Tears of Hope and Gratitude

In Memoriam and Anticipation: The Now and Not Yet Grace of Tim Keller

I moved to New York in the summer of 2005. Having just finished a personally and professionally devastating two years of graduate school, I left Alabama with my identity in tatters and my confidence rock-bottom. I was questioning everything: who I was, who God was, where my life was going. Ostensibly, a family friend drove me and my mom in a U-Haul through the Lincoln Tunnel into the west side of Manhattan, but really, my own desperation was behind the wheel. I have since come to believe that desperate is the most prime location in which the real Jesus can be met.

I thought I knew him already, of course. I grew up in the church — several versions of it, in fact! We had been part of multiple denominations throughout my childhood — Episcopal, Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, Assembly of God/Charismatic, and, finally, Methodist. I went to Liverpool and Mexico on mission trips; I stayed up all night with the youth group during lock-ins; I traveled the continental US with the choir on tours. But the Jesus I knew was more concerned with my behavior than my heart. He didn’t want to know me so much as he wanted to know I was doing the “right things”: a daily 30-minute-minimum quiet time; no drugs, sex, or alcohol; church three times a week. Good grades were tied into that as well — it was all about a record that procured worth. 

Redeemer Presbyterian Church was one of the first places I visited after landing on the island. I had heard about it back in my church in Birmingham, from the pastor there, Harry Reeder (who died in a car accident last week). I had a friend who had lived in the city before and recommended Redeemer. I had read about how, the week after 9/11, Redeemer’s pastor — a guy named Tim Keller — preached a sermon that had resulted in thousands showing up the next Sunday. By all these accounts, Redeemer was … different. I was in the market for a new church, and for different, apparently, having just moved a thousand miles from home. So I went.

Disappointingly, Tim didn’t preach the first week I went (famously, at that time the name would not be listed in advance because people tended to only show up for Tim’s sermons). Tim was on his annual sabbatical, I learned, a period of time in the summer when he and his wife retreated from the city so he could read and write. The guy who did preach, though, was better than anyone I’d ever heard to that point, so I was hooked even without Tim there. I had placed my first root in this new city, and it was all because of something he talked about called grace

Tim eventually returned from his sabbatical and was as compelling as advertised. The whole church was, honestly. They played jazz music! They sang secular music sometimes (I’ll never forget hearing “Unchained” by Johnny Cash sung by a woman with a guitar and realizing that God can show up just anywhere)! And Tim quoted nearly as much literature and movie references as he did Scripture. Especially Lord of the Rings

This was not church as I knew it. And the message there wasn’t the one I knew, either. The Jesus there certainly wasn’t.

In one of the first sermons I heard him preach, Tim said that Jesus wouldn’t have been a capitalist or a socialist, and I remember thinking, “Excuse me? Because the Jesus I know (the one from Alabama) most definitely hated all the same people I did, and I knew which way he would have voted. Also, he was an avid deer hunter, I think.” The idea of a God who transcended political and economic systems rather than embodying them was, I’m embarrassed to say, mind-blowing to me. And bigger than I’d ever imagined.

If nothing in life is sure but death and taxes, then it’s fitting that God revealed the fruit of all this Gospel talk to me in a moment that occurred about a year after I’d gotten to New York. My dad’s friend had done my taxes and I owed the state about 10K. Panicked and tearful, I immediately decided I needed to leave New York altogether. But before the suitcase was packed, a friend told me that, though this might all be a surprise to me, it wasn’t to God. God was with me and would see me through it. And he surely did — not just through a different accountant who fixed everything, but through what he showed me along the way: that when things go wrong, it’s not just or always because I’ve done something wrong. Everything is an expression of God’s grace and love, not a grade report on my behavior. He is present in the “good” and “bad” and actually transcends those, too.

It was a shift in everything I’d believed to be true about God — and I weep as I write those words because of the understatement they are. God revealed the foundation of sand upon which I’d built everything and exchanged it for himself, the rock. 

So I stayed in New York. Luckily, because I soon met my husband in the lobby of Hunter College before a 6 pm Redeemer service. I met my future bridesmaids, and got to re-know friends from college who had also escaped Alabama.

