“We do not want to be ephemeral, to be inconsequential. We do not want to just be a wave upon the sand. The deepest desires of our hearts are for love that lasts.” —Tim Keller (1950 – 2023)
I moved to New York City in the fall of 2001 to start my first job at Seeds of Peace. Born and raised in a Southern California beach town, I found the relentless energy of the city and the sea of unknown faces on every street corner exhilarating and terrifying.
I grew up in a close-knit Christian community and had heard about the Redeemer Presbyterian Church before I moved to New York. After unpacking my apartment and buying my first subway pass, I was most excited to find a new church home to anchor me in an unfamiliar place.
That first Sunday, I took the 6 train to Hunter College and found my way to the auditorium. After a familiar order of prayers, traditional hymns, and the scripture reading, Tim Keller emerged from backstage. He walked toward a simple music stand and set down a Bible, that morning’s New York Times and an academic journal. The entire congregation locked in from the moment he began preaching. He effortlessly wove together a passage from the Old Testament, a front-page news headline and a recent sociological research study. It was a master class in expository preaching — all without notes or pretense. I was hooked.
For three years, Tim Keller was my teacher and spiritual guide, even though I never met him. Most Sundays, I joined hundreds of other young professionals gathered at multiple locations around the city to soak in Tim’s sermons. That is what I came to church for; it is what most of us came for. Even though I was part of a Redeemer small group and had college friends who attended the same service, I do not remember sitting with other people very often. It was an individual experience for me. After the service, I would take my bulletin with notes scrawled in the margins and sit at a coffee shop to write in my journal about what God was showing me through Tim’s words. I still have those journals and I wrote things like, “What will my life stand for?” “What idols am I worshipping instead of God?” “Lord, show me the plans you have for me.”
Tim Keller died last Friday (May 19) at age 72 after a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer. His expert teaching, his convincing defense of the gospel, and the way he lived his life with integrity and humility influenced many lives like mine. As I reflect on his role in my life at that point in time, here are three things I learned from Tim Keller:
- The Bible is wacky, revealing, and transformative. Tim had an extra twinkle in his eye when teaching from weird and often confounding passages in the Bible (see, for example, 2 Kings 2:23-25). Nothing in the Bible was ever off-limits in his sermons; every verse held a teachable moment. Tim had the capability of turning any passage into an on-ramp to the gospel. In Tim’s hands, an obscure verse from the book of Habakkuk turned out to reveal God’s redemptive work through Jesus. (It was a fun game to scan the scripture printed in the bulletin and try to guess ahead of time how he was going to make the connection.) Lastly, Tim believed that if you prayed with conviction for God to illuminate the scriptures and you made a disciplined practice of reading the Bible, God would show up and transform your life through the power of the Holy Spirit. He also warned that you might not like what happened next—God does not leave you where you started, so be prepared for your priorities, activities, and dreams to change. This encouragement to seek God above worldly success and to buckle up for a wild ride was exactly what my 22-year-old heart needed.
- Humans long for something more. On any Sunday at Redeemer, the congregation might include investment bankers, professional musicians, doctors, lawyers, or artists at the top of their field. Tim would often say that people move to New York City to make their mark and prove their worth. But he drove home that this was not just reserved for New Yorkers. Every person on the planet is longing to be recognized, longing to be fulfilled, longing to be whole. In New York City, the dominant culture wanted you to believe that you could satisfy that longing with money, professional success, influence, a relationship with a girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse, etc. But Tim hammered home that none of those things would truly satisfy that deep longing; all those things would inevitably fail. Tim preached that finding our identity and belonging in the God who created us was the only way to satisfy our deepest needs. That longing rang true for me then and still does today.
- It is important to figure out what you believe. Tim knew there was a wide range of religious and nonreligious worldviews present at Redeemer. Most people in the pews were Christians, but not all. Tim made hearty theological arguments accessible without dumbing them down. He frequently invited us to consider the implications of a particular Christian truth claim for our lives. But just as often, he encouraged us to figure out what we believed. Full stop. He challenged us not to get complacent and instead to read, study, ask questions, pray, push ourselves to go deeper in our exploration of faith, because it is the most consequential journey we will ever take.
In the years since I left New York, my faith in God and my belief in the power of Jesus’s death and resurrection have grown deeper. At the same time, my faith journey has led me to question some of the Christian social norms I grew up with and over the years I found myself at odds with the refusal by some denominations, including the Presbyterian Church in America with which Redeemer is affiliated, to ordain women and to affirm and preside over same-sex marriages.
This transformation led to a season in my life where I was angry and critical of leaders and institutions that did not see things the same way I did. At one point, I tried and failed to read Tim Keller’s daily devotional book on the Psalms that my mom gave me as a Christmas gift. It was not because Tim addresses gender or marriage directly in the text, but because I knew we disagreed about the role of women and the definition of marriage, and I was not able to find value in his words. I followed Tim’s guidance to keep figuring out what I believe, and it took me to different conclusions than he espoused.
Through my work at Interfaith America, I have learned how to build relationships with people from diverse faith backgrounds rooted in our shared values while also acknowledging our deep differences. My interfaith experience helped me recognize that I can hold multiple truths in tension. I still disagree with Tim on significant issues — I am committed to the full inclusion of women and LGBTQ+ people in the church — and at the same time, I admire his fierce faith and continue to be moved by his teaching, his depiction of the human condition and his love for Jesus.
Twenty-two years later, I can trace the marks of Tim Keller’s influence on my life and for that, I am incredibly grateful.
Megan Johnson is the Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives at Interfaith America.