One of the most striking elements of watching the sun set, whether you’re looking over a mountain range, the vast expanse of the ocean, or flat fields and farmlands, is the slowness and the speed. The descent of the fiery ball on the horizon goes slow at first, casting all sorts of colors and shadows across the sky and the land, but once the orb reaches the earth’s edge, it’s striking how fast it descends and disappears. Slow, then fast. Light remains, but there’s a chill in the air.
On Wednesday evening, upon hearing the news that Tim would soon be going home—both physically, to Roosevelt Island, and spiritually, to his eternal reward, I spent a few moments in prayer in my home office, and as I looked up, the light of the sun caught the Keller selection of my bookshelf just right, spreading a warm glow over the words of a pastor who has left an indelible imprint on my heart and mind.
This morning Tim Keller died after a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer. It feels a bit like a great light has slipped beyond the horizon. It’s a sunset that has long been coming, and yet it still feels strangely sudden.
No doubt Tim would raise an eyebrow and cast a bemused smirk at any suggestion he be compared in any way to the sun. (He’s the only person I’ve known who could roll his eyes via smile.) If there’s anything you’d take from his work and writing, it’s that there’s a main character in history and none of us are it: God is at the center of all things, and Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Tim wasn’t about himself; he was about the Savior he adored, and he cared about reaching a lost world in need of salvation. He reflected well the Jesus he loved, but that’s one of the reasons his loss does feel like a light has flickered out.
Over the years, Tim’s influence on me has been profound, first through his writing and then later through occasional correspondence, in-person meetings, and reading suggestions. In the past seven years, Keller has guided much of my reading. (I still have Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death in my book stack, one of the few titles I’ve not yet gotten to.) Tim offered counsel, pointed me in certain directions, cautioned me against dead-ends, and took an interest in some of the projects I was working on.
Keller’s writing and ministry became an anchor for me. He exuded a sense of calm no matter what was taking place. He didn’t get caught up in drama. He was the epitome of a “non-anxious presence,” and he had a deep-rooted security in his faith that allowed him to interact with people of various beliefs with respect and kindness. He also cared deeply about the future of the church and the spread of the gospel globally. (In a podcast interview I did with him earlier this year, he ribbed me about outliving him and seeing the renewal he hoped for.)
When Tim received his cancer diagnosis, I confessed to a few friends that the idea of an evangelicalism without Tim Keller frightened me. Every generation needs heroes, people who serve well, who—despite their failures and flaws—model faithfulness to Christ and his people. Tim has been one of mine. Today, I’m grateful for how he finished his race. A sun has set, but Tim is now in the presence of the ultimate One—the bright morning star (Rev. 22:16).
“I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil,” said Gandalf as Frodo prepared to depart for the Grey Havens. I’ve shed a few of the good kind of tears today.
For us, like Sam watching his friend disappear, “the evening deepened to darkness as . . . he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West, . . . hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores.” But perhaps Tim, like Frodo, has “smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. . . . The grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
From us to Tim, Farewell. From the Lord and his angels, Welcome.