Reminiscing on Riet, remembering Dallas, and reviewing ‘Soul Keeping’.
If you’re a Vineyard Pastor in South Africa, one of the guaranteed highlights of our calendar is the annual retreat to Riet River in the Eastern Cape. Each year we get to spend time connecting and reflecting near the dunes of what could possibly be some of the most scenic and unspoilt beaches in the world.
At this year’s retreat, one of our colleagues, Brett Nixon-James led a devotional time on the topic of the Soul. He shared from his own ministry and experience, as well as from the book ‘Soul Keeping’ by John Ortberg. As I had previously downloaded this book to my Kindle, Brett’s sharing convinced me to finally get stuck into it. I am a voracious collector of books, electronic or otherwise. The challenge is always to read them all.
John Ortberg hardly needs any introduction. He is widely known around the world as an author and popular conference speaker. He was previously the teaching pastor at Willow Creek in Chicago. As a bestselling Christian author his writing is down to earth and accessible.
Settling into this book I was mesmerized and could hardly put it down. What was totally unexpected was that the book was not so much a study of a topic as a reflection on a man. Don’t get me wrong, the book is about the soul, and is filled with many insights and thought provoking challenges. But more than that it is about Ortberg’s relationship with Dallas Willard, one that I was completely unaware of.
Dallas Willard was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He was an accomplished academic in his field, but was probably more famously known for his Christian publications. When visiting his website one can either click on the Philosophy page or the Christian page. He has published widely on ‘spiritual formation’ and the ‘disciplines of the Christian life’. It is no exaggeration to say that he may well be one of the most profound Christian thinkers of our age. I know of no other person, in our time, who has given so much thought to the theme of Christlikeness – how do we obey Jesus, how do we become more like Christ?
Yet what was so challenging about Dallas was not just his teaching and writings, it was his life. He not only modeled what he taught, he seemed to exude it. It is this example, this life, that so profoundly impacted John Ortberg and that he portrays in this book.
John tells countless stories about Dallas. From his first visit driving out to meet him at his home in Box Canyon, through their developing relationship and deepening friendship, until his time at Dallas’s bedside before he died. The anecdotes are personal and often humorous. Like John’s repeated response to Dallas: ‘Huh?’ I laughed when reading this, as it was how I so often felt when listening to Dallas.
The conversations, however, were not just perplexing but transforming. There weren’t many areas of the author’s life that were not challenged by Dallas: his relationships, including his marriage; his understanding of ministry; perhaps even his worldview.
Yet through it all, John is not just narrating a story, he is inadvertently issuing a challenge – live life well, live from the soul.
The soul is like a stream of water, which gives strength, direction, and harmony to every area of our life. When that stream is as it should be, we are constantly refreshed and exuberant in all we do, because our soul itself is then profusely rooted in the vastness of God and his kingdom, including nature; and all else within us is enlivened and directed by that stream. Therefore we are in harmony with God, reality, and the rest of human nature and nature at large, (Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, cited in ‘Soul Keeping’, pg. 15 )
As I have already mentioned, it wasn’t only Dallas’s insights and teachings that impacted Ortberg, it was the way he lived. One quality of Dallas that struck John was that he seemed to live life at a different pace. He was never in a hurry, never rushed, or seemingly stressed. He was at peace, he seemed so comfortable in his own skin. I remember being impressed by this very thing.
Through his friendship with Trevor Hudson, as well as my friend and colleague Alexander Venter, Dallas visited South Africa a number of times. On one occasion Alexander hosted Dallas for a retreat with a small group of pastors. I was fortunate to be among those invited. I was deeply impacted by this time, not only by what Dallas shared but by his humble nature and approachable character. At a broader conference after this event, I introduced several of my friends to Dallas. He graciously signed books for them and took time to engage with each one personally. He was never in a hurry, never looking over their shoulder for someone more important, or checking his watch. He had a way of being present to the people he was with, you felt as if you were the only one in the room. This in the midst of a busy conference.
Dallas Willard was one of those massive figures in history whose footprints will remain for a long time. Sadly he passed away in May 2013. John describes his passing in this book.
I would recommend everything he has written but perhaps suggest that you start with ‘Soul Keeping’ or even read it in stereo with Dallas’s writings. It’s a helpful insight into the man – a man who understood the soul and how to live deeply from it.
“The world in which we live has replaced the word for soul with self, and they are not the same thing. The more we focus on selves, the more we neglect the soul,” (Soul Keeping, pg. 45)