And I met Tim. The first time was at a new members’ reception. I introduced myself and told him I’d heard about him through Harry Reeder at Briarwood, and he responded graciously. Then I began to fangirl a bit, gushing over how amazing Tim’s sermons were, and do you know what happened next? Tim pulled away. Kindly, but clearly. I watched him take a step back from my effusive praise and begin to close the conversation. In the moment, I was embarrassed at my impropriety, but later, I was so deeply grateful. Tim was, by deflecting my praise, exactly who I hoped he would be. A few years later, I went to a lecture that Tim was giving on — you guessed it — The Lord of the Rings. Nervously, I asked a question about comparisons between the book and movie. He answered it thoughtfully and I left that lecture walking on air at, once again, the way Jesus had shown up in an unexpected place. 

The only other time I interacted with Tim was on Twitter. Which is ironic, I feel, because I would bet my Instagram account that one of the things that made Tim such a steady and scandal-free presence in the evangelical world was how much more time he spent in prayer than on social media (what a novel idea! Maybe I should try it …). He did engage occasionally, though, running Q&As on Twitter about deep theological issues and his hatred of broccoli. During one of these, I asked him about Martin Luther writing that “you have as much laughter as you have faith.” He wrote back that it was his favorite Luther quote. 

This morning I went on a walk — it’s been a bit of a week, and I sensed I had some things to process. Sitting on a rock in front of the ocean, I began to cry, which is always a bit surprising nowadays because Lexapro has generally evened out my highs and lows. So when tears come, I know they mean something. The loss of Tim Keller dominated my thoughts, but it wasn’t just him — it was everything that happened through him, because of him.

I cried about the family waiting at home for me and how they wouldn’t be here without that moment in the lobby of a church in a building that wasn’t one. I cried about my time in New York, bathed now in nostalgia, a home that I’ve left, but that remains in my heart. I cried about all the ways Jesus became real to me because of my time at Redeemer, hearing Tim talk about The Iron Giant and always, always, ending each sermon at the cross (what a novel idea!). I cried about the all-too-rare and inherently sacrificial vision Tim had about churches. How, once they reach a certain point, it’s time to divide and move rather than sit still and get famous. I cried about all the doubts we humans navigate, and the way grace makes space for them (especially the ones about death). And I cried about how, even with his dying words, Tim acknowledged the sorrow of death while also reaffirming his, and our, faith. “There is no downside to my leaving, not in the slightest,” he said — adding him to the pantheon of giants whose last words have left their own legacies: John Wesley with “the best of all is God is with us,” and Luther’s, found in his pocket after he died: “We are beggars. This is true.” 

These were not tears of despondency, but hope, because as Tim so often told us in his paraphrase of his beloved Tolkien, “Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.” I cried because God brought Tim home this week, as he will do with each of us. And then I got up and headed to the home I have now, and the life that grace has given, a grace passed on to me through one of his faithful servants.

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12 responses to “Tears of Hope and Gratitude”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Well, now we’re both crying. Thanks a LOT.

  2. Lauren Bentley says:

    Just yesterday, I watched a video posted by my cousin about how Christian women need to be on time for things, and tips to make that so (the evangelical version of the internet’s “do better!”). And I was like, are we still doing this?

    Your made me realize where my aversion to behaviour-modification Christianity came from: the work of Tim Keller, particularly Prodigal God. How grateful I am for his work!

    Your personal experience with Redeemer captures the broader way God worked through Tim’s ministry. Thank you so much for writing it down, and beautifully.

  3. Pamela Burns says:

    Lovely piece on God’s Grace and His faithful servant.

  4. Jim Zucker says:

    That was great. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Anthony Giordano says:

    Wonderful piece! Thank you for sharing!

  6. Joseph McSpadden says:

    What a wonderful piece of writing, honest and deeply touching.

  7. Jim Munroe says:

    Me too, Dave, sweet tears of gratitude for Tim and for Stephanie’s chronicle of grace. Whew!

  8. Walt Mack says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  9. John Asirvatham says:

    Thank you for this

  10. Richard Price says:

    Heck, I feel like I lost a close friend, and I haven’t even met him or even seen him in person. I reckon I would have felt the same when C. S. Lewis died, but I was only 10 then. I owe a debt to them both and oh so many others. One day, “love’s purest joys restored.”

  11. […] and talking about it more, in any venue, can only help us. Combine this openness with what TKeller told Stephanie was his favorite line from Luther (“you have as much laughter as you have faith”) and […]

  12. David Meza says:

    Tim Keller and John Cash what a match. Love them both and thankful for both of them and the God they taught us about. Thanks for sharing.

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