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Remembering Tim

June 5, 2007


Jason and Tim at his benefit concert in March '07

Jason and Tim at his benefit concert in March '07

An Eulogy for Tim Helmen
Timothy John Helmen was buried a few weeks ago on what would have been his birthday.  Tim was one of my best friends. The news of his death after a brave battle with cancer is still unbelievable, and thinking about him still wounds me, but I want to tell you why I loved him and why I thought he was a good man.
I first met Tim many years ago after a Divers concert (a band I was a part of in the mid-90’s). We played at Tim’s church in Minneapolis and he ran sound for us and helped us tear our gear down. While hauling equipment out of the church afterward, we discovered that we were reading a lot of the same books and passionate about the same obscure music – authors like Frederick Buechner and musicians like Mark Heard.  We became fast friends and Tim became the first songwriter that I would collaborate with.
I was never good at collaborating (I’m an only child, you know, and don’t naturally play well with others), but Tim was a great combination of brilliance and humility, and whether he intended to or not, he taught me how to open up and let someone else into my creative process – a lesson I desperately needed to learn.
Writing with someone is difficult – Sara Groves likens it to walking into a room completely naked. But Tim gave me a safe place to do just that (figuratively, of course) and we wrote many songs in his basement; his kids Caleb and Elaina sneaking down the stairs to spy on us from time to time and mark our progress (or lack of). I always wrote better with Tim and together we wrote some of my best songs – signature songs like “A Place Called Hope”, “Curiousity Killed The Cat”, and “The Dance”.  We wrote some great songs down there, but maybe more importantly I learned how to collaborate, or as he often called it, “clobber-ate”. The majority of my new record is written with others, and it’s been good for my art and good for my audience.  This is just a little of the fruit of Tim’s presence in my life.
To tell the truth, I don’t like writing by myself at all anymore.  It feels lonely and disconnected in a lot of ways.  Even when I would write by myself, I’d email Tim the progress to get his feedback.  He’s spoken into the majority of my songs, always encouraging me and gently pointing out my blind spots.  He jokingly created an alter ego called “Scansion man” who would always police my work, making sure I wasn’t compromising on my rhyming and phrasing. Yes, it was annoying at times how much he got on me, but more often than not I knew he was right, and I’d go back to the drawing board and go after something better.  He didn’t allow me to be lazy and was always calling me upward to higher levels of artistic credibility.  What a gift he was to me.
Even songs that he’s not directly credited for still have his mark on them since I sent him everything I was working on to get his feedback.  I always felt like he really “got” me and was willing to serve the needs of my audience.  It was never about his ego, which is what made him such a great songwriting partner – and friend.
Tim was pretty brilliant, too.  Man, he wrote some smart lyrics with multiple layers of meaning – often in his notepad on his commute to work.  The little things he would come up with on a whim usually outshone my best ideas I had collected over the course of a year. He even composed some brilliant limericks about his cancer that had us all laughing.  Maybe it was his way of whistling in the dark.  Or maybe he was doing his best to whistle in our dark, to help allay our fears.  He was very giving that way, right up to the end.
Tim knew that he most likely wouldn’t have a big career in music, but he was passionate about it all the same. More than that, he knew it was his God given vocation and was careful to honor that.  He cared about big ideas and he wrote about them, and was often frustrated by a music listening culture that cares less about a compelling lyric and big ideas than it does about vibe and big beats.  There was always a tension for him between his need to honor God’s gifting in his life and his need to pay the bills, leaving him caught in the middle of a tug of war that he felt compromised his output on both ends – as a musician and as career person.  Many times I know that he wanted to put the music to bed and be done with it, but the music kept calling and “complicating” things.  One of my favorite lyrics of his expressed this tension so well: “I’m a madhouse of potential that this music lulls to sleep”
Besides being a great songwriting partner, Tim was an even better friend.  We talked or emailed almost weekly, about music, books, film, family, or anything we were passionate about at the time. Neither of us had much money, but every once in a while we would give each other some book or CD that we thought the other would appreciate.  These gifts would go on to become cherished favorites in my collection.  John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters” is one of Taya’s and my all time favorite records, and after years of searching for a hardcover of Wendell Berry’s “Jayber Crow”, imagine my gratitude when Tim sent me one for Christmas a couple of years ago. It is a book that changed my life. Tim changed my life in so many ways, adding depth and nurturing wonder.
I remember one night when I was going through a particularly dark night of the soul.  I can’t remember a time when I was more troubled with guilt and regret over a situation I could never make amends for.  I was driving cross country on my way to the west coast in the middle of the night and felt like I would explode in my own skin.  Even though it was late, I called Tim and we talked long into the night and he ministered God’s grace to me, bringing me back from the edge of my own guilt and despair. I never forgot that.
And most importantly, Tim loved his family.  There was rarely a conversation we had where he didn’t talk about how gifted Elaina and Caleb were.  He wrote a beautiful song for a play that Elaina was in and did some of his best work in service to his family.  I remember a conversation we had once about getting up when we’d hear noises in the house at night.  He said it was ridiculous to think that he could do much to defend himself or overtake an intruder when he was half naked, groggy, unarmed and groping in the dark.  We laughed at the thought of what we might do if we ever did come upon somebody in our house in the middle of the night!  But we get out of bed all the same, because we love our wife and kids and willingly lay down our lives for them.

