It was a remarkable scene inside New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Tuesday as more than two thousand people packed the historic Manhattan church to formally and collectively celebrate the life of the Reverend Timothy James Keller.
Dr. Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, passed away on May 22nd after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 72.
That a leading Protestant would be hailed inside a Catholic landmark says more about the man and his life than the times in which we live.
The Reverend Michael Keller, Tim’s son, led the service and shared, with something of a wry smile at the beginning, that his father predictably planned the program – and even provided explanations as to why he selected the hymns they were about to sing. The thoughtful and insightful reflections are characteristically Dr. Keller.
The service’s opening was “Immortal Invisible God Only Wise,” which was written in the mid 1800s by Walter Chalmers Smith, a Scottish pastor.
“Immortal invisible God Only Wise is a tremendous depiction of who God is and His attributes,” Dr. Keller wrote. “It’s really all about God. Who is He? And what’s really interesting is some of the lines in here summarizing the most important Christian ideas, I’ve never seen it summarized better.”
“So for example. We’re here at a cancer hospital, and sometimes you want to say: God, what in the world, are you up to? What’s wrong with you? And the last line [in the hymn] is this—’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee.’ There’s a tendency for us to think there’s a darkness in God and we’re smart instead of saying, well, wait a minute, no, He’s more light than we can handle. And the darkness is in us. ‘Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.’”
For the second hymn, those gathered sang the classic, “Amazing Love, How Can It Be?” Once again, Tim explained his rationale for inclusion:
“How do you connect with God? Do you actually have a personal relationship with Him? This hymn is by Charles Wesley, and this is the key to the Great Awakenings, and to personal awakening as well.”
Raising our voices together in song to sing this majestic hymn always elevates my perspective, especially the verse that includes the line, ‘”My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth and followed Thee.”
The service’s third hymn was “How Firm a Foundation,” and the late minister shared some intimate details on why he chose it.
“How Firm a Foundation, connects you to the first resource, which is God’s Word,” he said. “We learned to love this hymn because Elisabeth Elliott loved it. It was a favorite hymn of hers, and you’ll see why. Betty was our teacher at the time of our wedding, and she just said expect suffering. Since she had had two husbands die, we took her seriously. By the way, this is also Isaiah 40. In fact you should read Isaiah 40 afterwards.”
He offered more:
“We had it as the recessional in our wedding because we expected suffering. Because we expected to be helping people in suffering. It’s a paraphrase obviously, but basically it’s what God is saying to Israel. But I’ll tell you, Kathy and I memorized it and used it on each other over the years. We gave a vow to each other from Psalm 34, verses 1-3 and it is engraved inside our wedding rings. It says: ‘I will extol the Lord at all times; His praise will always be on my lips. I will glory in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me: let us exalt His name together.’ So, we wanted to praise God in the way that afflicted people were helped.
“Jesus Lives and So Shall I,” was the fourth hymn. A man of detail, he even gave instruction on the piece’s tempo!
“This hymn gives us the hope for life after death,” Tim wrote. “It should not be sung at too slow a pace, or it will sound like a dirge. So keep it brisk, and remember it’s describing our hope for the future. There’s nothing that can happen here that can’t make you better. It says at the beginning of the last verse: ‘Jesus lives, and death is now but my entrance into glory.’”
Following the homily by the Reverend Sam Allberry, a pastor, apologist and speaker, Dr. Keller selected the familiar classic, “For All the Saints,” which debuted in 1864.
“This last one is talking about the saints,” Dr. Keller reflected. “It’s really wonderful in talking about how we’re all going to be gathered together. Verse 5 is interesting because the idea is that, when you’re here, you’re in the middle of a battle. But the distant triumph song is at the end. We know that there’s a new heavens and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. And that there will be perfect justice. Are you in the middle of the battle? And it’s like, ‘when the fight is fierce, the warfare is long, steals on the ear, the distant triumph song; and hearts are braving and arms are strong.’ That’s made for you.”
Matt Merker, Director of Creative Resources and Training for Getty Music, once posited: “Why set theology to music? Because singing truth is a way to write it on our hearts.”
Dr. Timothy Keller’s books and messages will continue to minister to people through the years, but it was especially sweet and powerful to see him continuing to preach at his own memorial service through some of the great hymns of the faith.