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I’ve talked to Timothy Keller several times since he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer almost two years ago. What strikes me each time is that it’s easy to forget he has a fatal disease. He is calm, sage-like, cheerful and still deeply curious about others and the world around him. He always asks me, genuinely, how I am doing and listens intently as I tell him. He offers advice, wisdom, and even sympathy, though my complaints are all comparatively small compared to facing cancer. It’s hard to have a conversation with him without feeling more hopeful and buoyant.
Keller moved to New York City in 1989 with his wife, Kathy, and their three young sons to start a church from scratch. It was a risky move to plant a traditional, evangelical Presbyterian church in a secular, progressive city. But Redeemer grew, has become one of the best known churches in the country, and birthed City to City, a global church planting network.
Keller has also written over two dozen books, most recently “Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter.” David Brooks recently described Tim as having “one of the most impressive and important minds in the evangelical world.”
Tim said that when he received his cancer diagnosis, “The doctor looked at us and said, ‘I want you to realize that when it comes to pancreatic cancer, you’re going to die from this.’” The vast majority of patients live less than a year after diagnosis. Tim described that day itself as a kind of death.
“My wife, Kathy, and I spent much time in tears and disbelief,” Tim wrote in The Atlantic last year. He continued, “We expected some illness to come and take us when we felt really old. But not now, not yet. This couldn’t be; what was God doing to us? The Bible, and especially the Psalms, gave voice to our feelings: ‘Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?’ ‘Wake up, O Lord. Why are you sleeping?’ ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?’”
As many Christians around the world begin Holy Week, I wanted to hear more about how Tim’s diagnosis changed how he thinks about life, death, and this week leading up to Easter. In the midst of ongoing chemotherapy, he kindly agreed to this interview, which has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
How has cancer and this encounter with your own mortality changed how you see your life and how you see death?
On an emotional level, we really do deny the fact that we’re mortal and our time is limited. The day after my diagnosis, one of the words I put down in my journal was “focus.” What are the most important things for you to be spending your time doing? I had not been focused.
The second change was you realize that there’s one sense in which if you believe in God, it’s a mental abstraction. You believe with your head. I came to realize that the experiential side of my faith really needed to strengthen or I wasn’t going to be able to handle this.
It’s one thing to believe God loves you, another thing to actually feel his love. It’s one thing to believe he’s present with you. It’s another to actually experience his presence. So the two things I wrote down in my journal: one was focus and the other one was “Know the Lord.” My experience of his presence and his love was going to have to double, triple, quintuple or I wouldn’t make it.
What are the things that you want to focus on? What comes to the top of the list for you?
My wife Kathy and I are fairly well known as being a team. In many ways, we are joined at the hip. Right after the cancer was diagnosed, we realized it wasn’t right to come to the end of our lives without improving our marriage in places where it could be better. There were some things that she felt that she could not talk to me about because I didn’t respond well and she had given up trying to do it. But now we’re finding breakthroughs and being able to talk about certain things and deal with them in a way we were never able to before.
You immediately look around at your children, your grandchildren, and say, what are the things I want to say to them and do with them?
Then thirdly, writing. I’m asking, “What are some things I want to write about — notes in a bottle to the future church?”
The last thing is trying to encourage people. I want to be an encourager.
As a pastor, professor, and author, when it comes to faith, you’ve used your head a lot. You’ve thought about faith. And now you’re talking about growing in an experience of faith. How have you gone about doing that?
Every Christian knows what the means are. It’s just a question of actually using them. The means are the Bible, prayer, meditation, and corporate worship and the sacraments.
Meditation is not the same as either reading the Bible or prayer. If you want an example of meditation, go to Psalms 103, and you’ll see the Psalmist is not addressing God. And he’s not addressing his listeners. He says, Bless the Lord, oh my soul and all that is within me.” He’s addressing himself. And that’s not prayer, but that’s also not just reading the Bible, that is learning how to take what he’s read in the Bible and screw it down into his heart till it catches fire.
I pray more often, but I also do it more longingly. And what’s really amazing is that when you know you’ve got to have more of God — because there’s really no alternative — to our surprise, there is more of God to be gotten. And you say, why didn’t I find this before? And the answer is, you didn’t feel the same sense of need.
In your latest book, you wrote that our culture is experiencing a “crisis of hope.” Where do you find hope? What hope do you offer to others?
If the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened, then ultimately, God is going to put everything right. Suffering is going to go away. Evil is going to go away. Death is going to go away. Aging is going to go away. Pancreatic cancer is going to go away. Now if the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not happen, then I guess all bets are off. But if it actually happened, then there’s all the hope in the world.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he says there are indelible human longings that only fantasy, fairy tales, or sci-fi can really speak to. He says that all human beings have a fascination with the idea of escaping time, escaping death, holding communion with other living things, being able to live long enough to achieve your artistic and creative dreams, being able to find a love that perfectly heals. Tolkien says: why do we have those longings? And as a Christian, he thinks the reason is that we were not originally created by God to die.
We all deep down kind of know that this is the way life ought to be, and if the resurrection of Jesus Christ happens, then all those things are literally going to come true for us.
That’s the reason you have this paradox. On the one hand, the resurrection is a kind of very concrete thing to talk about, like “What is the evidence for this historical event?” Probably the single best book on this subject in the last 100 years is N.T. Wright’s book “The Resurrection of the Son of God.”
Yet if we come to the place where we accept it, then suddenly there’s no limit to what kinds of things we can look forward to. I know some of your readers are thinking, “I can’t believe there’s a person with more than a third-grade education that actually believes that.” But I do. And these last few months, as we’ve gotten in touch with these great parts of our faith, Kathy and I would both say we’ve never been happier in our lives, even though I’m living under the shadow of cancer.
Today, most Christians are entering Holy Week, when we walk through the last week of Jesus’s earthly ministry, his crucifixion and death, and then, next Sunday we celebrate Easter. Can you reflect on how your suffering has changed how you think about the suffering of Jesus and also Easter?
Holy Week gives you both death and resurrection. They don’t make any sense apart. You can’t have the joy of resurrection unless you’ve gone through a death, and death without resurrection is just hopeless. Essentially, the death/resurrection motif or pattern is absolutely at the heart of what it means to live a Christian life. And actually everything in life is like that. With any kind of suffering, if I respond to it by looking to God in faith, suffering drives me like a nail deeper into God’s love, which is what cancer has done for me.
I do think that the great thing about cancer is that Easter does mean a whole lot more because I look at Easter and I say “Because of this, I can face anything.” In the past, I thought of Easter as a kind of optimistic, upbeat way of thinking about life. And now I see that Easter is a universal solvent. It can eat through any fear, any anger and despair. I see it as more powerful than ever before.
Have feedback? Send me a note to HarrisonWarrenemail@example.com.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”