Today, Dallas Willard died. Just under four weeks ago, Brennan Manning died. It is impossible to describe what the loss of them means to me. Between them, my way of understanding Jesus and following Him changed – and, consequently, my way of understanding myself and everything around me. That is no exaggeration.
They both appeared about the same time – Dallas in Spirit of the Disciplines and Brennan in Ruthless Trust – as the 80’s became the 90’s, my 30’s becoming my 40’s. I had failed as a husband and as a pastor and was clinging to my following of Jesus – stubborness, really, born out of sheer terror. I maintained the shell of belief, but there was little inside to fuel the weekly performance. I still believed all the right things – but the foundations on which those beliefs rested had crumbled beyond repair.
Spirit of the Disciplines was assigned reading in a class taught by Roger Heuser, a gentle man who became a friend, and who embodied the life described. I didn’t understand the book the first two or three times though, but I had the sense that something very important was being said. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that he was describing a way of following Jesus quite different than what I had been doing – and which had the promise of actually working. The basic key was the difference between trying, which I had been doing religiously and to little effect, and training, which he described in terms that seemed entirely doable. This sense was confirmed when, a few years later, I had the privilege of sitting in a two week doctoral seminar with Dallas – and saw the life he described lived out in our community. A gentle, wise, winsome man.
Ruthless Trust, on the other hand, erupted out of nowhere, grabbed on my out of the office, the serendipitous reading of a cold, rainy retreat day. Like all of his books that I have read since then, it portrayed a God I had not previously known – One who loved me passionately, deeply, and without regard to whether I lived up to His standards or not – and did so with great joy and not a little laughter. And, so, One who could be trusted radically. His life, too, was tattooed with the reality he lived – grace upon grace upon grace. Having the opportunity a few years later to listen to him roar belovedness to a chapel full of college students was a gift beyond describing – life giving water, nectar of God. He introduced me to a Jesus Who believed in me, and Who I could follow to death. And life.
In the years since, I have read those books again, as well as many of the others they each have written. Such different styles, such similar passion. The one, carefully scripted, each word carefully chosen, precisely defined, writing to slow the reader down, to make thoughtfulness necessary. The other, writing in rambunctious, flowing and overflowing sentences, rushing laughingly along, headlong over a waterfall of grace, pulling relentlessly at the remaining shreds of fear – Yes, He really is THAT good! And, He believes in you!
“How precious – how costly – how heavy in the sight of the Lord, is the death of His saints.”