Thank you, Tim Keller, For My Dorm Room!

June 21, 2023 - Roger W. Lowther

One evening in the fall of 1992, during my first year of college, I attended a "cultural diversity" seminar (I think that's what it was called...), mandatory for students who wanted a single dorm room in the Juilliard residence hall. I desperately wanted a single room, because I was not in a good situation. My roommate occasionally smoked illegal recreational drugs and often had girls over to spend the night in our very cramped room. Many times, I resorted to sleeping on the couch in the common room or in the library when it was open.

So with this intent alone, I attended this seminar with perhaps 60 others ... though, to be honest, I would have much rather been anywhere else practicing. I chose a chair in the very back of the dark room, slouched down, and prepared for a long nap while the speaker was introduced and came to the microphone.

“Good evening. I'm a pastor here in the city," he began, "and I’ve been invited to speak with you this evening about what the Bible has to say to artists, and why the arts are crucial.” That opening opened my ears, but I kept my eyes closed. He spent most of his time talking about an artist who painted a leaf and died but found his work finished and perfected in heaven as a full living tree. Now, that opened my eyes! All my striving for perfection on the stage — in front of audiences, in front of judges, in front of teachers and peers — this pastor confirmed that it was good, and that, in fact, it was nothing less than a picture of heaven itself. But that perfection is unattainable to us, but there is a greater artist, the Artist (capital A) to whom all artists points, who has accomplished it for us. I had never heard someone talk about music and the arts that way before. I needed to know more.

Before the lights came on, while the MC was explaining how to get credit for attendance, I went up and put my hand on the shoulder of the speaker. I realized my mistake (approaching people in a dark room while the event is still happening) when he visibly jumped. "Please tell me," I rushed in embarrassment for startling him, "who wrote that story you were talking about and what is it called?"

"J.R.R. Tolkien. Leaf by Niggle," he said.

I thanked him and rushed back to my seat to write it down. I had never heard of Tolkien. I had not even never heard of The Lord of the Rings.

I forgot to get the pastor's name and had to go to the student affairs office the next day to see what information they had on him. They told me his name was Timothy Keller and that he led a church called Redeemer. Not long after, I started to attend their worship services. It was a small church at that point, of about 250, that only met in the evenings on the upper East side. (They couldn't meet in the mornings because of another church that met there.) It was not easy for me to get to because the subway lines didn't go across Central Park and it was not a good time as the organ practice rooms were only open on Sunday afternoons. But I went to learn more.

Years later, I sometimes played the organ in worship in the mornings when they moved to the bigger venue of Hunter College Auditorium. And I invited Keller (with other Intervarsity students) to speak numerous times at Columbia University, the other school I went to. (One Good Friday gathering in the lobby of my dorm, John Jay Hall, was especially powerful! At that time, I was a premed student and he addressed all 40 in the room as premed students, from the viewpoint of Luke as a doctor. I think I can repeat that whole talk to you verbatim...)

Over the years, I gained a vision for world missions and the city and the arts and how the gospel applies to all of life. I read every book he quoted as I rode the 1 and 9 subway lines commuting back and forth between Juilliard and Columbia every day for classes, buying them at the Barnes 'n Noble right next to the school. I heard him speak at NYU and the Columbia Law School and many colleges and secular venues across the city. In 2005, because of this background with Redeemer, I got pulled into helping to start a church in downtown Tokyo through City to City.

With Tim's passing from cancer a month ago, I will never get to tell him, "Thank you, I got my dorm room!" No doubt, that would have been perplexing. Fortunately, I did get to thank him after one of his talks in Memphis for how he (unknowingly) led me into a life of world missions. His response, "Wow... Thank you... How do you respond to something like that?..."

I am so thankful for him and his ministry. I will continue to share what he taught me, sitting under his teaching for those six years in New York in the 90s and then many of his talks and books since. I will continue to encourage artists in far-flung corners of the world as he encouraged me all those years ago as a young and foolish college student.

Christ works in ways far beyond we realize, but one day we will join him in heaven and find our "leaf" finished and perfected. In the meantime, we can be assured of this. God uses the little things to build his kingdom for the sake of his glory, even speaking to a small group of musicians who would rather be anywhere else practicing.

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