On Friday evening the news came through that we all knew was coming but didn’t want to hear. Timothy Keller had died three years after being diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. I’ve read a number of comments from people to the effect that they’d found themselves in tears even though they’d never met him. I was one of those people.
Tim Keller has had a huge impact on so many lives and on the Evangelical Church around the world. First, there was his impact as a pastor in New York. I guess a man with his obvious preaching abilities could have played it safe and worked his way up as a pastor, moving to a medium size church and then taking on an established, solid, significant sized church to pastor that would have offered him a pulpit from which to preach and time to write but instead he was called to go and plant in New York. That Redeemer grew into a large, multisite church under his leadership with the sites eventually transitioning to autonomous churches was not a slam dunk back in 1989. New York was and remains a largely secular and liberal city.
Then there was Keller’s writing. In 2008 he wrote “The Reason For God” which became for this generation what CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity had been to previous ones. More books followed as Keller modelled a winsome, persuasive apologetics demonstrating how to speak to a sceptical generation with both logic and warmth. As a pastor I both read the books to learn from his approach and give them away. But Keller’s writing was pastoral too, especially when he wrote on topics like prayer and suffering. There was also his book on The Meaning of Marriage which he co-authored with his beloved wife, Kathy. This has helped many a young couple through marriage preparation.
Keller brought a sensitivity to his writing and a generous orthodoxy, whilst many other conservative Christian leaders seemed to be drawn deeper into a culture war, Keller did not. This did not mean that he was firm on ethical matters but it did mean that he avoided the labels of left and right, orthodox on ethics, he was at the same time prominent in speaking about social issues such as in his book Generous Justice. At times this meant that he seemed to attract flack from both ends of the Christian spectrum. It’s funny that I’ve heard people describing him as “more controversial” in recent years but I’m not convinced that he was particularly controversial. It’s just that people seemed to go looking for controversy.
Indeed, even in the face of attacks, Keller continued to model gentle humility and integrity. In an era when sadly we’ve seen so many prominent leaders fall into serious sin and scandal, Keller stood out as a godly man who lived his whole life for Christ. I believe that his humility was rooted in his understanding of God’s underserved love and grace to him. Keller summed up the good news as this:
“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
As I said at the start, I wasn’t one of those who had the privilege of meeting Tim or getting to know him personally but like so many my life and ministry has been significantly influenced by his. This is because as well as his book writing, Keller was concerned to bless the wider church in other ways. Keller was a church planter at heart and so, through City to City he sought to raise up, equip and support church planting around the world. Here in the West Midlands, the Birmingham Collective (formerly 2020 Birmingham) has benefited significantly over the past 13 year from the support of City To City. Only recently we took a few potential planters through the Incubator Course based largely on Keller’s book Canter Church.
Note the name of the organisation, “City To City”. Keller wasn’t just concerned for church planting in general but at a time when Christians were heading for the suburbs, Keller wanted us to fall in love with the city again if we wanted to be amongst God’s creation then where better than among a million or more of his creatures, made in his image
I want to suggest that one of the most important tasks that a pastor can do is their last one, teaching us how to finish well. Keller put into practice what he wrote about suffering as he was faced with a stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis. He did not rage against the illness but gave us a beautiful example of how to live with terminal illness. Another stand out quote was this:
If Jesus was really and truly raised from the dead (and he was!), then everything will, finally, be all right.
“All death can do to Christians is make their lives infinitely better.”
Even in the last few days he has continued to model this. His son Michael, when sharing the update that Tim had been sent home from hospital for hospice (palliative) care told us that his dad had been saying:
I’m thankful for all the people who’ve prayed for me over the years. I’m thankful for my family, that loves me. I’m thankful for the time God has given me, but I’m ready .to see Jesus I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.”
Then when sharing the news of Tim’s death, Michael recorded some of his father’s final words as:
There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest.”
What wonderful faith. It reminded me of some of my mum’s last words as we said goodbye to her in December and I identify with the Keller family both in their sadness at saying their goodbyes to a parent they hoped to have longer with and their joy at seeing him safely home. I hope that when my time comes, I too will be eagerly longing to go home to see Jesus,
Today Tim Keller gets to see his saviour face to face and hear Him say:
“Well done, good and faithful servant.”