The discipline of celebration

gary_with_dallas_willard_1102071“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4).

The apostle Paul instructed his young protégé Timothy to stand against the false teaching of asceticism that plagued first century Ephesus. Asceticism is a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals. In Ephesus, false teachers were leading believers to abstain from marriage and certain foods as a means of overcoming the flesh. This may have been an early form of gnosticism, the idea that all flesh is inherently evil. Yet, the Bible teaches that God’s creation is good.

Today, many Christians still struggle with a kind of ascetic legalism. It’s no wonder unbelievers see Christians as either angry or sad. We’ve lost the art of receiving God’s good things “with thanksgiving.” We’ve forgotten “the discipline of celebration.”

I first heard this phrase over dinner with Dallas Willard in 2007. Dr. Williard was a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy. He was best known in Christian circles as an author of books on discipleship. His groundbreaking books The Divine ConspiracyThe Spirit of the Disciplines have enriched the understanding of the Christian faith for thousands of believers. My personal favorite title by Willard was The Great Omission– Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings On Discipleship.

In 2007, I was part of a learning community for pastors called “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence.” Our meetings were sponsored and held at the Hollifield Leadership Center in Hickory, NC. On this particular January day, about 30 pastors got to spend the day hearing Dr. Willard speak on discipleship.

Dallas Willard was a joyful and vibrant man. His teaching method was less about the content and more about the questions he asked. He asked penetrating questions that caused us to think about the gospel we preach and the disciples that we are commissioned to make. Hearing him teach was like drinking from a fire hydrant. It was an intellectual joy and a spiritual challenge to hear him.

After the conference I had made plans to spend another night at Hickory so I could ponder over that day’s learnings and do some writing. Imagine my surprise when I was invited to join a couple of other leaders who were taking Dr. Willard to dinner. Sometimes lingering around afterwards is rewarding!

After a day of great learning, I got to have dinner with Dallas Willard. While my fellow leaders ordered from the menu with an eye for their diets. I heard Dr. Willard order a steak with a baked potato. So, I followed suit. Then, when the waiter asked us about dessert, I was amazed to hear Dr. Willard ask about the cheesecake.

“Hey Gary,” he asked. “Do you like cheesecake?”

“Boy, do I!” I answered.

While I sat across from Dr. Willard eating cheesecake, I felt like I was with my grandfather or one of my uncles. I asked him, “Dr. Willard..” And he interrupted me, reminding me to call him “Dallas.” So I continued, “Yes, ah Dallas, you taught all day about discipleship and the spiritual disciplines. Which discipline is this?” I asked lifting another bite of cheesecake to my mouth.

Dr. Willard, a twinkle in his eye, said, “Gary, have I told you about the discipline of celebration?”

“Sometimes,” he continued, “you have to learn to enjoy the good blessings of God!” He said smiling, while forking another big bite of double chocolate cheesecake.

I was sad to hear that Dallas Willard passed away last May 8, 2013. But I am looking forward to sitting across from him again some glorious day at the Lord’s Banquet Table.

I wonder, will they have cheesecake in heaven?

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