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Note 89: “By their fruits…”
Reflections on a death—and our lives
Tim Keller died last Friday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer diagnosed in mid-2020.
I didn’t hear about it until after I sent my newsletter, but even if I had, there’s no way I’d have known what I wanted to say about it anyway.
Who’s Tim Keller, you might wonder? He was a highly respected Christian leader who was somehow also completely unknown in even some Christian circles. (You can check out the Wikipedia entry on him.) But he was especially respected for his unusual combination of conviction and compassion: he was conservative in his beliefs but also very generous with people, Christian and otherwise, who had different views—even when they didn’t respond mutually. I greatly admire that: being clear about what you think but also generous with those who disagree. CS Lewis, of whom Keller was also a huge fan, embodied it well.
Keller’s approach—to spurn tribalism, avoid picking unnecessary fights, and preach to our shared existential angst—was not normal, not even in New York City.
As you can imagine, that only earned him criticism from both sides, because there are few things more upsetting to people who insist on seeing things as binary than a refusal to be so reduced.
But that’s not what struck me most in the days since Keller’s passing. Although it kind of is—because that approach was rooted in the very thing I found most striking about what got emphasised, and what didn’t, in how people have talked about him.
His character, not his gifts.
Let’s dig into that in a bit, but first…
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Gifts or fruit
One of the most impactful ideas from the Bible for me was the idea of prioritising fruit over gifts. Fruit, in biblical terms, is about character, things like love and patience and kindness and gentleness. And the idea is also that fruit takes time: you don’t get fruit in one day. It’s something you have to work at. And it’s not about your personality traits, either, but about the choices you make to honour another person’s humanity instead of simply pursuing your own interests at their expense.
But the other thing about fruits is they aren’t dramatic. You know what is? Gifts. It’s hard to miss when someone is gifted, especially when it’s in ways that are prized within a community. Talent and skill, whether it’s at talking, or in making money, or being charming or attractive or smart—any of those things are hard to miss. And we respond accordingly.
Think for a moment about the people who tend to be most popular: they’re almost always people gifted in some way.
And yet, somehow, when you meet these people (some of them, anyway), it’s surprising how the thing you come away with is an awareness of how humble or approachable or easy to talk to they were. Think of someone like Keanu Reeves, well known for The Matrix and John Wick franchises, but also just as well known for being incredibly thoughtful and kind to people who have interacted with him.
There’s a reason you’re advised not to meet your heroes, after all.
And that’s why it struck me that, among all the tributes to Tim Keller, this incredibly gifted man, whose books sold in the millions and whose preaching reached millions more—the thing that comes through the most is his character. People have shared about his empathy, his kindness, how he welcomed hard questions, listened to people no matter how ordinary, and showed generosity to his harshest critics (some of whom became lifelong friends). The way he lived.
Not his gifts, but his fruit.
It’s a reminder of what matters most, isn’t it?
We aren’t all equally gifted, and that’s okay. As I wrote in a previous essay, there’s something to be said for being average. But we can all give of ourselves, of our time and our hearts.
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