We said goodbye to Pastor Tim Keller on August 15 from beneath the soaring ceilings of the iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Over 2000 people from all over the world filled the cathedral that had been opened for the memorial service thanks to the long friendship between the Presbyterian pastor and Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York.
As we sat amid old friends and sang hymns Tim personally selected for this service, I thought about all the times I had led tourists into this building, describing its history, architecture and significance. And I realized then that Tim’s influence had spread so widely through my life that even my tour guide spiels bore traces of his messages.
I fell in love with New York City on my first visit as a Florida teenager and moved here as a twenty-three-year-old seeking fame and fortune on Broadway. When the fortune didn’t materialize quickly enough, I turned to guiding tourists through my adopted city to help make ends meet.
As I grew more and more confident in my ability to inform and entertain visitors, I also developed a sense of cultural pride and prejudice. On the surface, I was just relaying NYC facts and figures, but my underlying message was definitely, “This is where the party’s at. Look at what you’re missing!” And if New York City was the coolest place on earth, then I was surely a cool cat because I not only lived here. I thrived here.
But all my pride in the city and myself vanished the day my husband and I watched a passenger jet plow into the World Trade Center six blocks from our new apartment home that I had been so proud of. Although I had grown up in a Christian home, I had shelved most of my faith while I chased success in the big city, and in the days after 9/11, I felt adrift and alone in a place I no longer recognized. Unemployed and facing mounting bills, I listened to a good friend and turned to Redeemer Presbyterian Church for monetary assistance.
Impressed by the quiet graciousness I found there, Brian and I returned to Redeemer for worship services and discovered for ourselves why Tim Keller was so revered in so many places. We soon made Redeemer our home church, joining Bible study groups and volunteering with outreach programs. Eventually, both Brian and I took jobs at Redeemer, where we grew in our love and commitment to Christ.
My job with the Redeemer Church Planting Center (now Redeemer City to City) showed me how pastors across the world respond to their culture within the gospel, and I became fascinated by how God was moving in the world.
I began looking at my city through new eyes as well. Instead of seeing the world’s greatest party, I now saw it for what it was and is: broken, just as I was broken. We both needed to be redeemed, restored, and rebuilt—physically and spiritually.
Tim’s sermons were filled with directives to serve the city rather than exploit it for our own advancement. Don’t “assimilate to its values,” he would say. Instead, serve as a light on the hill (Matt. 5:14) and ambassadors for the kingdom of God.
“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jer. 29:7), Tim told us. Redeemer congregants were inspired to pray for New York and then “pour ourselves out” to help it attain “spiritual, social, and economic flourishing and thriving” in every way.
Soon enough, my relationship with my city changed, and I carried this new philosophy into my tour guiding as well. Instead of boasting and bragging about New York’s accomplishments and beauty, I learned to describe the city in more respectful, tempered ways. I wanted visitors to connect with the reality of the city and appreciate it, but not glorify it.
I began volunteering locally, mentoring a youth in Brooklyn, spending time with a senior citizen in a retirement home, and connecting with families who had loved ones in prison. My investment, I believed, was part and parcel of bringing peace and prosperity to the city. I could now love the city and those in it without idolizing it.
I had learned about idols from listening to Tim, who talked about them frequently. He would say, “An idol is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” New York City lost its idol status in my heart because God had taken its place—and Tim showed me how to make that change.
But now, I could love the city and serve it in the balanced way God intended, and that brought an entirely different focus to my life. As I showed tourists beautiful edifices such as St Patrick’s Cathedral, I would filter my accolades through my new appreciation of God’s workmanship—He is the one who created the image bearers who created this beautiful church.
On the morning after Tim’s memorial service, I woke up early and headed out from my Lower Manhattan home to the Upper East Side with one goal in mind: to see the status of the Ministry Center building being constructed for Redeemer East Side. Tim had a vision of churches proliferating in urban areas all over the world—especially New York City. When the building for Redeemer West Side was opened in 2012, it was believed to be the first church building built in Manhattan in 40 years.
Now, a similar Redeemer church building was rising on the East Side. Approaching the corner at 91st and Lexington, I could see a massive crane stretching high into the sky and construction workers buzzing like bees over the gleaming hulk of the five stories constructed so far. I began to cry, thinking about Tim and his visions and imagining all the people who would someday pass through the doors of this new building.
I know they will worship in its sanctuary in the same way we had worshipped at the various locations that housed the Redeemer congregations throughout the years when Tim was the pastor. I imagined the budding friendships and long-lasting relationships, the Bible study groups and volunteer gatherings, the baptisms and funerals. I prayed for all the people who need to find a community like this one that will call them to be change agents for Christ in this neighborhood and this city.
Tim Keller will never physically worship in this building, but it will foster his mission of bringing people to Christ and sending them out into New York City. In this Redeemer congregation, people will learn how to share their faith in the arts communities, finance jobs and government agencies. They will be strengthened to carry their faith and their love into the very life of the city.
A week after Tim’s memorial service, I’m still reveling in the afterglow of its poignant beauty. And I’m also reflecting on the effects of the amazing era ushered in by Tim’s ministry. His work inspired so many New Yorkers to come to faith and so many others to renew and strengthen their faith. I was one of them.
My revitalized faith—and Tim’s Spirit-fueled encouragement—pushes me to seek shalom for New York and serve my neighbors in the city where God has planted us. As Christians, we know New York City—or any other city—is not our ultimate home. But we glorify God when we serve the community where He has placed us.
I believe generations of Redeemer churchgoers will continue to embrace that idea, which gives me much hope for the future of Christianity in New York and the world.
This is Tim’s legacy that I treasure the most.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: Emiliano Bar/Unsplash
Christina Ray Stanton is a writer and author of over 50 articles and an award-winning book about 9/11 www.Christinaraystanton.com