Dallas Willard isn't an easy man to create small talk with.
What do you say to a distinguished professor of Philosophy at USC who has chosen in his spare time to write life-changing books like The Divine Conspiracy and speak to Christians regularly about spiritual practices and disciplines?
But as I got stuck sitting by him, against my will, at the Ecclesia National Gathering in Washington, D.C. I felt like I should say something to him rather than endure the awkward silence that surrounded us. I didn't realize our short conversation would leave me thinking for weeks.
I opened with, "So, did you get in from California yesterday?"
He said, "Yes."
I waited for a few awkward seconds but after that was clearly the only thing he intended to say, I followed up with: "Still on California time?" An innocent and somewhat silly question, but I was nervous and was feeling pretty wrecked myself after having just arriving from Portland the day before. His response was not what I expected.
"Let me tell you something" he said gently as I can imagine a grandfather saying to one he loves. "I used to travel a lot, and I particularly remember a 14 hour flight to South Africa where they practically had to scrape me off the plane. It was then that I heard the Lord tell me very clearly, "Dallas, when you travel I want you to do three things: fast, prayer, and memorize scripture. And if you do those things, I will sustain you." He continued, "And so I started doing those three things anytime I flew longer than 2 or 3 hours and since then I've never felt the effects of jet-lag again. He has sustained me."
At this point in the conversation I felt about a half-inch tall. Dallas wasn't trying to make me feel small, it was simply that in his presence there was no way for me to not feel small, and petty, and trite. You can sense when you are in the presence of someone that is genuine and real, just as easily as you can sense when you are in the presence of a complete phony. And Dallas is the real deal.
What I have realized is everyone is begging to sell you ministry wisdom. You can choose from about 50,000 books a year that pastors write trying to explain why their model or structure is the way to go. Ministry wisdom can be very helpful and I benefit greatly from many such books, but Dallas Willard (and those like him) gives us something far more valuable.
People like Dallas Willard are special not just for what they say, but because they model what a faithful Christ-follower looks like. After you hear or interact with such people, you're not just left with great ideas, but with a desire to be the quality of person that they themselves are. It's easy to find pastors who are wise and give you great ministry advice, it's a lot harder to find pastors who you see and think, "I want to be like that person because they are like Jesus." I hope that when I'm 75 years old, people will say that about me. But I know for now I have quite a distance between where I am now and what I aspire to be. I also know that Dallas Willard didn't become the kind of person he naturally or easily.
The two questions this conversation has caused me to ask is, "What kind of person do I want to be when I am 75 years old?" and "how does that happen?" (I actually have asked a few older pastors the latter question recently to my benefit).
How did Dallas Willard become the kind of person that he is today, the kind of person that has a gravity that most of us don't. Dallas Willard is brilliant, for sure. But it wasn't that Dallas taught anything that was brand new, novel, or ground breaking at the gathering. The power came from the fact that it was Dallas Willard saying it. And because of who he is, what he said carried a lot more weight.
I don't aspire to be a "famous" pastor. I don't care about writing a great book, speaking at conferences, being known by a lot of people who have tons of twitter followers, or making a name for myself. I simply want to be the kind of person who has the depth of relationship with God that people like Dallas Willard have cultivated over the years. If I can model for people what that looks like as I grow older, I will feel more than successful.