Over the past few days, many have been sharing their personal stories of time with Tim Keller. The photos are all over the internet: backstage together at events, behind-the-scenes conversations at conferences, personal stories of notes, and encouraging words. It’s partly a reminder that no matter how great a person’s public reputation, what we most remember are the personal moments together.
I do not have a personal story to contribute. I never had the chance to meet Tim or interview him. But we once shared a sidewalk. I came very close to introducing myself, but I’m grateful I kept my distance and observed. After reading his books and listening to countless sermons, I will most remember him walking that Chicago street with his wife, Kathy. Let me explain.
I was first introduced to Keller by a friend in Bible College who passed me a burnt CD of his sermon, “Lord of the Wine (John 2:1-11).” That’s how things go down in Bible College, indie preachers you can claim to have known before the masses. I was in Springfield, Missouri, a long way from Manhattan, but as Keller’s preaching did for many, it changed how I thought about my own task as a preacher. At some point, I also came across Keller’s lecture series with Dr. Edmund Clowney on preaching Christ from all of scripture. I listened to those lectures on repeat. I still have them burnt on a series of my own CDs.
While many will remember Tim for his “winsome” apologetics, for me, it was the way he read scripture. He opened my eyes to a depth within the text that I hadn’t recognized. He helped me see patterns and trends, and themes building across the story.
Tim on Tour
I was also in Bible College when Reasons for God was published. My roommate was from Chicago, and I was thrilled to discover Tim would speak at Northwestern and The University of Chicago during our spring break week. We made the trip and attended both lectures. The auditorium was packed with college students. They were standing along the walls and seated in the aisles. I watched with growing admiration as Tim carefully responded to each question navigating the nuances, avoiding the traps, and managing to sound both intellectual and compassionate. That, too, was a new model for me.
As the lecture ended, we managed to find a side door that avoided the crowd exiting through the front doors. As we stepped out onto the busy college campus sidewalk, we were surprised to find Tim Keller walking in front of us. He was with his wife, Kathy. He was a presence, tall and bald in his blazer. Fine, I’ll admit, I was a little star-struck. I wanted to say something, but the two were in a very serious conversation. Instead of interrupting, we eavesdropped.
His wife was going question by question through the event, offering him feedback on how he could have been more clear, more succinct, more nuanced. He was quietly nodding and agreeing with each of her points. “You’re right. I see that. Good point,” he kept saying.
She was not being at all unkind, but she had plenty of her own points to make. The sense I got was of their deep mutual respect and trust for one another.
Eventually, they turned left, and we turned right to catch the train. That was the closest we ever came to meeting.
The Things We Remember
That was fifteen years ago. I still think about it. I think about it when, after church, my wife now offers suggestions on my sermons. I think about it as I take up my own writing. I think about it as I have my own successes and failures. Why do I find that little scene so compelling? Something about it made him normal in the best of ways.
Keller’s legacy will be long. He had a massive impact on pastors, as the stream of social posts continues to prove. I think his writing will continue to resonate. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from him. But that scene still moves me because it’s what I want far more than the writing, preaching, and influence.
I want to be humble. I want to keep learning as an act of faithfulness. I want a great relationship with my wife. I want my moments on the sidewalk to be as impactful as any moment on the stage. I’ve heard Mark Batterson say he wants to be respected most by those who know him best.
I know that is very small considering all Keller accomplished but isn’t that how life actually works? Isn’t it always the moments alone with your wife, the moments around the table with your kids, the encouraging note, the coffee with a congregant, the forgotten words of a prayer prayed in a moment of need? I want to contend that those are the real legacy.
Eugene Peterson once wrote privately to a friend, “I want to become the person whose writing is true. Become true so you can write true. Writing is an expression of living, not knowing.”