It is pure coincidence, if anything ever is, that I'm needing to take a break from my What The Left Gets Right series at the halfway mark in the calendar year: four days after my last note to you last month, Tim Keller died and I have been unable to resume life as normal. It's taken me much longer than it typically does to compose my twice-monthly posts to write this one. I didn't know him personally and I don't agree with several of his stances theologically, but he has been a huge influence on my faith nonetheless.
I'm still unraveling the welter of emotion--fear, grief, gladness somehow?--Pastor Keller's death has provoked. Part of it is that Pastor Keller died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 72 after having survived thyroid cancer in his early 50s. In the broader medical community, there is speculation that 15-20% of all secondary cancers (which tend to be more lethal) are caused by the treatment for the first cancer. Both of my parents survived serious cancer in their early/mid 50s...20ish years ago. I'm not emotionally close with any member of my family (in fact, I felt shrink-wrapped in emotional isolation my entire childhood and am still wrestling my way out of that), but I'm not ready to be an orphan.
Part of it is also this:
My beloved grandfather died two days before Christmas 2008. I tried to press onward as I was a college student with two years left who really wanted to save the world and get all my questions about God answered (I was a theology major). But by the summer of 2009, I couldn’t go on. Not only my grandfather’s death, but the ten-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting, which happened in my hometown seven minutes from the middle school I was in at the time (I knew two of the victims of that shooting), were making my head swim with confusion and meaninglessness as I looked out on the rest of my life: how had it been ten years since the shooting that felt and still feels like yesterday? This was my first experience of what all the adults around me as a kid voiced so often: time was speeding up. And I still hadn’t found its purpose.
I don’t remember how I got the money, but I’d always wanted to travel Europe by myself, so I took that summer to do so. I couldn’t think about anything but the eventual death of the people I loved. My own seemed so far off (I was 23), but I couldn’t imagine life going on after the deaths of the people closest to me at that time, almost all of whom were at least 15 years older (and almost none of whom are currently in my life today). Life seemed pointless. I couldn’t see how anything mattered at all if I was going to lose everyone I ever dared to love and, though I had come to Jesus three years before this, I was crippled with a depression that ruined that whole three-month trip.
That was years ago and, though the heaviness that characterized that time lifted, the feelings of pointlessness and meaninglessness lingered in the background for a decade, never really to fully leave. Then came the worst year of my life: a divorce, the death of my last grandparent before I could get to her to say goodbye, an abrupt and traumatic ending to a long and treasured friendship, nearly fatal appendicitis five days after starting a new job (and that's the simplified version) all in the span of seven months. And there was no time to recover before the world as we knew it was ended due to COVID and the response to COVID.
I’d heard of Pastor Keller some years before all this—a dear mentor and former professor of mine recommended Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering when the depression that had destroyed my trip to Europe swallowed me again. It was the first time I’d ever felt ‘seen’ by a book. One of my callings is to be a writer and reading Pastor Keller’s words not only reached through the black quicksand and pulled me out of what may have been an unending void for me but also showed me what kind of writer I wanted to be.
That experience inspired me to start listening every other day since October 2022 to Pastor Keller’s sermons on Gospel in Life, usually at the gym. I listened to Isaiah and the Altar the day Pastor Keller went to be with Jesus, before I got the news of his death. I burst into tears, but something strange happened: I also felt something I had never felt before in relation to death. It took me a minute to realize what it was: it was joy. Pastor Keller finally, with unveiled eyes, gets to be with Jesus, the one he served, preached, lived, and showed to so many for so many years. Pastor Keller is the first fellow believer I am unspeakably joyful for that Hhe gets to see our King.
If there is anything like Jesus in me, it is in large part because I have Pastor Keller’s voice in my head from all those sermons. And, because the outpouring of tributes, clips of his sermons, his quotes and thoughts about death, the years of weighted-down-ness about death I couldn’t shake for anything, are mostly gone: I didn’t think I could ever be one of those Christians who could actually face death with joy let alone courage. But, because of Pastor Keller’s conviction that Jesus went to death on our behalf but blew a hole out the back, I am finally free of the dread of death. I can finally believe that my soul has a crown of life before it. I didn’t think I could ever be one of those Christians who longed every day to be with their savior even as they faithfully and joyfully served Him here. Now, for the first time, I feel that sweet longing. I still find death absolutely wrong—as well we who are not at home in a universe where things die and disintegrate should—but Pastor Keller’s life has changed my faith, and his death is changing my life.
Shifting without the clutch: I did a live podcast interview on Tuesday about my book Bowed As If Laden With Snow and, despite dreading it all day to the point of having physical pain and inability to stand up, I have to say I'm very proud of it so I wanted to share.