For the last few weeks, Dr. Timothy Keller has been at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD., where he’s been receiving immunotherapy treatment for pancreatic cancer.
“It was fairly brutal last June, so we approach this with an awareness of how much prayer we need,” Keller shared last month. “Please pray for our trust and dependence on God, for his providential oversight of the medical preparations now in process, and for our desire to glorify God in whatever comes our way. Thank You.”
In addition to praying for the beloved pastor and teacher, students and fans of the Pennsylvania native would enjoy reading a new book about him. It’s titled, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation. Written by Collin Hansen, vice president of content and editor-in-chief of The Gospel Coalition, the book is a delightful and interesting read and will be of great interest for those curious about the source of Dr. Keller’s genius.
This is no exhaustive biography, but that Dr. Keller provided any access and interviews is a coup for Hansen – and Christendom. Intensely modest and private, Keller shuns the spotlight and has normally let his sermons, books and articles stand as both his comment and content.
Some years ago, I suggested to Dr. Keller that his story should be told in book form. He smiled and replied, “Feels more like it should be an article, if anything.” He wasn’t kidding, but an extended telling of his life to date is long overdue.
Everybody has a story of course, and connecting the dots of someone’s life can make for a good book, Collin Hansen’s work included.
What I especially loved about it is that Hanson neither canonizes nor condemns. It’s pretty matter of fact, and unapologetically. It’s refreshing to read about Christian leaders who behave, well, like Christians. Readers will enjoy details of Tim’s upbringing and faith formation, his friendship and romance with his beloved Kathy, and his extended studies that helped him develop the rock-solid biblical and principled foundation that has been the hallmark of his ministry. They’ll also appreciate the honesty. Keller is a wonderful pastor and teacher. An effective administrator? Maybe not so much.
But it was always curious to me that Dr. Keller transitioned from a smalltown pastoral role in rural Virginia to New York City with a stopover in Philadelphia. Collin Hansen has the story – and it’s a reminder once more that God uses all kinds of people and circumstances to accomplish His purposes.
Tim Keller’s arrival in New York City can be traced back to a mail order insurance salesman in Pennsylvania.
Art DeMoss started selling life and health insurance in 1959. His company was called the National Liberty Corp. Based in Valley Forge, Penn., his pioneering of mail-order selling was wildly successful. He quickly turned a $70,000 investment into hundreds of millions of dollars.
Art and his wife, Nancy, were known to hold elegant dinners at the family’s home, often inviting prominent Christians. Roy Rogers was a regular attendee. They fellowshipped and talked about ways to evangelize a hurting world. But then tragedy struck in 1979 when Art dropped dead of a heart attack. He was just 53.
Nancy continued the tradition of these dinners, broadened the circle to include those curious about the Christian faith, and began holding them in New York City.
“If this crowd would no longer go to church, she would go to them with the message of Jesus,” Hansen writes.
DeMoss dinners then led to the DeMoss House, where they hosted Executive Ministries, which was affiliated with Campus Crusade, now CRU. Significant discipleship was happening but there was a problem – where to send these new believers to church? At the time, New York City didn’t have too many strong evangelical congregations. The idea was hatched to plant what would become Redeemer.
“Diane Balch – who helped run the house with her husband, Dave – prayed that Tim Keller would realize he should become their pastor. They needed him. And they couldn’t wait.”
At the time, Keller was teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He was thriving – and had no desire to uproot and move to Manhattan. He also felt ill-equipped to start such a ministry in the city of New York.
Wanting to be helpful, though, the professor tried to recruit two other pastors to consider the call. Both declined.
“In trying to convince others to go,” Hansen wrote, “Keller convinced himself.”
Redeemer Presbyterian Church opened in 1989. Dr. Keller’s remarkable tenure saw tremendous growth, access and the cultivation of a vibrant and influential evangelical faith community in one of the most secular cities in the world.
Dr. Timothy Keller’s ministry eventually grew beyond the city and across the globe via his lectures and publishing efforts. Collin Hansen sums up the churches founding pastor’s inspired approach this way:
“Keller’s originality comes in his synthesis, how he pulls the sources together for unexpected insights. Having one hero would be derivative; having one hundred heroes means you’ve drunk deeply by scouring the world for the purest wells. This God-given ability to integrate disparate sources and then share insights with others has been observed by just about anyone who has known Keller, going back to his college days. He’s the guide to the gurus. You get their best conclusions, with Keller’s unique twist.”
And it all came to New York because a mail order insurance man began a hospitality and fellowship-oriented tradition in Pennsylvania that his wife maintained long after his death.
Never underestimate God’s habit of using our efforts, however small or large. If He has a need and you’re willing to be used – hold on. There’s no better place to be.