In Memory of Tim Keller

My first impression of Tim Keller was not actually that notable. During my college years, the “Young Adults Bible Study” group I attended played a video lecture of his called “The Prodigal God.” I recall being faintly impressed by the choreography of Keller walking around a dinner table that kept changing to reflect his themes, and I thought it was new how he kept talking about the older brother and how the parable was not just about the prodigal son, but about both of them–but I didn’t think much more of it than that. It did strike me that the speaker was unusual in that he wasn’t speaking loudly from the stage–he was quiet, calm, conversational. It wasn’t like previous “sermon” videos I’d seen before.

I was more impressed by the later videos of Tim Keller that I saw when at Baylor University in Texas. Again, I watched the videos as part of a Sunday School session with my local PCA church. Someone should do a study, at some point, about the influence of Sunday School curriculum videos in terms of spreading views–I know my grandfather, at least, studied the same Gospel in Life book at his church, so clearly a lot of Keller’s popularity probably comes from his Sunday School curriculum. It was some of the same things that had impressed me with The Prodigal God–Keller still spoke in a quiet conversational style, in an empty room, with understated but still effective visual effects.

More relevantly, what hit me about watching his lectures about The Gospel in Life was how strongly it differed from other Christians on the nature of cities. The bulk of Christendom viewed them as godless monstrosities, to be fled, battled, or at best infiltrated by missionaries on hopeless causes. Keller, however, saw them as positive goods–as opportunities. Paul, he pointed out, had journeyed chiefly to cities. Most of the early church was begun not in farmhouses, but in city squares. Keller loved cities, which was a remarkably unusual take to me.

But it was the final Sunday School series of his that I saw, The Reason for God, that I thought was really fascinating. In it, Keller was no longer in an empty room. Rather, Keller shared his video time with six other people–people who weren’t believers. Keller had invited and persuaded six ordinary people, skeptics, to sit down with him, and talk about why they didn’t believe in Christianity.

It wasn’t a “gotcha” panel; the focus was not on proving them all wrong. It wasn’t an aggressive conversion seminar either, there was no grand finale where one or all gave their lives to Christ. As far as I can recall, at least in the video, Keller never asked them to. (Though that might have been considered implicit in the fact they were talking to him in the first place). It was simply an open forum. Open discussion. Keller spoke to them all respectfully, invited them to participate and voice their own concerns; to talk back and forth with each other and push back against his own ideas. Often he was quiet, and when he explained the gospel he did so in a very clear and understandable way, and always from an air of explaining his own perspective to the skeptics around him.

It was, I thought, the most heartwarming and the most honest ministry project I’d seen. A minister, openly and honestly conversing with “the enemy,” being respectful and yet clear on what the gospel had to offer. It felt like the sort of video that an atheist could–and conceivably even would–watch and gain insight from. It was a Sunday School video that felt like it was preaching to more than just the choir.

I started listening to Keller regularly in the evenings. Texas churches didn’t have evening services like we’d had in Michigan and Pennsylvania, so it made sense to listen to his sermons while I was cleaning the kitchen or fixing dinner. I was impressed by his clarity, his way of speaking to what the historical context of the writer had been, as well as his seemingly endless knowledge of writers from all sorts of fields (he was a fan of Tolkien, Lewis, and Sayers, which endeared him to me).

2015 was a big time for me. I was preparing for what I thought would be my doctoral exams, and making one of my sporadic efforts to get healthy by regularly working out. I also volunteered to help out the janitor at our church, who had recently been diagnosed with Parkinsons, by mopping out the church on Wednesdays. I decided that while jogging, working out, and mopping, I would listen to the books I needed to read, and also listen to some of Tim Keller’s sermons on mp3. (I remember one, specifically, on the upcoming generation, and how they tended to have little social investment in their communities, which was not a sermon but instead a lecture but still vastly interesting. It’s part of why I try to make an effort to engage, now, in community stuff.)

2015 was also a big time, in that it was the time everything fell apart.

Partly due to a confusion in paperwork, partly due (I think) to my own lack of ability, the plan for my life that I had going into 2015 collapsed, and my doctoral exams never happened. The doctorate I’d been working toward for four years had to be discarded in favor of a Master’s degree (And even that I almost lost because I forgot to file the right forms). It was a time when I stopped answering “fine” when people asked “How ya doing?” and instead said “Can’t complain.”

