I first came across Tim Keller’s name around 2005 or 2006. I grew up in the kind of church that thinks John MacArthur is a liberal and so I was doing the old millennial version of deconstructing pretty hard by my senior year of high school.
My parents were praying for me lots and we’d made a deal where a) I wasn’t allowed to attend our church anymore, b) I needed to be in *a* church on Sunday till I graduated, c) whatever I did after graduation, our relationship would remain. They wouldn’t shun me, in other words.
So I was bouncing around a bit, reading Don Miller and Rob Bell and Brian McLaren and also John Piper (this was back when Rob Bell had a footnote in Velvet Elvis saying “read everything John Piper has ever written”) and Mark Driscoll and CS Lewis.
Amidst all that, my parents gave me Don Carson’s “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church.” One of the things Carson said is that if you want many of the things that emergent wanted, you didn’t have to give up orthodoxy to have them. This guy in NYC was proving it.
At that point, Tim had only written one book–his mercy ministry book published in 1989, IIRC. Since ’89 his focus had been Redeemer. But I remembered his name. Then in 2007 I washed up in RUF and then at Grace Chapel, a recently particularized PCA plant in Lincoln.
Both my campus pastor and the pastor at Grace, who would later baptize me (I had never been baptized in my church growing up… long story), had been listening to his sermons for years and had loads of papers and PDFs that they read and passed around w/in the church.
Then in 2008 “The Reason for God” came out and loads of us in RUF and at Grace were reading it. TGC, though founded in 2005, also began to pick up steam around that time.
And pretty soon Tim seemed to be everywhere–book followed book followed book. And my friends and I devoured all of it.
A few years after I first picked up Reason for God, I was now a college grad trying to figure out some vocational things and I began to write a bit online. I started writing more regularly for Mere O in 2012 or 2013 and then in 2015 MLA handed the site off to me.
I admired Tim from afar, while also keeping a close eye on denominational affairs w/in the PCA, which had by that time become my ecclesial home. So in 2017 when a prominent commentator wrote a fairly silly article on our “Tim Keller” problem, I wanted to defend Tim.
I didn’t want to do it in a tribal way that reenforced divides w/in our communion. I knew enough of Tim’s work by then to know he wouldn’t want that. So I tried to write something that defended Tim *and* acknowledged some of the legitimate concerns w/ some of Tim’s admirers.
And basically everyone hated it. Some folks told me I was going to hell for defending Keller (really). Others complained that my piece was going to make their fundraising harder. It was one of my first times going viral in a way that angered people on all sides. It was terrible.
After about three days of this, I was feeling very low. Then near the end of the work day I logged into my email and saw an email from “Timothy J Keller” and froze. Not sure I’ve ever been more petrified to open an email.
This is what I found:
Just so we’re clear: I was a (mostly kinda dumb) 29-year-old kid in Nebraska running a website in my spare time while I worked a dead end marketing gig as a copywriter. And that was how he reached out.
So we started emailing back and forth. Pretty sure I’ve saved every email I’ve ever gotten from him. Which is maybe indicative of some idolatrous thing to repent of? I dunno.
Then I was going to be out in NYC that May so we made plans to meet up while I was out there. He told me to meet him by the subway station on Roosevelt Island at 8am. So I showed up and sat outside on a bench at 8am waiting for him.
No Tim. 8:15: Still no Tim. 8:45: Still no Tim. Finally around 9 I’m starting to worry so I get out my phone and email him b/c I didn’t have his number. A minute later I get the reply:
“Jake. Oh dear. What’s your number?”
Ten minutes later bleary eyed Tim arrives at the subway station. He had gotten in late the night before from a conference and hadn’t gotten home to bed until around 1am. (Dude was 68 years old and made time to meet me the next morning at 8am.)
His explanation was hilarious:
“The thing about getting old, Jake, is that you stop having to set an alarm b/c you wake up so often to use the bathroom. You wake up, look at the clock, and if it’s close enough to when you get up, you just stay up. So I never set an alarm.”
“Unfortunately, I am not usually up until 1am and so I overslept. I’m sorry.” So then we went off to a diner and he gave me the rundown on, like, the last six restaurants to be in that space. He pays for breakfast and asks me what I’m reading.
It’s May of 2018 so I inevitably answer “Well, I just finished the new Deneen book.” He does the thing he does where he kinda sizes you up, stares at you for a second, and then goes, “So: *Did* liberalism fail?”
And we were off to the races.
We stayed in touch after that and on more than one occasion he called me up out of the blue just to check in:
“You sounded discouraged in your last email. How are you? How is your family?”
Sometimes we’d talk for an hour. There wasn’t anything in that for him. He was just being a kind man. And I’ll never forget it.
Don’t get the wrong impression: I’m not special. He did this for tons of people. He did it late on a Friday night from his hospital bed a few months ago for a buddy of mine after he had an awful week at work. It’s just who he was.
Then in April of 2022 I was in NYC again and we were able to meet up. So we did a couple laps around Roosevelt Island on a cold, cloudy day and eventually found a bench near their apartment to talk for a bit longer before he needed to get home.
We talked about Matthew Rose’s liberalism book and the ways in which right-wing politics can actually become quite hostile to many Christian beliefs, as is seen in the history of many right-wing movements in the 20th c. west.
BTW: If I am ever in my 70s and living with stage IV cancer, I very much doubt I’ll stay as on top of intellectual and cultural issues as Tim did. I don’t know how he did it. But he was often more up to date in his reading than I am and I’m half his age and it’s literally my job.
He also advised me about how to build Mere O, some writers I ought to reach out to, and encouraged me in a variety of ways. As we parted, I nearly walked away without asking and then, knowing I’d regret it if I didn’t, asked to take a picture together.
“I don’t want to be a fanboy or anything weird. But you’re one of my heroes and I’d just like to have a picture.” He smiled and we took the photo–I think it’s one of three times in my life I’ve taken a selfie and the other two were either with my wife or one of my kids.
Anyway, it’s special to me.
(We had masks on b/c his doctors required him to mask even outdoors b/c of how suppressed his immune system was due to his cancer treatment. So help me if any of you people start a thing about masks.)
I’ve lost two heroes of mine in the past few months–Benedict XVI on New Year’s Eve last year and now Tim. Benedict’s last words were “Lord, I love you.” The last published words we have from Tim, via his son’s account, are “I can’t wait to see Jesus.”
At the heart of Christian faith is the encounter with Christ. And not just a one-time encounter, but an ongoing encounter. Benedict and Tim both understood that deeply and it’s reflected in their teaching.
For those of us who remain now and wish to see their work carried forward, there is only one way that can happen: If we desire God as deeply as they both did and if we are as captivated and awed by encountering Christ as they were.
I’m hoping to have an obit up for Tim in the next few days, perhaps w/ some other pieces from Susannah Black Roberts and Miles Smith and maybe a couple other folks. We’re figuring it out. But I wanted to at least honor him in this small way here as so many of us are reflecting on his life and work.
When in the PCA we address our elders in the faith, particularly at GA, it is common to refer to them as our “fathers.” Tim has been a father in truth to many of us. Requiescat in pace, Tim.
The Road goes ever on and on Out from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, Let others follow it who can! Let them a journey new begin, But I at last with weary feet Will turn towards the lighted inn, My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).