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Papa Keller

Creators of dystopian fiction often emphasize the losses of a post-apocalyptic world by featuring remnants of a former, easier life. From the H.G. Wells 1936 film Things to Come to the 2023 HBO release The Last of Us, directors show everyday objects we take for granted grown precious in the realm of the survivor: a box of shoelaces, a Top 100 Billboard Hits book, airplane parts, a can of peaches–bits and bobbles of pre-disaster ease now precious to people trying to scrap together life in a world grown dark.  

Maybe “apocalyptic” is too strong of a word, but many Western Christians have experienced severe spiritual disorientation over the past decade. Leaders, organizations, and ideologies aren’t what we thought they were. Our lives and relationships don’t look like we were told they would. There have long been disappointments surrounding the use of the name of Jesus, but the recent concentration of trust-destroying events has been the highest I’ve seen in fifty years.

As I survey the wreckage of faith systems that once felt like home to me, a few pre-disaster relics have held their value. Tim Keller’s life and ministry are on my short list here.

I don’t mean that every word he ever wrote or spoke gees and haws with how I now view the world. I no longer expect that of any teacher. However, when so many other pastors sold out to political panic and manipulation, he didn’t. He remained kind, focused, curious.

'The sky is falling' was never Keller’s vibe. How badly I needed to see at least one older pastor behave this way in our present chaos. Rebecca Reynolds

In a reductionistic culture intent on forcing us to choose between extremes, Keller continued to think outside many boxes, even on issues that made him a pariah in extremist circles. His nuance made feverish corners of the establishment itchy. Yet, he also held to certain tenets without wavering. He stood confidently in those beliefs while maintaining a posture of respect for other viewpoints, offering to share his platform and engage in civil discourse.

“The sky is falling,” was never Keller’s vibe. How badly I needed to see at least one older pastor behave this way in our present chaos.

But even more critical than these marks of ethos, Keller’s teaching reminds me of a redemption that I desperately need, freely given by a Prodigal God.

It feels weird to talk about needing redemption post-’90s religious trauma. Shame was used to control many believers in decades of my young adulthood. Youth speakers drove forks violently into oranges, warning us about the ruin we would bring upon ourselves and our future relationships if we made a sexual mistake. We were given rule books telling us how God wanted us to date, do marriage, parent, and engage in outreach. Extreme examples of devotion were constantly set before us, and we didn’t want to be the sorts of fools who strove to keep what was fading while forfeiting what we could never lose. So, we committed to radical “obedience.”

Eventually, though, it became evident that some of the teachings we followed were dead wrong. Radical religious advice was doing harm to our marriages and our kids. Sin-talk was being wielded to keep us inside damaging systems run by narcissistic leaders. We realized that corrupt political machines had been using religious language and religious networks for earthly power grabs. Our early willingness to give our lives for faith began to ring with the disillusionment of Wilfred Owen’s grave poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

In the aftermath of such trauma, who wouldn’t flinch at the suggestion that we need redemption? Our spiritual vulnerability was commandeered by selfish and dangerous people pointing fingers at us and telling us we needed someone to die for us—doesn’t it make sense that we would at least temporarily feel safer shedding that entire dynamic?

Recently, however, I re-opened Keller’s Prodigal God, and after a few pages, I realized how thirsty I’ve been to hear the pure, simple good news of the gospel. While I’ve needed to learn more about manipulation, boundaries, and inherent self-worth, those discoveries haven’t negated my deepest need for a savior.

Hebrews 12:27 describes a hard season of revelation in which debris is shaken off truth so everything which cannot be shaken becomes evident. Think of a white sheet snapped in the summer sky. Lies fall away. Beauty, truth, and goodness linger almost weightless in the breeze. Maybe what has felt like dystopia has actually been some sort of Divine reclamation instead.

And on the other side, I find I still need the grace Keller describes.

“There is no evil that the father’s love cannot pardon and cover; there is no sin that is a match for grace.”

“Nothing, not even abject contrition, merits the favor of God. The father’s love and acceptance are absolutely free.”

The true gospel is freeing, not constraining. Rebecca Reynolds

“It’s not [the older brother’s] sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.”

Liberty. Wave after wave of liberty.

Keller doesn’t wield sin as a tool to corral us into an earthly system of religious power. In fact, such teaching can protect us from the conniving of harmful religious organizations and leaders. The true gospel is freeing, not constraining.

A few days ago, my sister-in-law sent us a photo of a coffee shop called Shadrach, Meschach & ABeanToGo. Their slogan is: “Master roasted, never burnt.” I bet you just groaned. We did, too. But some things do pass through the fire and emerge sweeter. Papa Keller’s ministry has been that sort of gift to me.

I’m going to miss his ready presence on earth. But, I’m so thankful he held our hands through the chaos. I’m so thankful he didn’t go crazy when so many others did. I’m so thankful he continued to walk with Jesus to the end. I’m so thankful his words linger to guide us still.

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