Last week a man by the name of Dallas Willard died of advance cancer at the age of 77. For many of you, the person and the name might not be one that you know. I can’t say I have met the man, but his life and his writings have had a tremendous influence on me as a Christian and as a pastor. Though he was a philosopher and not a theologian, his books on faith and spiritual discipline I think make up some of the best writing on the subject written in the past hundred years.
I first encountered Dallas Willard through the writing of another writer on spiritual discipline by the name of Richard Foster. The book to which I was pointed was one entitled The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Strangely enough, a few months ago I had picked up another book of his, The Divine Conspiracy, to read as I viewed a series of lectures on the book given by the author. So I was struck hard last week when I received that Dallas Willard was now in the arms of the Father.
In the book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dr. Willard gives a superb analogy of why we need to practice disciplines. The analogy is a baseball analogy, which you must know endeared me to the man immediately. Dr. Willard writes for us to think about how young people come to idolize an outstanding and talented baseball player. I thought about how I had my baseball heroes as a kid, and how I certainly would do all that I could be like them. For example, I was enamored for a while with Maury Wills, a talented runner of the bases. I remember I was at the ballpark on the day he broke the record for the most steals in a season. So whenever I was in a game, and having made it first base, I would think about my strategies on running the bases just like Maury Wills. (Only problem was that in Little League we had rules about staying on the bag until the ball was hit, which of course made it very difficult to steal bases.)
What Dr. Willard points out is that these heroes of ours worked hard to develop their skills. While some had extraordinary talents, they all had to give their lives to constant training and preparation of mind and body in order to automatically respond to any situation they would encounter on the field. They did not develop and build upon their talents in just playing on game day. It took discipline to become a star player, which meant hard work outside of the game itself.
So it is with our spiritual being and our relationship with God. Jesus calls disciples to follow, and to develop themselves much as a baseball player would be required to train and work out in order to play the game well. Dr. Willard writes: “A baseball player who expects to excel in the game without adequate exercise of his body is no more ridiculous than the Christian who hopes to be able to act in the manner of Christ when put to the test without the appropriate exercise in godly living.”
Jesus, even though he was divine, understood this himself. After his baptism by John, he spent 40 days in the wilderness, in solitude, fasting and prayer in order to prepare himself for his ministry. From this foundation Jesus was able to demonstrate through teaching and healing the coming of the kingdom of God. Throughout his ministry the gospel witnesses give us plenty of evidence of Jesus going off into a lonely place to pray and commune with the Father. As his ministry came to a close with his death so near, he prayed and prepared himself for the final obedience to the Father in the garden at Gethsemane. So “to live as Christ lived is to live as he did all his life.”
For us to be disciples as we journey with Jesus we need to live a life of preparation through daily prayer, Bible study, meditation, moments of solitude, and service to others. Such practice will prepare us for whatever the world and Satan throws at us, and will prepare us for living with joy under the gentle yoke of our Lord and Savior.