One of the many reasons my friends and family have made fun of me over the last few years is due to how often I've found ways to mention, "I know Tim Keller." The ribbing I receive is, frankly, well deserved: I freely admit I have humble-bragged on more than one occasion about my connection to the iconic New York City Pastor. Don't get me wrong; I am not claiming that I was some long-lost son to Tim or anything like that; we aren't anywhere near that close. But, it is true, I know Tim Keller.
My first interactions with Tim came (like it did for most people) through the internet. In 2007, I received a call to be a pastor in Southern California. Quickly recognizing that I had just accepted a huge challenge with a huge learning curve, I immediately began looking for resources online that could help me think about my role as a pastor. Eventually, I came across one of Tim's sermons, which rocked me. His preaching had no bombast or theatrics (in fact, he sounded more like a professor than a pastor). With a deep understanding of the Scripture and numerous quotes and anecdotes sprinkled throughout his message from people like Foucault, Luther, T.S. Elliot, the New York Times, Woody Allen, and Tolkien, it was so clear that he wasn't just preaching to the faithful, but to the faithless. With each point he made, he would anticipate accurately how a skeptic might respond and then calmly point out why the gospel could deal with their objections and fears. His tone, methodology, and insistence on the gospel having the last word all reflected how I hoped to preach.
Soon, I began devouring more and more of Tim's messages. It's safe to say that by 2008 there was no preacher in America I looked up to more than Keller. If he preached on it, I listened to it. If he wrote about it, I read it. This was the extent of my relationship with the man for many years.
But then, in 2012, I was asked to serve as a pastor in New York City, initially in Staten Island and eventually in Manhattan. To my great excitement, Redeemer City to City (a church planting network that Tim's church, Redeemer Presbyterian, started) freely hosted regular events for pastors in the city. Knowing Tim would be there, I jumped at the chance to go. As I began attending more and more of these events, I got to know many of the people who served at both Redeemer and City to City.
After a few years, I was preparing to plant a church in Manhattan and was working closely with City to City to receive training. Even with all that, I still didn't know Tim Keller (although, one time, I bumped into him in an elevator, and like a 13-year-old girl being in the presence of Taylor Swift, I froze and grunted out a very awkward sounding "Hello.”)
Soon after, a leader within City to City approached me and said, "I think you would benefit by being mentored by Tim. Would you be up for swinging by here one more day a month to spend a few hours with him?"
I couldn't believe it. Of course, I said yes.
And then I got to know Tim Keller.
The first time the other four pastors in my cohort and I gathered with Tim, he had us go around the room to tell him about our ministries, families, backgrounds, etc. The whole time he was writing frantically on a pad of paper. After we finished, he told us he intended to pray for each of us (daily), specifically by name. By the next time we got together, he asked me how my church plant was doing (by name), how my family was doing (naming all of the members), and he wanted to talk more about my particular theological views. Keller had been raised as a Lutheran and still greatly appreciated my theological confession. Soon, between his discussions on preaching, evangelism, finances, discipleship, worship (you name it, we covered it), he was recommending to me various Lutheran resources that had been helpful to him over the years.
It's hard to describe how surreal it is to have one of your heroes take such an interest in you and your fledgling ministry. But it was genuine. Numerous times in our cohort, Tim would say things like, "You guys are doing much harder work than I ever had to do when I planted. I admire you." At times, he would correct our errant ways of thinking. I remember one time we were talking about preaching, and I sarcastically said, "Now Tim, I know this has never happened to you, but if you can, please imagine what it would be like to have someone criticize your preaching. Theoretically, if that were ever to happen to you, would it make you feel insecure? Because it can make me feel pretty insecure sometimes." Immediately, he responded quietly and compassionately, "Erick, you know why you get insecure? Because at that moment, you believe you're justified by your skill at preaching rather than the blood of Christ." Ouch!
Tim didn't bring the hammer down to hurt me but to help me. Tim wanted everyone to know to the deepest part of their being that they were justified by Christ alone. Anything in our lives that didn't reflect that reality, he was quick to correct. That was overwhelmingly my experience with the man: Always wanting to point me to Christ. Whether he stayed late to walk with me to the train station or was evaluating my preaching, he wanted to share his wisdom for no other reason than to help my fellow pastors, and I consistently bring the people we served to Christ.
Eventually, my cohort's time with Tim ended, and we had less and less contact. I went on to plant Epiphany Lutheran Church in Manhattan. And Tim continued tirelessly equipping pastors to point their people to Christ.
Until that is, he was forced to take a break. In June 2020, Tim announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and would begin chemotherapy. I prayed for him and his family, as he had done many times previously for me and my family. I hoped for healing but knew no matter what happened, he would be used by God mightily. I wasn't wrong: Through it all, Tim kept on writing, kept on tweeting, kept on teaching (when he could), and maintained a hopeful, Christ-filled disposition. Now he had become not just a model for me of how to minister but how to faithfully suffer.
When the news broke that Tim had been taken home to be on hospice, his son Michael reported one of his Dad's final prayers:
"I'm thankful for all the people who've prayed for me over the years. I'm thankful for my family, that loves me. I'm thankful for the time God has given me, but I'm ready to see Jesus. I can't wait to see Jesus. Send me home."
That's the man I know (not knew, know). That's the man I will know again. As Tim said in some of his last recorded words, "There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest."
He's right, and that's why I don't mind being made fun of a little bit when I blurt out that "I know Tim Keller."
Because Tim Keller only boasted in Christ.