It has been over a week since Rev. Tim Keller passed away. I have been moved by the tributes from many people across the Church of Christ, from different backgrounds and denominations, and the secular press.
As with many, I joined with those who prayed for him and his family, and I am still praying for them.
I was not a friend of him, nor did he know me. However, I know there is a photo where he was together with a group of pastors, church planters, and missionaries in 2008 and I was there, as I attended the eight weeks Church Planting Fellow Programme from Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
When I got to Manhattan and entered the building where the offices and lecture rooms were, I knew those eight weeks would become a foundation in my life and ministry. I had listened to sermons and read the books that, by that time, he had written. He was indeed a prolific writer and preacher and an outstanding communicator. You have to be; New York is not any other city, and as the song says, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”. Indeed he did.
During my eight weeks, there was something that I will never forget, every talk, every paper and essay was impregnated with a gospel-centred approach which was at the very heart of Tim Keller’s life and ministry.
During those eight weeks, we were asked to attend the Sunday church services where he was preaching, mornings and evenings and in different locations. We were asked to take notes on his sermons, its content, delivery and exposition of the biblical text. Then during the week, we had the opportunity to discuss and learn from them. I found this shared learning beneficial, as the group was diverse regarding cultures and nationalities. Tim was preaching on Luke 15 – The prodigal son. This later became a book, “The Prodigal God”.
So, why write these words when so much has been written, and much is to be said regarding his life and ministry?
Well, because I want to share what still resonates with me after all these years, since those eight weeks that I spent attending the Redeemer Church planting programme, two things are trivial, and yet for me, made an accurate impression of the man, the pastor and theologian.
So, here is the first:
We were asked to spend a section during one of the morning programmes writing down about twenty questions we wanted to ask him. It took around an hour for the class to agree on these questions, which covered various topics like reformed theology, church history, church planting, the Gospel and devotional life.
I had only seen him preaching, and this was the first time that he was coming to the class. So, I believe, like many in the class, had a perception of him, and I was expecting him to be very formal, tight and not approachable, and I was so wrong. I was expecting him to come with a Bible and several books, well, his books for us to buy, and I was so wrong.
He came to the class, was introduced, and greeted us. He did not bring anything of what I expected him to come with, but only a Diet Coke. He stood and sat for as long as the twenty questions were asked. This was far away from some USA preachers’ entourage and celebrity culture.
Tim Keller brought into the classroom a Diet Coke, and he answered all the twenty or so questions with a simplicity and clarity that I had not seen and experienced before.
Then there was one question that was one the most important for me. It was not about church planting or any theological theme but about his walk with the Lord and his devotional life.
Here is the second reason:
I was sitting at the front of the class, and when he was asked this, he paused, stood up and got his wallet from his back pocket, opened and took a business card and then read to us three questions printed on that card. He told us about the devotional that he practised, which has become a good habit and sustained him. He told us that he comes to the Scriptures asking what the text is saying about God, Jesus, and Spirit, and then he asked what the text is saying about me and last, what is the most important truth that I need to learn and pray of what God is saying to me through Scriptures. Later on, we did this as a group, and I still have that book note where I wrote that the Lord told me that day.
I have not forgotten that day, and I have applied it to my own devotional life. This, again, was not overly complicated. It was not mystical but so simple and so effective.
A Diet Coke and a business card, you can describe New York in that, but more than that, the simplicity of the Gospel being at the heart of all that is said and done is something that I will always treasure. Tim Keller was, is and will be known as one the most influential theologians of our time, yet in those eight weeks, the influence was the revealing of Christ’s humility and generosity through his Church.