I was still mopping the church on Wednesdays, and since I was no longer listening to the books I was supposed to learn, instead I was listening to another sermon of Tim Keller’s. I don’t know which it was–it may have been one of his sermons about dealing with dark times, or something from his series on Jonah. What I remember was the story he told of a young woman who gave her life at a young age to go to China and be a missionary. She refused attachments, took training and attended classes, went through all sorts of hoops, and at the end of it–couldn’t go to China. The door was utterly closed. There was no chance of her doing mission work there. It nearly destroyed her faith. She couldn’t understand why God would do this, what God wanted, why, after everything she’d done, after giving her life to Christ to go to China…

…except in that moment, Tim Keller explained, the woman realized that she’d never given her life to Christ at all. Everything she had given up, she had given up for her own plan of her life. She had wanted to go to China as a missionary–for perfectly good reasons–and had essentially been “making a deal” with God, saying that “if I do this, do this for me.” Truly surrendering her life to Christ might mean surrendering it to a life outside China that did not involve the mission field at all.

It’s not like this story hit me like a lightning bolt. It’s not a revolutionary theological idea. I think I’d even heard the same sermon before in 2013 while washing dishes. But it steadied me. It helped. I think, especially, it helped that the woman in Keller’s example had wanted her life’s plan for altruistic reasons and followed it for so long. It wasn’t that her plan was bad, or that she was somehow unfit for it. God just had a different one.

2016 was also a big year. I found myself wondering whether I ought to just abandon any idea of going back to Michigan long-term. In the sort of move I rarely make, I prayed to God and asked him directly for guidance. The next day, I listened to a sermon from Keller about how each person is the best missionary to the community he was born in and was familiar with. I try not to read too much into things and see ‘signs’ everywhere, but I hadn’t chosen the sermon with my question in mind–it just lined up. I called it good enough.

God could have used anyone to speak to me, of course. He just happened to use Keller. I don’t want to descend into hagiography here. Listening to Keller, it’s undeniable that the man almost instinctively shied away from controversial topics. That’s not to say he didn’t address them–Keller said that homosexuality is a sin, and he said that abortion is wrong. He also signed a letter opposing Trump’s refugee ban in 2018. And he certainly attracted a lot of controversy (from the right), when he penned an opinion piece in the New York Times saying that Christianity wasn’t necessarily Democratic or Republican. But while he spoke often about Christianity being countercultural on a philosophical level, his responses on specific cultural issues were often dodgy.

There is something a little unchristian about so passionately admiring a person, even a pastor. Keller was aware of this as much of anyone–he stopped preaching in part because he felt it was turning into a spectacle. He didn’t want to become a celebrity pastor of a megachurch, where the gospel was driven by his charisma. I was deeply afraid that it would turn out that Keller, like so many other celebrity pastors, had some secret scandal. Perhaps a bit idolatrous–no man is perfect, and I’m sure Keller was not either. If there’s one thing about his death I feel glad about, it’s a secret relief that there is no time for him to fall into some new deadly sin.

Regardless, I did admire Keller, and the world is poorer for his loss. I’ve been reading stories on Twitter for days, now, of people who met with him, spoke to him–sometimes just random strangers on Twitter who commented about him, but who he reached out to and had long conversations with. I think some of this is explained in the interview he gave with Focus on the Family back in January, five months vefore his death–I think he was trying to be sure he gave encouragement to what he saw as the new voices in the church.

Since starting this blog, I’ve seen the post put out by Redeemer Presbyterian Church, showing the video that Keller had recorded for “Redeemer Night,” a gathering of the five Redeemer churches in NYC, which happened, oddly enough, to be the very night Keller died. The video was recorded several weeks earlier, of course, but it’s still clear from the video that Keller can feel his own death approaching.

Particularly compelling is the three pieces of advice Keller gives the Redeemer congregants (“if I may”). They are all three from the book of Jeremiah, and they are all of them strongly resonant with themes of Keller’s ministry. (1), live on the razor’s edge, entering the world and engaging with it but not losing your Christian identity. (2), invest in the world and in the city. Seek the good of your neighbors around you, even the unbelieving ones. (3), don’t care about your reputation. Or more specifically: “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.”

Again, something I needed to hear.

Just recently, I’ve been growing bothered by the realization that I might never become a billionaire, or even a millionaire, or even anyone apart from a middling public school English teacher. I have friends from my days in Texas posting about how they’ve had poetry published or how they’ve gotten accepted to tenure-track jobs at twice the salary I’m making currently. And it’s silly to be bothered by it–my life is fine, everything considered. Certainly it’s a lot better than the lives of others I’ve run into via my job. But it has bothered me.

It’s a silly, juvenile wish, the desire to “seek great things for thyself.” Maybe there’s something uniquely American about it–James Baldwin writes about how French waiters are happy to just be waiters, but American waiters are presumed to have failed at life somehow. It’s senseless. There’s no shame in being ordinary. Most people are. More to the point, for the Christian, you shouldn’t seek “greatness”, you should seek “goodness” and simply seek to minister to others in God’s name.

But “Seekest thou great things for thyself?” Oh yeah. I have. I’m still, like the woman in the story, holding onto my own version of what I think God’s plan for my life ought to be. And God used the same person to tell me I was wrong.

God can use other people. But I’ll miss this one.

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