Remembering Tim Keller

Here’s a gift link to the story the Washington Post just put up about the death of Tim Keller: As a subscriber, I can create gift links that allow nonsubscribers to read. So there you go.

But I want to say a couple of things too.

The article says: “Dr. Keller was 24 when he was named pastor of his first congregation, West Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, Va., a rural community south of Richmond. Over his nine years there, membership reportedly grew from 90 congregants to 300.”

Hopewell is my home town. It was not then, and is not now, a “rural community.” It was “The Chemical Capital of the South.” The signs said so, and if your eyes weren’t persuaded, you could consult your nose. Especially when the wind was from the east. Though by the late 70s I think Richard Nixon’s EPA had already made an appreciable difference. Hemmed in on two sides by the James and Appomattox Rivers, and on another side by Fort Lee, the headquarters of the US Army’s Quartermaster Corps. You could get to rural pretty quickly—just go out to my cousins’ place in Prince George County. But Hopewell was a small city. I think the population was around 25,000 then.

Tim’s church, West Hopewell Presbyterian Church, had been planted by my home church, West End Presbyterian Church. Our pastor at West End during my whole childhood was Kennedy Smartt, a dynamic pastor-preacher-leader who became one of the founders of the PCA. When I was in high school, we had an associate pastor at West End named Frank Boswell, who spent a lot of time with us teenagers. He went on to become one of the finest preachers I have ever heard; check out his recorded sermons at, where he is pastor emeritus. And Tim was the pastor at West Hopewell. Mr. Smartt was truly a great man. And Frank and Tim were clearly on their way to becoming truly great men. Hopewell was astonishingly blessed to have those three around at the same time. Or, I should say, I was astonishingly blessed to have all three in my life: Mr. Smartt and Frank centrally so, Tim more marginally. (Not that the clergy were the only hugely influential blessings in my life. Apart from my parents, I guess the human trinity for me in my high school years consisted of Mr. Smartt, Frank, and Mrs. Harrison, who had been my first piano teacher but then, along with her husband, became for years the main spiritual mentor of the high schooler at West End.) I think the Kellers and the Boswells were pretty good friends. Sometimes the two churches teamed up for joint events. West Hopewell called me over a few times to fill in for their organist, or maybe piano. (I’m pretty sure I remember accompanying their choir singing “Do You See What I See?”—the rest is a blur.)

When I went off to college and came back home on a break, I used to stop by West Hopewell to see Tim. He was helpful to talk to. He listened well and asked questions that made you think, helped you climb up to the next higher level of insight. I remember going into his study once and finding him with volumes of Jonathan Edwards open all over his desk. He was trying to figure out what his deacons should be doing. “It’s all right here, James! It’s all right here! In Edwards!” But he gladly took time off to chat with me. Years later I learned that he published a little booklet on Jonathan Edwards and diaconal ministry. Maybe it was his first book? I don’t know. Not pausing to look it up. I think I had a copy at one time. A brown paperback. I may still have it.

His congregation at West Hopewell loved him and Kathy. Random memory: I recall that one year they just up and gave him a car. I think it was a diesel VW Rabbit? This was impressive. Hopewell was—OK, if it wasn’t rural, it also was not urban in the sense of urbane. Like Paul’s Corinth, Keller’s Hopewell had not many wealthy, not many powerful, not many wise in worldly wisdom. Everyone either worked in the chemical plants or had something to do with Fort Lee. So for a small church to come up with the money to give their pastor a new car—that meant something.

I lost track of him. I knew he went to Westminster Seminary. (I remember both him and Frank saying in Hopewell back around 1976 that they both wished they had gone to Westminster rather than Gordon-Conwell for their MDivs.) I remember that he was heading up the thinking and teaching about church planting at Westminster, and that he wanted to get someone to go plant a church in Manhattan, but couldn’t find anyone, so he and Kathy did a “here am I send me” and went themselves. Then a few years later their names were popping up in the national media! Impressive. But not really surprising.

