If Death my Friend and Me Divide
The message on the answering machine is brief, almost cryptic. It is the tone in the voice that catches my attention: bone weary and sad beyond the telling. “The situation is more grave than I allowed Becky to share in the email to everyone. From a human perspective there is no hope. I wanted you to know.”
The voice is that of Jane Willard. The “situation” is the stage four cancer Dallas is battling and specifically the latest exploratory surgery to discover the reason he is not able to consume food. With my heart racing I quickly dial Jane’s private number and wonderfully she picks up. Briefly, Jane fills me in on the doctor’s report from the surgery. The news is devastating! The chemo and radiation treatments of the past months have not succeeded. The cancer has grown aggressively and now blocks the intestinal track. The doctors explain that they have done everything within their powers and have now run out of options.
We share quietly, confidentially. We arrange for me to come for a final, private visit: spending the morning with Dallas (as much as his energy will allow), lunch with Bill and Becky, and the afternoon with Jane. Providentially, I have just enough time between speaking engagements to make the trip. Hurriedly, I gather a few things into a travel bag and call the airline. My mind drifts back to those early days together in 1970 . . .
* * * * * *
Fresh out of six years of graduate work my denomination had assigned me to a small church plant in southern California. On the surface of things Woodlake Ave Friends Church looked like a rag-tag group, a kind of marginal failure on the ecclesiastical scoreboards. Looking a little deeper though I quickly discovered an astonishing kaleidoscope of human personalities, and prominent among them were Dallas and Jane Willard and their children, John and Becky.
Even before I met Dallas, I knew of his reputation as a world-class philosopher. However, in our small fellowship, Dallas was simply the person who led the singing (what we today would call the worship leader) and Jane played the organ (remember those days?!).
Early on I was struck by the love and care that Dallas shared with Tony, another member of our fellowship. Tony was a construction worker with little formal education. Tony could not possibly have understood Dallas’s work in philosophy, but no matter. A bond of love and fellowship in Christ existed between these two that was quite wonderful to watch. They would gather at Dallas’s home once a week, just the two of them, to study the Bible and pray together.
In the early weeks of my coming to Woodlake there was an emergency that had put Jane in the hospital. Tony called me, “We need to call the church together to pray for Jane and Dallas.” And so we did. For three nights straight. How moving to observe Tony, in his earnest, Italian-laden accent, imploring God for healing and for an all-encompassing sense of divine Presence to surround Jane and Dallas. Some time later I learned that Tony, who worked all day on a heavy construction crew, had been fasting throughout those three days on behalf of Jane and Dallas. What a vivid example of Christian koinonia!
* * * * * *
The drive to the Denver airport is a blur. I am on autopilot. I don’t even remember turning onto the freeway. Arriving at the airport early I check in and make my way through the security lines. My normal pattern upon arriving early would be a little exercise routine of walking the concourse back and forth until my flight was ready. Not today. Finding my way to the departure gate I slip into a seat and wait in complete silence. Crowds are rushing here and there, but I am totally insulated within my own thoughts . . .
* * * * * *
The friendship that Dallas and I experienced in those early years of ministry together grew rapidly. I would do the preaching but Dallas and I would trade off teaching assignments at the church. Years later I would explain to people that when I taught people might come, but when Dallas taught they brought their tape recorders. Me too. I probably have a hundred old, scratchy audio tapes of Dallas teaching us.
One of the early courses was an astonishing series in the book of Acts. It was there that Dallas’s now famous sentence was born, “The aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God himself at the very center of this community as its prime Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant.” Dallas took us on a whirlwind tour of human history showing how God had revealed this aim for an all-inclusive community of loving persons to all the great religious faiths; from the Upanishads in India to Gautama, the Buddha and Mahavira and Confucius and Lao Tze in China to Zarathushtra in Persia to the Pre-Exilic prophets in Israel. During those centuries of God’s revelation it became clear that sacrifices, ceremonies, propitiations, and other externalities ceased to be sufficient to make up the religious life and the principle of peace on earth to all persons of good will swept across the face of the earth.
The special vocation of the Jewish people in God’s plan was to embody this Divine/human community by dwelling in God and by bringing all nations in. The Jewish nation failed in this by becoming simply another, though still very special, humanly based social unit. However, the Jewish nation, in spite of itself, ultimately succeeded in fulfilling God’s purposes by preparing an adequate social basis for the reception of this Divine/human community, the kingdom of God.
