I did not encounter Jesus for the first time at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. But it was there that I first saw him as beautiful, true, and unfathomably good.
I grew up in the church, a pastor’s kid. I thought I knew all about Jesus. And in college, I rejected him, because a life with him seemed dreadfully boring and totally restrictive. Post-college, I set about pursuing what I thought was the good life: a great job at a prestigious company, an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, an investment banker boyfriend.
It did not take long for it all to go sideways: the job made me miserable, my roommate kept bouncing her rent checks, jeopardizing our living situation (plus we had mice!), and things ended with the guy. I felt like I was wandering around in the dark. I began to have panic attacks on the subway to work, which landed me in therapy. Within a few weeks of seeing my Park Avenue therapist, he began to recommend that I go back to church, preferably one that was different from my parents’ church. This was a surprising suggestion, but I took it. After all, my therapist was Jewish and had no skin in the Jesus-game. He just thought spirituality would be good for me.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Jesus was in this recommendation.
A few months later I ended up sitting in the back of an auditorium at Hunter College, listening to a bald, bespectacled man talk about Jesus. I had never heard the gospel articulated so beautifully. I had never heard Jesus described so wonderfully (I probably had, just didn’t have the ears to hear or the heart to understand at the time). That pastor was Tim Keller.
It took about a year of attending Redeemer before I was willing to take Jesus up on his offer of a life with God. A year after that, I found myself working for Redeemer Presbyterian Church, helping to create an evangelism initiative. I was in graduate school studying public policy at the time, planning to become a wonk or a bureaucrat. Instead, I left behind my version of a net–STATA statistical software, I guess — to take up my cross and blab about Jesus. I am now an aspirant for the priesthood in the Anglican Church of North America. And I’ve got to say, these past 16 years have never been boring nor restrictive.
Tim Keller was one of those rare leaders who was the same both in public and private: gracious and humble. It was common knowledge among staff and leadership that I had a charismatic background, that I was egalitarian (they all knew that my mother was ordained, as well as my father), and that I loved a good dance party as much as I loved to pray. I was still welcomed on staff. For all the critiques of Tim that will surely come — that because he was complementarian, he kept women down — I never experienced anything but encouragement from him. I was never treated less-than because I had different beliefs. My contributions to our work were always recognized.
Though I left the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) and am now pursuing ordination, my life has been indelibly shaped by Tim’s ministry. Here are three points (if you know, you know) from his leadership I will always treasure.
Preach the gospel to yourself. For anyone who spent any time at Redeemer, they no doubt heard this admonition at least a bajillion times. But it has been one of the greatest gifts I received from my time under Tim’s ministry. When it feels like the fan is covered in … poop, when it feels like Jesus is so far away, remind yourself of what the gospel says: that Jesus loves you, died for you, and through the Spirit will empower you to keep going. Since coming back to my faith, I nearly lost my father, experienced 18 months of unemployment, toxic work environments, prolonged singleness, infertility, and a violent and traumatic miscarriage. Though I didn’t feel like it, preaching the gospel to myself during each of those horrible times helped keep my faith steady and my heart from hardening.
Don’t confuse works of talent with the work of the Spirit. Redeemer had many talented staffers and a wealth of resources to create excellent programming. I recall during one “Stand Up” staff meeting, Tim reminded us that it was easy to confuse a good work product with a work of the Holy Spirit. I was in my late 20s and an overachieving try-hard so his words cut me to my core. But there was so much wisdom there. I think of these words whenever I’m working on a project or initiative and ask the Spirit to help me get out of the way.
The third point is always the cross. If you listened to a Tim Keller sermon at random (or really, most sermons preached at Redeemer) you would know that the third point of nearly every sermon is the cross. If you’re suffering and can’t fathom why a good God would allow it, look at Jesus on the cross, suffering alongside us. Are you struggling to know that you are loved by God? Look at the cross and see Jesus giving his life for you. Feeling condemnation? We are all sinners standing under the shade of the cross, trusting that in Jesus we are forgiven.
And so I too, will end with the cross. Because “Christ has died and Christ is risen,” the sting of death has been nullified. Jesus lives, and so does Tim Keller. Typically, when we talk about salvation, we tend to focus on the gift of being saved from our sins (what a beautiful gift). But through the cross we have also been given a scandalous hope: death is not the end, it’s just the beginning. That gift isn’t just for the super-holy or the privileged preachers. It’s for all of us. Tim spent his life telling everyone he could about this hope and I’m eternally grateful to have been one of those people. See you soon, Tim.
Juliet Vedral is a writer, toddler-and-baby-wrangler, and amateur shoe collector. She is the co-founder and editor of The Wheelhouse Review. Her writing has also appeared in Sojourners and Radiant. A native New Yorker, Juliet currently resides in Alexandria, VA, which is still a weird thing for her to say.