I had dinner with Dallas Willard once. Now, it wasn’t as if this author, philosopher, theologian, professor and mystic who has influenced a generation of spiritual leaders—our pastors, authors, and teachers—came through Chicago and decided to give his friend, Valerie Bell, a call. I had dinner with Dallas one evening because I am “a wife of.” My husband, Steve, is Executive Vice-President of the Willow Creek Association. Dallas Willard was speaking at our church the next day.
I was looking forward to hearing him. But that was tomorrow. Today was a dig-in-the-dirt gardening day.
The phone rang. It was Steve.
“Valerie, how would you like to have dinner with Dallas Willard tonight?”
Immediately, I envisioned one of those intimate large-church dinners at someone’s house with room-temperature finger foods and about 100 other people standing around, everyone feeling like you should know these people, but you don’t really. I guess past experiences explained my response.
“Well . . . who else will be there?”
“No. It’s not what you’re thinking. He’s here to speak tomorrow, but he would rather go to dinner and be with people than spend the evening alone in his hotel room.”
“Really?” But I pressed, “Who else is coming?”
“Just the two of us. Everyone else has commitments with kids and stuff.”
“You’re kidding! OK, I’m definitely in. When do I have to be there?”
“You need to leave now.”
How does a woman covered in mud leave now?
She changes clothes, wraps a scarf around her forehead and ties it on the side, dangles large hoop earrings from her lobes and hopes she looks artistic, not like a leftover hippie from the 60’s who has a lot to hide. Then she grabs all her underlined and highlighted Dallas Willard books for him to sign and steps on it to make it to the restaurant on time.
I had never met Dallas Willard before. His books are dense, systematized. Even though about half of what he writes goes over my head, the half I understand has deeply formed and enlightened me.
So as I sat down at the table that night, I noted he was more dignified and gentlemanly than I had pictured. It occurred to me that my eagerness, stack of books and bizarre appearance might be a little much. After all, no one likes an over-enthusiastic fan of the stalker variety.
For a while our conversations drifted, as it does in a dance when no one’s sure who is to lead. We ordered our food and talked dietary preferences. We talked about families and churches. The sense of calling he had to his work. We talked about books we had read. I asked who inspired him. He said, “Madame Guyon,” a French mystic I have tried and failed to read a couple of times. We talked about the things we were writing.
But I wanted to talk about his writing. I plunged in, “Sometimes you write like a theologian. Other times you are a philosopher. But the parts I like best are when you are a poetic mystic.”
He listened without smiling.
“For instance, here’s one of my favorite passages you wrote that has deeply touched me. I love it so much, I’ve memorized it.
‘We should, to begin with, think that God leads a very interesting life, and that he is full of joy. Undoubtedly he is the most joyous being in the universe. The abundance of his love and generosity is inseparable from his infinite joy. All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and depth and richness.”
That’s when the man laughed. The fear in his eyes of “I’m stuck with a couple of stalkers” was gone. Suddenly our conversation was engaged and not drifting. The evening’s dance had become effortless. “Yes, that is a good passage, but I like the one that follows it even better,” he answered and went on to quote it.
And from that moment on three lovely hours passed. Steve and I were swept away and spiritually enchanted. He gave us the cliff notes, the highlights of his writing, his “best stuff” in his opinion.
But he wasn’t done with me. We took a turn on that conversational dance floor. He led. This USC professor of philosophy looked at me and asked, “Valerie, I have a question for you. Can you know God?”
I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I panicked a little. Knowing how circuitous and qualifying theologians and philosophers can be I thought, “I am going to flunk this question!” Then, I decided not to even try being intellectual, but to answer this profound question from my gut, from my experience.
“Yes, I believe we can know God.”
“I do too. I believe we are right, but you’d be amazed how many people can’t say that.”
I attended his lecture the next day. We all took copious notes. But after all these years, what has stuck with me is his simple question.
I have asked people that same question from time to time. Dallas Willard was right. Few people answer it with a straight up “Yes!”
As I learned of his death this past week, I couldn’t help but imagine him entering fully into the presence of God “who leads a most interesting and joyous life.” For Dallas Willard, who knew God and described death as a transition, “a walking through a doorway between rooms,” there must be a familiarity with the place, as if he had been there in limited ways many times before.
After all, Dallas Willard knew God.