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The knock on the door took us both by surprise. It was 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon, the day of our church Christmas program. I had to be there in an hour to make sure everything was ready to go, my wife had to be there early to get the kids lined up, so the knock at the door was not very well timed. It was our neighbor, Jerry. He looked terrible; he had been sick for about a month with a bad cold. When you get to be in your eighties stubbornness seems to set in, which means doctors and politicians don’t know what they’re talking about. My wife is the only person Jerry will listen too, because she’s the only one who listens to his stories. Jerry’s known in our town for talking. He makes the rounds to the grocery stores, the library, and the bakery at the mall. He tells anyone who hears him about what’s wrong with society these days. Most people see him coming and walk the other way. Me? I talk back to him, especially on politics. A few years back, after the democratic convention, he came running outside to ask me what I thought of Obama’s speech. “I thought it was great,” I said. He just turned around and walked away. Wouldn’t talk to me for two weeks. Eventually, he got over it. But my wife? She listens. Every night, after supper, she makes up a plate and sends one of the kids over to knock on the door. She usually calls to let him know it’s coming—he can’t hear of the sound of his talk radio.

Jerry lives alone, but it’s of his own making. Something went wrong years ago, something snapped somewhere and he became a different person. He wasn’t a good father or husband. By the time we got to know Jerry, about eleven years ago, he was living alone, too proud to apologize, thinking the world had done him wrong. Jerry was good to us, probably because he liked my wife. He loved my kids, he fixed their bikes and built the most unsafe playground equipment around, and he always gave them old candy. From time to time he’d come to church in his 1970’s polyester suit, and my kids would run right up to him to cheerful say hello. This particular Sunday, he didn’t go to church, but he did show up at our door asking for a ride to the ER.

A few days later I visited him up in Sioux Falls. The prognosis wasn’t very good, he was doped up and ornery as ever. He cussed at the nurses and then told me about how society was going bad. I asked if I could read scripture with him, so I read from Isaiah 43:

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

Do not fear, for I am with you

When I finished reading Jerry wiped a tear from his eye. I told him Jesus loves him and forgives him. I nudged him a little, telling him he needed to make peace with his family. He changed the subject. That was the last time I saw Jerry alive.

“Love your neighbor.” It’s become quite cliche. We use it to justify all sorts of things. We even use it as a weapon to make other Christians feel guilty, as if there’s a visual threshold that needs to be met for it to count. If it doesn’t show up on Facebook or Instagram with a gazillion likes or praying hands emojis, well, are we really following Jesus? And yet, how difficult it is to love the people who live right next door.

Jerry did make some peace with his family, as much peace as he could muster. Deep down, everyone, including Jerry, wished things could have been different. Sometimes, death becomes a fleeting moment of grace that forces us to talk to those we thought we’d always have more time to talk to. The other day I went out to shovel my driveway. I stopped, and looked at Jerry’s house, knowing it was empty, knowing he wasn’t coming out the front door to tell me about how terrible society is, or how Obama is a communist. Funny, the things you miss when someone’s gone.

(I included the picture from Home Alone because Jerry and the old man are one and the same—right down to the bandage on the hand.)

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

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