It wasn’t exactly a house call. It was a nursing home call on an eighty-five year old who had talked to me about his depression a handful of times over the last few decades. He was there because the deacons of his church knew that he was not making it on his own and they, with great effort, organized his minimal finances and found him a place that seemed to be better than what he could afford.

He is not an especially pleasant guy; he leans toward the ornery and critical. He complained about depression for much of his life, and he could do it as he pointed the accusing finger at other people. He had worn most every relationship down to the bone and was relatively alone. Now add some intellectual decline to the picture. I was, however, very pleased the deacons let me know where he was, and I was looking forward to seeing him.

He was lying fully dressed in his bed—his roommate was out (he had some nasty name for the roommate)—and we greeted each other warmly. “I’d like your advice,” he quickly said.

Always ready to toss out some advice, I took off my shoes, propped my feet up on the side of his bed, and was ready to hunker down and hear some details of his life.

He then launched into a story line that I had heard before. He rehearsed some church debates from the 1950’s and made it clear that he was the last line of defense to save the church from heresy. Interspersed through his rant were specific criticisms about other people, especially one who had visited him in his old apartment and said he was “dirty.” I tried to turn the conversation to something more edifying, like anything loosely connected to Jesus, but that persuaded him that I too was one of the heretics. Within ten minutes I was being accused of being a Freudian, which I think was the worst thing he could imagine calling a biblical counselor, and I was asked to leave. I had said about twenty words.

I was tempted to leave. I had seen him in this state before and he could be a stubborn coot. Though I have always believed that “don’t cast pearls before swine” is a passage to be used only once in a lifetime, and I had already used it, I considered using this proof-text again. But then spiritual clarity kicked in.

First, the Freudian accusation was wrong and I thought it was worth mentioning. “You are making that up—that is just stupid. Why would you ever say that to me?”

There are more delicate and godly ways of saying such things, but I knew him well enough and he was being stupid. Surprisingly—stunningly—he backed off and said he had “overstated.” That, for him, was the pinnacle of contrition, and I accepted his apology.

Then I held his hand. “We are Christian men, my dear brother. We want our legacy to be love, not winning arguments on matters that few understand. It is no longer the time to fight theological wars. We can leave it to younger men. We want to love.”

He quickly responded, “All my relationships are bad.”

Now we were getting somewhere. The sparks of humility and insight were starting to fly. He continued, “I don’t even think I am a Christian.” He was looking through eyes overflowing with tears.

“I disagree, but why do you say that?” His string of broken relationships was probably enough to make him wonder if he was spiritually dead, but I wanted to hear more from him.

He leaned in my direction, lowered his voice, and began to talk of a lifetime of viewing pornography. In his eighty-five years, he had mentioned it once, two decades ago, to a friend who was no longer a friend. And now I was the honored friend, and he would not rid himself of me so easily.

That is why the “dirty” comment had been so piercing. That is why he was so ornery. Indeed, he had sinned in so many relationships, but he was also trying to keep conversations from getting personal and wanted to keep people as far away as possible.

So we talked about Jesus—the one who loves the shamed, outcast and needy, and he was certainly confessing his need. We prayed to both know Jesus’ love and talk about it to others. Almost before we finished praying he was overflowing with names and faces from the nursing home, and he was imagining ways to love them.

I can’t wait to visit again.