“In the fullness of time” Jesus Christ, the God/man, came, fulfilling the prophetic messianic vision. Following Jesus’ life, death and resurrection this aim of God for the creation of an all-inclusive community could become embodied in the incendiary fellowship of Christ followers.
The book of Acts now came alive as we studied it through the lens of this aim of God for the formation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons without any cultural presuppositions whatsoever. We came to understand the many obstacles to the formation of such a community and how the Holy Spirit led these followers of “the Way,” step by step, to overcome these obstacles. Most particularly we watched as the early disciples of Jesus worked their way through the crucial issue of the Jewish cultural captivity of the Church reaching its dramatic climax at the Jerusalem council of Acts 15. Then too we came to see the significance of Paul’s warnings against a future gentile cultural captivity of the Church . . . which indeed did occur in the centuries to follow and which we struggle with to this very day.
* * * * * *
I am startled by the gate agent announcing the standard boarding instructions. Passengers rise and begin boarding. I linger back a bit not relishing the thought of being crammed together with this mass of humanity. As is common these days the flight is filled to capacity. Making my way into the plane I am thankful to be assigned an aisle seat; somehow it gives me a measure of private space. One thing I do appreciate about airplanes is the anonymity they afford. No one knows me. No one asks about anything. Today, I am glad to be anonymous. I ease back into the seat and close my eyes . . .
* * * * * *
I will always cherish the course Dallas taught our little fellowship on the Sermon on the Mount. As a teenager I had read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship over and over so taken was I by Bonhoeffer’s analysis of The Sermon on the Mount. So when Dallas immersed us into this most important of Jesus’ teachings on virtue ethics, I was utterly captivated. Throughout my seminary training I had given special attention to the Sermon on the Mount. I knew the literature in the field; I knew the varying approaches and interpretations of the text. Hence, I recognized immediately that what Dallas was teaching us was stunningly creative and life giving, and, and the same time, deeply rooted in classical thought. Of course, whenever Dallas taught one section of the Bible he ended up roaming across the entire biblical canon. It was astonishing! The content of those teaching sessions is essentially what we today have in The Divine Conspiracy.
Our little group hung on every word. “We are onto something big,” I thought to myself, “something really big.” Such teachings completely transformed our little fellowship, especially in terms of genuine character formation. Friends and neighbors saw these changes in our people, and our fellowship grew.
* * * * * *
The plane skidding on the runway jars me into the present moment. While I want to continue in the memories of forty years of friendship and ministry I do need to deal with the realities at hand: picking up my bag, securing the rental car, driving to the motel, checking in, eating, sleeping.
Early the next morning, with coffee in hand, I make my way to a nice inner courtyard with lush plants and a fountain to help muffle the motel sounds. I sit there for some time quietly sipping my coffee . . .
* * * * * *
Sometimes Dallas could help us as an entire congregation with a simple comment of accumulated wisdom. One Sunday morning, I was preaching on Moses and how he needed to learn to do the work of the Lord in the power of the Spirit. Moses, of course, had tried to do God’s work in the flesh by killing the Egyptian and it had failed miserably. So God had to put him into the desert for forty years to learn to do the work of God in the power of the Spirit.
In the context of our Quaker worship practice, it is perfectly appropriate for any person in the fellowship to speak a timely word from the Lord. So, as I was beginning to wax eloquent, in my enthusiasm I said something like, “Now, we want to learn these lessons so that it won’t take us forty years like it did Moses.” Dallas, in his great wisdom, simply spoke up so everyone could hear, “I doubt it.”
Of course his comment stopped my sermon right in mid-sentence . . . and it needed to be stopped! His remark forced us to consider the hidden preparation through which God puts his ministers. It deeply influenced the manner in which we did ministry from that day forward. We were learning the delicate balance of not running ahead of the Spirit, nor of lagging behind. We were learning the cosmic patience of God and how we were to come into the rhythms of the Holy Spirit.
