Strangers in the House


(system) #1

Along with thousands of my global brothers and sisters, I spent the first Sabbath of this month congregated in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. We listened to Ted Wilson reconstruct a set of old and tired walls around Seventh-day Adventism and then pronounce the church ready to “go forward” despite so many secular threats. As the new president spoke, I was reminded of an essay I wrote last fall reflecting on my own experience being burglarized in a new neighborhood. I had just returned to a very traditional, very Southern town after working among less dense outposts of the church for several years. I hoped to expand the breadth of the experiences of my neighbors; my neighbors hoped I kept cash and computers under the mattress.

September, 2009--Strangers burglarized my house last week, for the second time in three days. Lightning may not the same spot twice, but apparently the folks in our neighborhood do. The first time they came to my house, we were away at church. Despite warnings from our neighbors, we left a window unlocked. It was eleven o'clock on clear Sabbath morning after all. The burglars found their way through the window, over a table of antiques and into the nether-reaches of a closet where they collected a digital camera and carefully retraced their path back out the window. My sister discovered the empty closet cubby while she was changing out of her church clothes that evening. She called the police, filed a report and resolved to be more careful about securing the house before she left.

On Monday, I told myself, I'll finally purchase that renter's insurance policy I should have bought a month ago. Monday morning came and went and I didn't call the insurance agent. That evening, as we were returning from walking the dog, Maggie, we saw something suspicious in the alley, a food dehydrator. There are not many raw foodists, or Adventists in our neighborhood so we were pretty sure it was our dehydrator sitting by the curb. I told my sister to wait while Maggie and I went toward the back door. It was wide open. Coincidence, perhaps. Disconcerting, certainly. We searched the house in darkness (the burglars had cut the power) and found no one. We called the police, again. The same detective responded.

“What did they take?” he asked.

“My carpenter's belt and tools,” I told him.

In sum, the burglars had collected only the tools of our trades. They left the stereo equipment, bicycles, antiques and laptops behind, but took my sweaty, starched tool belt which carries little value at the pawn shop but holds years of collected and constructed memories. And they took my sister's camera, a tool which she'd received as a gift in recognition of the same. They rifled through our trash, my hope chest, the hall closets and all the cupboards of our kitchen. They did not seem to be in a hurry and yet like rude house guests, they put their feet on the furniture, left the bed unmade and steered clear of the dishwasher. For good measure, they shattered the glass of the window they first used to access our house, but then elected to enter through the back door, instead.

Why had these people chosen my house on that night to rob? Why couldn't they have disrupted someone else's life? We were supposed to be doing the right thing. We were trying to reach out to our neighbors. Or were we?

On Sabbath, while burglars were letting themselves into my house, I was visiting another house, worshiping. At least that's what I was trying to do. It was difficult for the din of the temple, so to speak: babies crying, teens chatting and adults staring each other down (and texting!) rather than listening to the teaching of the pastor. How could these people disrespect and defile the house of G-d so? Who invited them? A helpful church member explained that it was because they were “new Christians,” unfamiliar with “the ways” of this church. It didn't occur to these brothers and sisters that screaming babies and scornful glances might be disrespectful. This church member told me that through a newly-embraced, corporate open door, came a lot of upper-middle class, semi-affluent, generally-literate fray. Despite the distractions, I heard the pastor's teaching of the importance of making G-d the focus of our story.

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I moved in to my neighborhood with little understanding of the local conditions and a certain sense of rightness not foreign to many of the well-meaning elder sisters of the church. I was going to make the neighborhood good again. I would show my neighbors the inherent evil of their actions. Why was I so surprised then when like a rebellious youth who refuses to tuck in her shirt, my neighbors lashed out? I didn't even know the names of the children I would scold.

But lay up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moths nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6:20,21).

Jesus did not teach us to build taller gates, higher more security guards, or nominate more deaconesses. He commanded us to store our treasure in heaven so that when the thieves take our earthly possessions or the strange new sisters let their children scream and dance, our hearts aren't broken. Relationships--with our family, friends, neighbors--which reflect Christ's love are the treasure we seek.

Tradition ought be a response to the love of Christ, not a replacement for a relationship with Him. Some level of order, or boundaries, facilitate better relationships. I will certainly repair the window and replace the broken door lock. I may move to another house in a different part of the neighborhood where my family may feel more safe. And later, should I have screaming babies of my own, I'll take them to the foyer to assess their needs. Maybe while I'm out there, I'll have a chance to meet a new friend. For now, I'll be sweeping up the shards of glass in the yard and praying that I learn the lessons He would have for me. __ Cameron Kuhlman writes from the Highland Park neighborhood of Chattanooga, Tennessee where he has returned to live and work after retreating to the country for a season following the events described above.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2545