on the unlikeliest of penpals, or concerning Tim Keller

I will never ever forget the moment when this text came up on my phone.

Text message: Hi Robin. This is Tim Keller calling.

It tickled me to no end. I seriously smiled from ear to ear. It was surreal. Total fangirl moment. And then I laughed at myself for being such a dork.

But it meant something more than just a Celebrity Preacher calling me. It meant so very much more.

Because in this cultural moment we’re in…

… in an age when the American Evangelical Church is at war with Everyone Else,

… in a time when Public Figures (especially white male pastoral figures) publicly berate, demean, discredit, refute, and ignore dissenters, the “Twitter Mob,” the “angry feminists,” the non-public nobodies (especially female non-white non-ordained or otherwise “adequately credentialed”… scare quotes for sarcasm),

… in the specifically, increasingly hostile climate of the Presbyterian Church in America, of which I was a member and a vocal pastor’s wife blogger who dared to publicly ask questions of people like Tim Keller,

This Man reaching out to talk to This Woman means Everything.

It means there are men who “stoop” to listen to someone like me. (He IS tall.)

It means there are people as important as TKNY (the nickname my hubs and I affectionately used) who have lists of things to do and could just as easily completely ignore me and my cries, actually wanted to hear my voice saying what I needed to say.

I talked to him for almost 45 minutes that day. He asked me a few questions but mostly he wanted to talk again for longer and to address what *I* wanted to address. He wanted to hear from my husband and his concerns. He wanted to encourage us to stay and fight. A week later he gave us two hours of his precious time and we will never ever forget it.

And he also stayed in touch.

It’s still bizarre to me that he would care. He wrote to me. He emailed me on several occasions with thoughts, replying to things I’d blog or tweet! I was so humbled and absolutely honored by the fact he was interested in what I had to say. I would sometimes send him emails with questions. He would answer me. He’d send me resources. He’d tell me things that I fully suspect he doesn’t tell just anyone.

Sometimes it troubled me. I wanted him to say these things publicly, but I knew he was limited. Resources of time and health and priorities were all pressing in on him. He would send me emails like, “I don’t have a lot of time as I’m on the way to a doctor appt” or “I wanted to get back to you before I head to the clinic” and I would stop and close my eyes and pray for him. Because I wanted to him to get better and I also selfishly felt so honored by his use of time and energy to write to a Nobody like me.

I’m sure I’m not the only one he was like this with. I once asked him what his metrics were for who to spend resources on and he told me that he had answered me because he appreciated all I had to say, he saw me and my husband as worth the time as co-laborers in Christ, and he wanted to keep me in the PCA. He wanted to be the kind of pastor who made sure I knew I was valued and worth the time. He isn’t the only one, but of course it meant the world to me that he made sure I knew it.

And still, we didn’t always agree. He didn’t want to talk about Twitter. I can’t really blame him. He didn’t want me to lecture him about social media. So I didn’t. We talked shop. We talked ministry. We talked about the denomination and the in-fighting. We talked about spiritual abuse and how to define it. He sent me notes on how he talked about spiritual authority and I’ve wondered often if he was talking to other notable Public Figures in our circles at the time. I’ve wondered if he saw the increase of abuse cases on the floors of Presbyteries as a sign of something bigger happening. But I didn’t get a chance to ask him yet.

Tim was sad the day I told him we were leaving the PCA. Earlier this year, I sent him the letter I had written about all the reasons. It was a seven page ordeal. He read it and he responded within the same day. He understood me. He had many of the same concerns. He knew what I was saying and he knew that I had to get out and it grieved him.

He gave me a run down on his thoughts on other denominations that I had asked him about. And he said he was on his way to his treatments, writing, and I quote, “I hope the relative brevity of this won’t feel hurtful. I just thought to wait longer and for you not to hear from me might be even more hurtful.”

I cried at that line alone. Thank you, Tim.

As we watch the list of Public Figure Pastors falling from grace get longer and longer lately, as we look at the devastating stats of churches imploding on themselves, people streaming out in disgust and frustration, I am reminded of the ways in which Tim Keller spoke of the Gospel for so many years and so faithfully. I’m reminded of how it was his little book The Prodigal God that, back in 2008, blew my mind and healed my wandering heart. I’m reminded of the countless hours of sermons and writings that both my husband and I have read more than once and have looked to for wisdom and an example of how to engage difficult topics and how to steer clear of hostility or cruelty toward an ideological “opponent” and treat everyone with respect and curiosity. I realized over the past year in my interactions that he was truly curious. He wanted to know and understand. He wanted to grasp the ideas and consider different approaches to any single topic. I loved that he didn’t just say, here’s what you have to think or do. (Well, he did tell my husband he should really go to General Assembly last year.)

Tim was the real deal. He really was. I know some will say, well, a lot of things. But I absolutely loved and respected him over this past year since that text message. He reassured me that I wasn’t crazy and that he saw the things I saw. Maybe some day I’ll write a book with all the emails he sent me, how he bemoaned things I was bemoaning. But I think for now, those emails are just for me. They are to remind me that I’m not alone and even when it felt like no one but my husband was listening, once upon a time, Tim Keller listened. And that is a strange and magical gift I never would have expected in my whole life.

If we believed in such things, TKNY would be beatified, but instead, he’ll “just” be a saint. And all of heaven will rejoice when he gets home. I hope some day we can take up our conversation where we left off. But I suspect we won’t want to. We definitely won’t be talking about the PCA.

See you on the other side, friend. You will be deeply missed.

The Grey Havens by Alan Lee from the Lord of the Rings
The Grey Havens by Alan Lee




  1. This is a beautiful tribute. I’m so glad you had this experience and that you have shared it with us. Thank you.

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