Last week, the Reverend Dr. Timothy Keller, the beloved pastor and bestselling author, seemed to almost be reminding his followers on social media of the highly aggressive and notoriously deadly health diagnosis he received just over 18 months ago:
“I have Stage IV pancreatic cancer,” he tweeted. “But it is endlessly comforting to have a God who is both infinitely more wise and more loving than I am. He has plenty of good reasons for everything He does and allows that I cannot know, and therein is my hope and strength.”
After being inundated with promises of prayer and responses of concern, Dr. Keller tweeted again:
“I deeply appreciate prayer for my situation! But my main purpose in the last post was to show that having a God who in some ways is beyond our comprehension (esp regarding evil and suffering) is more of a spiritual strength than it is an intellectual problem.”
Retired from his duties as founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Dr. Keller has continued to write, teach and speak on a wide range of subjects with his trademark wisdom and insight. If not for the occasional tweet or reference to his rollercoaster health journey, a casual follower of the pastor may have even forgotten he’s navigating the treacherous and daunting disease.
And that very well may be just as the low-key, cerebral clergyman wants it to be.
To meet Timothy Keller is to meet a man who chooses his words carefully – and who doesn’t waste the words he chooses. There is an intensity to him. He’s a man on a mission, and yet his quick, dry and wry wit reveals a warmth forged in a metropolitan setting.
Stepping inside a restaurant adjacent to Rockefeller Center on a cold December morning in 2019 to speak to a chapter of the New Canaan Society, Dr. Keller greeted his out-of-town guests by pointing to the iconic, giant lit Christmas tree behind him.
“Do you guys like our tree?” he asked without cracking a smile. “We all get trees like that here in New York.”
Timothy and Kathy Keller first arrived in New York City in 1989, unlikely church planters who had spent the previous eight years pastoring a rural congregation in West Virginia. Previous pastors on the mission had failed – but the Kellers eventually grew Redeemer to a church with over 5,000 weekly attendees. Considered by many to be a modern-day version of C.S. Lewis for his gift of sharing the Gospel and answering and entertaining even the harshest critics with smart and engaging commentary, Keller’s books routinely hit the bestseller lists. He’s now a household name in evangelicalism.
Dr. Keller has a history of defying conventional wisdom in his ministry. Few expected a pastor who spent nearly a decade shepherding a largely uneducated and rural flock to connect to and grow a new congregation of educated and urban new believers.
Even fewer predicted it was possible to grow a congregation in the liberal mecca of New York City by unapologetically and consistently preaching biblical orthodoxy.
But Dr. Keller has done all of that and more – and in the process, has taught many of us how to engage a hostile community without hostility and disagree without being disagreeable.
To this day, I regularly listen, relisten and study his sermon series on “Wisdom” and the book of Proverbs. It was first preached well over a decade ago, yet it remains timeless and practical.
Dr. Keller’s latest challenge is navigating Stage IV pancreatic cancer – a disease with a five-year survival rate of just 1%. He’s also teaching us along the way. That’s because although not everyone is sick now, all of us are eventually going to die. Life is risky business – so risky, in fact, that none of us are going to get out of here alive.
Following his cancer diagnosis, Dr. Keller wrote, “I felt like a surgeon who was suddenly on the operating table. Would I be able to take my own advice?”
By his own “advice” he was referring to all of the times he counseled dying congregants and sat with families suffering and grieving.
Throughout this last year and a half, Dr. Keller has admitted to uneven emotions – but also reports that he’s found a great sense of peace in the face of “imminent death.” In the end, though, there’s little doubt the physician is taking his own medicine. Writing in The Atlantic, Keller shared:
“We have found that the simplest things—from sun on the water and flowers in the vase to our own embraces, sex, and conversation—bring more joy than ever. This has taken us by surprise. This change was not an overnight revolution. As God’s reality dawns more on my heart, slowly and painfully and through many tears, the simplest pleasures of this world have become sources of daily happiness. It is only as I have become, for lack of a better term, more heavenly minded that I can see the material world for the astonishingly good divine gift that it is.”
He concludes by reflecting:
“I can sincerely say, without any sentimentality or exaggeration, that I’ve never been happier in my life, that I’ve never had more days filled with comfort. But it is equally true that I’ve never had so many days of grief.”
For Christians, Keller is reminding us that life is a series of joys and sorrows. It is the wise person who finds their ballast in the belief that good and bad go together and what makes it tolerable is knowing the best is yet to come.
Dr. Tim Keller is dying – but so are we all. The irony is that some reading these words may very well meet the Lord before the beloved pastor does – or not. I could be one of them. That’s because life’s mysteries and our frustrations include God’s timing rarely coinciding with ours. But the very best advice is old, but worthy of repetition:
Live every day like it’s your last – because one day, you will be right.
If you have yet to commit your life to Jesus Christ, there is no better day than today.
At the conclusion of his sermons, Dr. Keller will often quote meaningful lyrics from a hymn. “It is Finished” from the mid-1800s remains one of his favorites and the last verse, especially:
“Cast your deadly ‘doing’ down – Down at Jesus’ feet; Stand in Him, in Him alone, Gloriously complete.”
Photo from Relevant.