I spent some of the morning listening once again to Tim Keller’s plenary talk at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 conference. Because I am late to everything, this was one of the first Keller sermons that I really paid attention to, and the effect was so life-giving that from that moment on that much of my dishwashing and road tripping was accompanied by a Keller sermon podcast. I remember the original event well, because on the drive home from that conference I saw my grandmother in her right mind for the last time; the stroke that took her speech and eventually her life would come days later. Perhaps in a mysterious way, the Lord knew that I needed to hear his sermon on the new birth at that time: the power of the resurrection of the Son of God, living inside me right now. That’s a death-proof promise.
I hadn’t finished this morning’s listen when I got a text that he had passed. It’s possible to genuinely mourn someone you never met, especially if that person showed you some glimpse of God. Tim Keller showed that to me. But what I’m thinking about right now, what I’ve been thinking about all day, are not the glimpses he showed me in his wonderful sermons, or compelling books, or encouraging interviews. I’m thinking about the glimpse of God he showed me that nobody else was privy to: or so I thought until today.
Last December, I got a very unexpected email:
Hi Samuel (or ‘Sam’?) —
I just wanted to tell you that I’ve been reading “Digital Liturgies” and some of your work placed elsewhere and it’s great stuff, very helpful and insightful.
Glad you are putting time into writing!
I’ve been debating for hours whether or not to talk about this at all, because in my mind there’s no way to bring it up without sounding like a humble-brag. My response to this email was joy, but also shock. I had zero idea that Tim Keller read what I wrote, and what’s more, I had zero idea that he would ever think to write me a note about it. A few months later he would endorse my book—another surreal moment—but it was this exchange that was sweetest to me. And I didn’t feel OK talking about it publicly, because, well, I thought this message made me sound special.
But then today I started reading the tributes pouring in from people who had received this kind of message from Tim. Encouraging emails, totally unsolicited and unlooked for. Phone calls to people who didn’t realize he knew they existed. Conversations and lunches in anonymity, in the throes of business and in the middle of cancer. The testimonies of encounters between Keller and normal, everyday, non-impressive (me especially!) people have rolled in by the bushel. And they are all the same in one way: He really listened. He really cared. He was genuinely kind. People like me had nothing we could “do” for him. There was no upshot to that email or that phone call or that meeting. It happened anyway, and not so someone could record it or tweet about it. It happened because he cared.
After reading all this, you know what I realized? I could talk about that email he sent me, because it doesn’t make me sound special at all. It makes Tim Keller sound special.
But I don’t think he would want me to talk that way. You see, the point about Tim Keller is that he was gracious toward people who couldn’t repay him, because he knew that Jesus had been gracious to him first. Tim really, genuinely, totally believed that he was more sinful than he could ever have imagined, and more loved by God than he could have ever hoped. He believed this. And this belief spilled out in how he interacted with others.
Social calculus—how can this person help me get what I want? will this call or this email make a favor more likely later?—is the rule in our world. We know this. What we don’t always know is how common it is in the church. Reader, believe me when I say that one of the first things to go when a leader or a church or a ministry organization becomes successful is a sense of how sinful and undeserving we all are. Money, influence, reputation, and power are not collected by taking time out of a busy, platform-solidfiying schedule to talk to random people. Worldly social calculus is how a lot of Christian institutions work. It was not how Tim Keller worked.
Why not? Because the gospel-centered movement he fathered was not a brand to him. Maybe to others, but not to him. He preached grace not because other people needed grace, but because he did. He preached forgiveness not because other people needed forgiveness, but because he did. He preached winsomeness and gentleness not because other people needed to treat others better, but because he did. And this gets to the heart of what I mean when I say that the Holy Spirit is a permanent political liability. The way Jesus Christ treats us dictates how we treat others. And Jesus Christ does not treat us with maximal social calculus, or with disdain, or with contempt. These testimonies of encounters with Tim exist not really because of how well Tim treated others, but because of how well Jesus treated Tim. Tim simply believed it.
My heart aches to follow my elder brother Tim in this. I’m ashamed of how much of my adult life to this point I’ve spent protecting myself, protecting my time, protecting my sand castles. I want to be more like Jesus.
Thank you, Tim, for making me want to be more like Jesus.
I can’t wait to meet you.
Well said. The Prodigal God was my introduction to Tim's way of sharing what he had learned about God. I think it was the single most influential book on God, or faith, that I have ever read. My pastor is one of Tim's close friends and he preaches/teaches much the same as Tim did. Tim's influence will only grow, and I thank God for that.
Thanks for putting into words what many of us were watching unfold in the kaleidoscope of similar anecdotes over the past couple days.