* * * * * *
The chiming of my cell phone interrupts my thoughts. It is Jane; “I’m wondering if you could come a little earlier than we scheduled. We may need to take Dallas to the hospital for hydration. He can’t seem to get any liquids down.” Quickly I jump up and drive the few moments to the Willard address and up the steep, narrow driveway I remember so well. Jane comes out to greet me and we hug tightly, sorrowfully. I slip into the study while Jane goes to get Dallas. I glance around the study. It looks exactly the same as it has been all these forty plus years of our friendship: the couch, the grand piano where Jane sometimes plays, the chair by the fireplace, the books scattered about, and, in the adjoining room, Dallas’s desk with many more books. How well I remember this place . . .
* * * * * *
In those intensive days of ministering together I would often come to Dallas’s home study and we would sit together, discussing and praying for the people in our fellowship. The grace and love and care that he carried for each person was always moving to me as pastor. Then, often we would slip into complete silence—a listening silence of course. Sometimes the phone would ring or perhaps someone would knock at the door, but Dallas would never flinch. He was present to the Lord and present to me. I will always cherish those times of silence, for we had not only come together, but we were gathered together in the power of the Lord.
* * * * * *
Dallas comes in; weak but with a warm smile. Jane eases him into the big chair by the fireplace. I have come from Denver to Chatsworth to say goodbye to an old friend. Dallas has come from bedroom to study for the same reason. His journey is the harder.
We share about trivialities, like old friends do. I mention that last night I drove by the shiny hospital complex where Woodlake Ave Friends Church had once stood. “The church is gone,” I say, “and the Ramsey nursery as well.” Ever the philosopher, Dallas pauses briefly and then replies, “The
aren’t really gone you know; they are held in the mind of God. A day will come when you can visit them again . . . if you want to.”
Knowing Dallas’s great love of the Wesley brothers I share with him the poetic words of Charles Wesley:
If death my friend and me divide,
thou dost not, Lord, my sorrow chide,
or frown my tears to see;
restrained from passionate excess,
thou bidst me mourn in calm distress
for them that rest in thee.
I feel a strong immortal hope,
which bears my mournful spirit up
beneath its mountain load;
redeemed from death, and grief, and pain.
I soon shall find my friend again
within the arms of God.
Pass a few fleeting moments more
and death the blessing shall restore
which death has snatched away;
for me thou wilt the summons send,
and give me back my parted friend
in that eternal day.
We sit together in absolute silence. Then with trembling voice I say, “Dallas, we may not see each other again . . . .” Our conversation is interrupted as Bill and Becky arrive and we need to take Dallas to the hospital. Once at the hospital the customary flurry of doctors and nurses and medical staff go on . . . and on. All day long.
There is one brief period when Dallas and Jane and Bill and Becky and I are together without medical staff. I suggest we pray and everyone readily agrees. Articulating the prayer is left to me. How do you pray for a friend who is nearing the valley of the shadow? I want to pray for his healing but I need to prepare for his dying. There is no contradiction in this. It is a simple recognition that we are not in charge of the issues of life and death. I begin my prayer by lifting Dallas into the healing life and light of Jesus Christ, inviting Jesus to do what is right and good for him. Dallas seems to take in the prayer with tender sighs.
Back at the house Dallas is helped into an easy chair near the TV. John, Dallas and Jane’s son, is there and it is so good to catch up with his story for we have not seen each other for some time. Graciously Larissa, Bill and Becky’s daughter, has baked a birthday cake for me . . . I had forgotten about my birthday. Eventually, we gather in the study and eat and celebrate with birthday cake. We chatter on into the evening.
Finally it is time for me to leave. I go in to say goodbye to my old friend for the last time. Dallas takes my hand and speaks as if to continue the conversation of the morning. He smiles and says ever so tenderly and ever so firmly, “We will see each other again!”
I fly home. I’m glad for the solitude of the airplane.
Four days later I am boarding an early flight to Detroit. My cell rings; it is my wife Carolynn with the heart-breaking news that at 5:55 this morning Dallas stepped over from this life into greater LIFE. In come a flurry of calls from magazine editors wanting a statement or an essay for their web page. Boarding the plane I turn my cell off. It is going to be a long flight to Detroit. I sit isolated and alone in this missile of steel as it is being hurtled across country . . .
* * * * * *
It seems like only yesterday when Carolynn and I were traveling with Dallas and Jane in Florence, Italy. Now, to explore the streets of Florence with Dallas is like traveling with a walking encyclopedia. Oh my! Just because Dallas knew of my keen interest in the medieval preacher Girolamo Sananorola he took me to the piazza where Savanorola had been executed and pointed out the plaque smack in the middle of the cobblestone street which marked the spot of his execution.
