Ask the average person what comes to mind when they think of a funeral or memorial service and I doubt they would use words like “encouraging” or “joyful.”
Yet the memorial service for the Rev. Tim Keller in New York on Tuesday was something that someone could easily be a part of and call just that. Keller’s memorial was referred to as a “worship service to God for Tim Keller’s life and ministry.”
The service, held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and also streamed live on Keller’s website, was never one of pure grief. Rather, it was one of hope and joy. The service was rooted in thanksgiving, selflessness, joyful confidence and, yes, celebration.
Exactly the way Keller himself intended it.
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The Rev. Michael Keller didn’t shy away from using the service as a celebration of his father’s life.
“What are we here to do this afternoon? After the death of Christian, we unite to do two things always,” he said. “First, we thank God for his life, for God’s goodness in lending him to us for the years that we had with him. Secondly, we seek God for our life, for his comfort and presence. … We need to get what we need from his Lord, so that we can continue to live our lives in this world with confidence and with joy.”
Keller noted that his father had meticulously planned out his own memorial service. He had handpicked each hymn and the sequence of the hymns were likewise intentional. The elder Keller had also provided a short, written commentary on each hymn before they were sung.
In all, the service consisted of five hymns, five Scripture readings and even readings from C.S. Lewis’ “Weight of Glory” and “Mere Christianity.” It also included words from Kathy Keller and her sons, along with a homily delivered by Rev. Sam Allberry.
“I chose each hymn and there’s an order to them,” Timothy Keller wrote as part of the program. “So the first one: Immortal invisible God Only Wise is a tremendous depiction of who God is and his attributes. It’s really all about God. Who is he? And what’s really interesting is some of the lines in here summarizing the most important Christian ideas, I’ve never seen it summarized better.”
What I was not expecting at @timkellernyc’s memorial service was that Tim chose the hymns and gave reasons why he chose each one.
Here are his rationales behind the choices, starting with beloved quotes about the Christian and death. 1/2[Cover art by @iamfujimura] pic.twitter.com/iNBnlNwoAU
— Chris Davis🔆 (@RevChrisDavis) August 16, 2023
When Keller planned his memorial service, it also appeared that he wanted to exclude as much of himself as possible from the proceedings. This shows how the service reflected the person of Timothy Keller.
Tom Whiftord, and his wife, Chris, were part of Redeemer’s second-ever member class. She said Keller “didn’t draw attention himself.”
“He was profoundly uncomfortable talking about himself,” Chris Whitford told Religion Unplugged. “He consistently avoided answering personal questions. He never talked about himself, and he never referenced himself. He only ever referenced cultural touchpoints that were common to everyone. He never set himself up as an example. He did not draw attention to himself, ever.”
This memorial was about more than closure — and had a certain celebratory mood — just as Christian service should. After all, the Bible is replete with images of death quite being something that is conquered and done away with. Towards the end of the Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he explicitly illustrates this point. The verses of Chapter 15, recited during the service, are rife with words of victory.
“But we will all be changed,” Paul writes, “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”
Later, in the same passage, Paul quotes the Hebrew prophet Hosea: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death where is your sting?”
If the Christian man or woman takes these words to be true, then is there any reason why a Christian memorial service like Keller’s should not have a joyful element? Further, is there a reason why God should also not be the main focus of such a memorial?
Kathy Keller, the late pastor’s wife, seemed to think that the answer to both questions is a resounding “no!”
“You may have noticed that this isn’t the usual sort of memorial service. … That’s because Tim wrote it himself, just the way he liked to do funerals for other people. You mention the dead person, obviously, but then talk about the God that person is facing,” she told those in attendance.
For the Keller family, it seemed as if the best way to honor him was to honor the God he served — and do so while simultaneously grieving and rejoicing.
“You know those scenes at the end of movies, like at the end of saving Private Ryan, where someone has a heart to heart talk standing at the headstone of the deceased person?” Kathy Keller added. “Tim and I were always uncomfortable with those because the person isn’t actually there…Tim is with Jesus, healed, loved, more alive and happier than he has ever been. He’s not here.”
Indeed, according to Christian doctrine, Keller is somewhere unimaginably better than here. Hence, the Christian has plenty of reasons to feel encouraged, hopeful and joyful even (and perhaps especially) at a memorial service. Funerals and memorial services are terribly tangible examples of where a Christian may exercise his faith and find reason for comfort.
“As this service has indicated, we grieve, but we grieve with hope,” Michael Keller added, echoing his mother.
He also said that “the reason why we have great hope is that dad is more alive now than he ever was when he was with us. And we take that to heart, to let that sustain us and comfort us.”
Should Christians dare to celebrate at a funeral or memorial service? I believe the answer to be a resounding yes!
This article, which was originally published by Religion Unplugged, does not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Roys Report.
Rafa Oliveira is an intern with ReligionUnplugged.com covering technology and religion. He is a recent graduate of The King’s College in New York City with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics.