and I traveled to Open Door Church in Minnesota for a three day conference with Dallas. Prior to the conference I arranged to meet with him for some 1:1 time and that is where my understanding of this man really began to take shape. Also I will never forget almost the first words out of Dallas’s mouth as he began to speak . “In the next three days I want us to memorize Colossians 3:1-17.” A hush came over the crowd, he paused as always then said “You can do it.”
Dallas Willard was and is to this day the only mortal that has ever been FULLY PRESENT WITH ME whenever we met to converse. You always had a sense he was listening to the Holy Spirit as he was speaking and listening to you. He taught me to do this and it is the key to being authentic in all our social relationships.
Dallas always had time for me, he always answered any question I had by email with a thoughtful and thorough response.
In 2007 at a Renovare conference in Atlanta a board member and I had engaged in a leisurely lunch with Dallas and we talked at length about one his favorite subjects -bringing spiritual formation to the church. His conversation was rich with hope and faith that soon the church would truly see what Jesus was speaking in the Gospels on life now in the Kingdom.
One of my fondest memories was of him and Jane at the 2006 Renovare conference in Denver. Another board member and I were having dinner outside near our hotel and we looked up and here coming down the street locked arm in arm is Dallas and Jane , he glanced towards me, and gave me a smile and wave and kept on walking.
In 2010 Dallas came to Wheaton, IL to speak. One of my board members who was extremely depressed and awash in hopelessness attended. At the end of a session I asked Dallas to speak and pray with him. Again it was like no one else was in the room but my board member and Dallas. He took him by the hand put his arm around him and they talked and prayed as the Spirit led. My board member came to me later and said “George, he is the real deal.” Very true but quite an understatement.
In 2011 the last time I spent any time with Dallas we were at the Aprentis Conference in Wichita. I was with another board member whose daughter had been murdered in the fall of 2010. I brought him to Dallas and informed him of what had come upon my brothers house and asked him to speak and pray with him. Upon hearing what had happened you would have thought it was Dallas’s daughter as he immediately entered into the pain my brother was experiencing and once again as far as Dallas was concerned no one was in that room but my friend, and The Holy Spirit.
In my last conversation with Dallas again in 2011 in Wichita I was holding a Lectio Divina spiritual exercise in the room right next to where Dallas was conducting a workshop. About five people had registered for the exercise but by the time it started we had over 10, which is about max for a meaningful Lectio. I was ecstatic. After it was over I went next door and ran up to Dallas and told him that we had maxed out the Lectio time going head to head with him. He looked up at me and said “Wonderful George and I am sure what happened in there was much better than what I did in here.”
In 2012 I learned that THRIVE a group out of East Peoria, IL was going to hold a tribute to Dallas and Jane. I had a family commitment and could not go. I drafted a tribute letter based upon what I believe to him summed up a person truly formed to Christ and it was read to Dallas at the gathering, it sums up what Dallas Willard has shown me and has meant to me, here is that letter:
On behalf of myself and the Renovator Ministries board I send you our greetings, may this day be one of your most treasured memories.
I am unable to be with you and Jane today due to a family commitment but may I offer from my heart to yours the following.
From the first time John Ortberg introduced you to me and my wife Bonnie at a Coaches retreat in 1999 to our last time together in Wichita last year our interactions have always been one where it was clear you knew you had been raised with Christ who is seated at the right hand of God and that your mind and heart were always set on things above in light of the fact that you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. As such you know that when Christ, who is your life, appears you as well will appear with Him in glory. In all our interactions you are one who truly demonstrates the putting to death of all that belongs to the earthly nature and have rid yourself of anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language. You demonstrate to all you encounter the putting on of the new self because you are renewed in knowledge in the image of the Creator. As God’s chosen, and dearly loved you have clothed yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. You bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances you may have toward another. You demonstrate the putting on of love for you know that it is love that binds them altogether in perfect unity. More so than any other man I have ever met you let the peace of God rule in your heart for you know you were called to peace. And you are thankful. Oh how the word of Christ dwell so richly in you as you teach and gently admonish us with all wisdom, speaking, not singing, the psalms to us with such gratitude in your heart. All of the above leads to the spiritual end of an apprentice of Christ that in all he does, whatever in word or deed is done in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.
So you see my dear brother what you admonish your students to read and memorize wherever you go to teach, YOU TRULY LIVE! Can more be said that this about a man.
Much love and blessings to you on this wonderful day!
Of course a thank you email followed within a week or so.
When I learned of his illness in February I wrote him the following: