My Neighbor Mark

      a newsletter article

My neighbor died last week. I’ve confessed occasionally that—in spite of Jesus admonishing us to love our neighbors—I’m not a very good neighbor. I don’t interact much with those who live next to me. Mark had been an exception.

He grew up in that house. He had a philosophy master’s degree and played jazz saxophone and had taught for a while. After his schizophrenia got bad, he moved back into his parents’ house and continued to live there until last week. The house was yellowed from his cigarettes and the smoke shut inside; he never opened windows. Either the heat was on or the air conditioning. With the help of the police, on Friday we discovered that he’d died there.

Life was pretty small for Mark. Because of tremors from medications, and paranoia, and obsessive/compulsive tendencies, he hardly got out. Trips to Woodmans. Phone calls from his psychiatrist. Otherwise the shape of his life was NPR, Turner Classic Movies, and the Milwaukee Bucks. He shared rhubarb and jokes and sardines and music books and weed-killing advice and movie suggestions. I used to pet his Boston terrier, Sammy, who helped fertilize my flower garden.

After Sammy died, Mark was especially grateful for chances to pet our dog, Doug. From time to time, I got to be helpful to Mark by changing the oil in his lawn mower, staining the trim on his windows, cleaning out his basement, or helping him buy and install a new CD player.

Mostly Mark wanted to talk theology. He fretted over the sins of his earlier life, and also fretted that he still enjoyed the memory of those indiscretions and so wasn’t repentant enough. He longed to die, but also worried that killing himself would exclude him from God’s love. It might be argued that Mark took all this too seriously, either because of the time on his hands or because of the illness in his head. It probably could be better argued that he gave theological questions their just weight, as matters of life and death. Or, in the terms of a good Lutheran theologian, as matters of death and life, the end of our old selves and rising to new beginnings.

Mark seems to have had a heart attack while asleep. It was before he had to move into a nursing home, so his estate will go to charity, just as he had carefully planned in his will and often described longingly. Again, I’d say Mark was more charitable to his neighbors than I frequently am. He was also, by any account, more loving than the God he seemed to believe in—the strict one of his Catholic upbringing, the angry one from the Billy Graham magazines and Chuck Swindoll books he insisted on reading.

People often say that all religions lead to the same place. Well, Mark and I were both talking Christianity, but not with much similarity at all. His outcome was fear and exclusion, that left out certain politicians or homosexuals or other creatures. Once, he tried giving out booklets on the Bible, fearing that a lack of conversion would damn them, and maybe him for lack of effort as well. This religion was about the individual mustering fierce certitude and how insistently they could banish doubts.

It didn’t really work for Mark, which is why we kept talking about it. He would ask what my sermons were about, never quite satisfied that my content and the core truth of the Bible is basically a repetition of “Jesus loves you.” Mark couldn’t go to a worship service, and so in some way our discussions were the most church he got, an example of Jesus coming to find us in our “mutual conversation and consolation” (in the words of Martin Luther), of community that encourages and supports each other.

Through it all, Mark remained skeptical of the good and gracious God in Christ that I was trying to preach to him, one who was more ready to love than we are to accept, whose life stretches long past our faults and brokenness. From early conversations, when I was less than a year out of seminary and these theological arguments were still at the front of my mind, to his last weeks when I’d gotten too distracted to find time to be so insistent. In the end, because I couldn’t convince Mark and couldn’t save him and have to say goodbye, all I can do is commend him—and myself—to this God of love, hoping in grace and trusting in mercy.

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