I went on to seminary and graduate school. In seminary I pretty easily figured out that the PCA was not for me. I had gone to Wheaton College, and then on to Gordon-Conwell Seminary, but I had good teachers, and the PCA was simply no longer credible for me. As I came to see it back then, the PCA had two types. One side was represented by people like Mr. Smartt, who were followers and lovers of Jesus who wanted to embrace the whole world in a big bear hug and bring everyone to Jesus. The other side was the sort of pinheads that we heard about when I was in seminary who devoted themselves ceaselessly to the solas and the tulip, and whose idea of carrying out the work of the gospel ministry included things like trying a pastor in the Pittsburgh area for heresy because he took his kids to the zoo on Sunday afternoon. I had no stomach whatsoever for the latter type—not just conservative but stupid and mean; and even the former type, though never stupid or mean, inhabited a doctrinal system that was wound a bit too tight for me. Now, Tim had a great mind and a big heart. You get some of that in the Washington Post article. He was definitely never a pinhead. On some of the most hotly contested points in the church vs. world and past vs. present-and-future travails of our day, I think he was both firmly grounded and open-minded. I wonder where he would have ended up on some of the questions that the article raises.

Anyway, when I eventually entered the ordination process, it was in the PCUSA, not the PCA. And, as it turned out, I was never ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament even in the PCUSA—I found my calling in higher education and then publishing. So I have moved for the last three decades in broadly ecumenical circles, finding a denominational home with my wife in the Evangelical Covenant Church and working comfortably and happily with authors of every imaginable stripe. So I have not been an insider in Tim’s denomination. My connection with him lapsed, and, apart from a few emails in recent years, I have not reconnected. (Emails: most recently, he wrote to thank me in August 2022 when he noticed that I had responded to someone who was talking crap about him on Twitter; it related to book publishing, and specifically to a book published by the press that I work for.)

But I never fully disconnected either, at least in my head. Here I’ll tell a stupid little story on myself. In October 2001 (get it? right after 9/11), Beth and I canceled a trip to Germany and spent our vacation in Manhattan, answering the call of America’s mayor to come be with his people in New York. Now, I had driven through Manhattan once, on my way from Hopewell, to Gordon-Conwell, to drop off a cousin, but I had not spent any time in the city and was wary of it. Anything could happen! Especially in October 2001 it was impossible to forget that unexpected and catastrophic things could happen. What if something horrible happened and our children were separated from us? So our little girl, who turned 11 while we were in NYC, and her little brother, who was 8, carried little cards pinned into their clothes that had their names, and ours, and our phone numbers, and that also said that if we could not be found, contact Redeemer Presbyterian Church and get ahold of Tim Keller and tell him that James Ernest’s children needed his help. Well, we got through that trip just fine. Had a great time. (First I wrote “had a blast” but had to change that.)

When my daughter, a decade later, moved to NYC to work as a ballet dancer there, I suggested that she should connect with Redeemer Presbyterian Church. She tried. I don’t want to speak for her, but I think she found it too slick. I visited the main campus once on a Sunday morning. Tim was not there that week. My daughter and my son were both with me. We found it—strange. Too polished? I dunno. Not our world. But of course it was not our world! Tim and Kathy had moved to Manhattan to reach upper-Manhattan people, and they reached them. We were not upper-Manhattan people. Nor had Tim and Kathy been in the late 1970s in Hopewell VA. I guess they took Paul seriously: becoming all things to all people in order by any means to win some.

OK, I think that’s all I’ve got. At my age, I am seeing the generation that formed me—my parents, teachers, aunts, uncle, professors, mentors, pastors—all are fading away, then slipping away. I can no longer phone them, visit with them, email them, or even—as in Tim’s case—just know that they are still there and take comfort in the thought that if needed they would be there for me. I do not regard them as lost. I regard them as having gone to be more fully present to God than was possible so long as they were physically and emotionally present to me. I am not Catholic and was not taught to talk to the dead, but my prayers are nevertheless affected by their passing. They remain real and vivid to me, though not present with me in time. They are present with God, and when I am praying—that is, when I am deliberately paying attention to the presence of God with me, and communing with God—I remember them, and I give thanks for them, and I consider that the distance now opened between them and me is a temporary distance. I have no concept, no image, of what reunion with them will be like, apart from occasional dreams, nor do I need more than I have. They are a cloud of witnesses, as the writer to the Hebrews said, and the thing about a cloud is that it—well, it is a cloud. It is a cloud. But as Elijah learned, and as we may learn from him, even a small cloud on the horizon, even only the size of a man’s hand, may be—no, surely is—the harbinger of a great rainstorm that will bring life and sustenance back to all that is parched and starving.



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