Then we were touring one of the many art galleries in Florence and Dallas had some special insight or pearl of wisdom about every painting. Every single painting! I was reduced to saying things like, “Oh, yeah, sure, I knew that!” Finally, I confessed, “You know, Dallas, I guess there is this huge gap in my education in Renaissance art.” He smiled and said simply, “Oh, that’s all right. You will have all of eternity to fill in the gap.”
“All of eternity . . . .” At our conferences Dallas would often teach us that we are “unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” Well, my friend, Dallas Albert Willard, has now stepped more fully than ever before into this “eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”
* * * * * *
My flight lands and for the next several days I will be engaged in a variety of teaching sessions. When I travel my pattern is to be as fully present as possible to the people and activities of the moment. So, when traveling there is no multi-tasking for me. No cell phone calls. No extraneous interviews. No catching up on email. No browsing the Internet. Indeed, I don’t even bring my laptop with me. For this particular trip this practice is a great grace for I am spared all the Internet and social media buzz that is no doubt going on over Dallas’s death. Instead, I am able to mourn inwardly and reflect on the significance and the legacy of the one who has been taken from us.
For us a great light has gone out. We are diminished by Dallas’s passing. How does one assess such a person, such a life?
Dallas’s published writings will endure and no doubt increase in importance as time passes. He left many unpublished writings (I have seen them in stacks scattered throughout his study) and I can well imagine that others will be working with this huge legacy so that over time more books by Dallas will eventually be published than he ever published in his lifetime. His massive contribution in his chosen field of philosophy has barely been touched and I expect scholars will be exploring his thinking in this arena for some time.
Of course Dallas’s brilliance, as important as this is, is far from the whole story. He possessed in his person a spiritual formation into Christlikeness that was simply astonishing to all who were around him. Profound character formation had transpired in his body and mind and spirit until love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control was at the very center of the deep habit-structures of his life. He exhibited a substantively transformed life. Dallas was simply soaked in the presence of the living Christ.
Now, I say these things not as someone looking in admiringly from a distance. Dallas and I worked together and knew each other for more than forty years. I knew the warts and the wrinkles. Still, I saw rich character forming realities deepen and thicken in Dallas over many years.
I am struggling for the words to share with you what I mean. To put it negatively Dallas was amazingly free from guile and manipulation and control. To say it positively he showed graciousness and kindness and gentleness to everyone who came in contact with him. The old word for what I am trying to get at is “holiness.” But in our day this word has been so corrupted that it cannot carry the weight of what I am after. Perhaps the phrase “unadulterated goodness” captures what I saw in Dallas as well as anything I can think of. He truly was a good man.
Now, such a life formation does not occur instantaneously or automatically. The practice of Christian spiritual disciplines are fundamental to such character transformation. Dallas, of course, taught us about these matters constantly: classical disciplines of abstinence such as solitude and silence and fasting and frugality and chastity and secrecy and sacrifice; classical disciplines of engagement such as study and worship and celebration and service and prayer and fellowship and confession and submission. (See The Spirit of the Disciplines)
These are the disciplines Dallas engaged in throughout his life in order to train his body, mind and spirit into deep, inward habits of goodness; as Paul admonished, “Train yourself in godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). And we are witnesses to the effects of such a life of training. Dallas was someone whose life was penetrated throughout by love, who possessed a faith that could see everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, and who could access the supernatural power of God to overcome evil and do what is right. In our own lives and in the days which lie before us we will do well to follow his lead.
* * * * * *
When I was with Dallas four days before he died I had in my bag the book The Last Battle, the final volume in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. I brought it along thinking we might share a passage or two together. As things turned out there was no opportunity that day. Right now one passage from this book seems to speak particularly well to the present situation. It is the last paragraph of this last book in the series. The context is the end of the children’s adventures for they had all died in a train wreck. C. S. Lewis writes, “ . . . the things that began to happen . . . were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever in which every chapter is better than the one before.” And so it is.
Goodbye my friend. “We will see each other again!”
If Death my Friend and Me Divide is published in Eternal Living (InterVarsity Press, 2013). Used by permission.