The last time I saw Tim was the week my new CD released.  We did a benefit concert at his church to help his family through this difficult time of his treatment.  I sincerely believed he would pull through and refused to entertain the thought that he might not.  At the end of the evening, I said “I’ll see you soon” and then I hit the road again.  I got news about 7 weeks later while I was on tour that Tim had passed after recent treatments didn’t produce the results we all had hoped and believed for.  I didn’t get to say goodbye.
Lori, his wife, posted this message for friends and family:
“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:8-9 
My dear husband received the goal of his faith on May 1st at 4:35pm as I gently stroked his cheek, held his hand, and reminded him of God’s promises. The victory is his. 

”This is the victory that has overcome the world. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” 1 John 5:4-5 

“I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord . . . Yes, they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.'” Revelation 14:13

Tim’s parting gift to us was to show us how to die well, with great grace, dignity, and faith. I miss him.
Earlier this year, Tim told me my song “The Cut” was very meaningful for him.  While I do believe that his “cut” has made him whole, I can’t help feeling the ache of that very same cut and how it’s left a hole in my own life.
I’ve struggled to not be angry at God for Tim’s death, especially as it concerns Lori, Elaina, and Caleb.  I know that he died well and with great faith, willingly receiving whatever God allowed to happen: healing here, or ultimate healing in going home.  I don’t think he would want me to be angry, and I’m trying to honor that as I grieve. 
Andrew Peterson’s last record, “The Far Country”, an album about dying and homecoming, was a constant companion  and comfort to him this last year.  How fitting that another song by Andrew has brought me comfort this week and offered a response to my questions and disappointment.  From “The Silence Of God”:
“And the man of all sorrows, he never forgot
What sorrow is carried by the hearts that he bought
So when the questions dissolve into the silence of God
The aching may remain, but the breaking does not…”

I’m not willing to believe that all that happens is necessarily God’s will.  I’m more inclined to believe we live in a fallen world where there is death, alienation, and disappointment and that these were never God’s will. I also believe that as much as these things break our hearts, it is a heart break that we don’t bear alone – the old wounds in the hands and feet of Christ still trouble him and ache with our every sorrow.  And whatever happens in our lives, that is no small comfort – that he knows the sorrow that is carried in the hearts that he bought.
There’s so much more to say about Tim, how funny he was, late night conversations, outrageous music ideas that we always talked about exploring…  But I’ll close with yet another Andrew Peterson song that Tim told me on numerous occasions was one of his favorites.
This is not the end here at this grave
This is just a hole that someone made
Every hole was made to fill
And every heart can feel it still–
Our nature hates a vacuum
This is not the hardest part of all
This is just the seed that has to fall
All our lives we till the ground
Until we lay our sorrows down
And watch the sky for rain
There is more
More than all this pain
More than all the falling down
And the getting up again
There is more
More than we can see 
From our tiny vantage point
In this vast eternity
There is more
A thing resounds when it rings true
Ringing all the bells inside of you
Like a golden sky on a summer eve
Your heart is tugging at your sleeve 
And you cannot say why
There must be more
There is more
More than we can stand
Standing in the glory
Of a love that never ends
There is more
More than we can guess
More and more, forever more
And not a second less
There is more than what the naked eye can see
Clothing all our days with mystery
Watching over everything
Wilder than our wildest dreams 
Could ever dream to be
There is more
©Andrew Peterson

 For more about Tim, including an interview I did with him about his first record, go to

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