Jul/Aug 2004 Nonfiction

The Heathen Next Door

by Susanna Dyer

If you ever get the hankering to follow Jesus, you'll find there's this annoying thing called a "community" that comes with the whole deal. Your community, which is essentially a bunch of other people who attend your church and live within a fifteen-mile radius of you, can be great when you want rides to the airport, free coffee and bagels on Sunday morning, prayers for your aunt Joan who's having a mole removed from her shoulder, and the occasional kick in the pants from people who remind you of the God you said you wanted to follow.

But things get complicated if your way of following that God begins to look different from the community's. In a little spiritual collective that likes to see itself as a "body," it's easy to feel like a leprous limb if you do any extracurricular thinking (and especially if you do some unsanctioned living). You try to hide your apostasies so others in the community won't decide you're going to plop off with a lifeless thud.

For me, community these days manifests itself in the form of Todd, my Christian neighbor next door. For several reasons, Todd thinks I'm a heathen. And the problem is, I don't know if he isn't right.

When I first moved into my apartment, Todd had no reason to doubt the destination of my eternal soul. Soon after I arrived in the building, we got to chatting on the front step, and we found we both loved Jesus, both worked in high tech, and were both about the same age (32, give or take). Living in the San Francisco Bay Area—where, it's estimated, fewer than five percent of the population attends religious services regularly—both of us were also accustomed to furtively scanning other singles for signs of Christianity, like members of the Resistance looking for compatriots in World War II France.

In me, Todd thought he'd hit pay dirt. During my first weeks there, he knocked on the door almost nightly and engaged me in friendly conversation on the front steps. As I turned to go inside, I'd take a last glance at his eyes, which glittered with expectation. Already he may have mapped out the next few months of our relationship: jointly hosted Bible studies, pizza-and-video parties, visits next door to borrow a package of Ramen noodles—and possibly the growing buds of something more than a chaste friendship.

Early on, Todd's optimism was tested by back-to-back incidents that suggested there was a grievous limp in my spiritual walk. About a month after I moved in, I invited him in for a chat one evening as I unpacked groceries. When he came in, he saw the six-pack of Heineken I'd bought sitting on the kitchen counter. "Beer!" he yelped, taking a step backward with his hand to his stomach, as though he'd stumbled on a pile of dismembered body parts. I slipped the beer in the pantry, lifted my eyebrows innocently, and said "Yeah?" I knew he was shocked to see a Christian woman buying alcohol, and a small part of me was enjoying his discomfort. He quickly regained his composure, murmuring, "Uh, that's—that's OK," and his eyes dropped to the floor.

But things got worse a few moments later, when Todd spotted a book about how to pray on my living room bookshelf. He asked cheerfully if I'd found the book "valuable," and I called from the kitchen, "Sure—as long as you think God is your personal Santa Claus and checks off prayer requests like items on a Christmas list." After a long moment of silence in the living room, Todd's hollow voice said, "Oh." I knew he'd learned the same philosophy of prayer at church that I had: God longs to give us our hearts' desire if only we pray hard enough. But I'd seen during the previous couple of years that no matter what you pray for, God pretty much does whatever he wants—and then you're either happy and thankful or you're pissed off at him for years. "So what's the point?" I asked Todd. "I mean, maybe God doesn't even want us to pray for this thing or that. Maybe he just wants us to check in with him every day. You know?" Todd's mouth went slack and he stared at me blankly for a moment. Then he lifted his chin and said stiffly: "You just have to have childlike faith."

It wasn't a productive discussion. But on the basis of this evening, Todd began to get his measure of me. Christians are always looking for clues to your character, so they'll know at what level of esteem to hold you or how to pray for you. Todd in particular seemed to need to fit life into a tidy theology before he could move forward. He's a small guy, with tight, square shoulders and a face like a Japanese military officer in a World War II film—all watchfulness and inscrutability. When he leaves in the morning, he doesn't just lock his front door: he locks it, then unlocks it, locks it again, and then lingers on the doorstep for another minute or so before finally departing. I can hear the loud slam of his door, the echo of the deadbolt—snap, snap, snap—and the haunting jingle of his keys on the doorstep. I always wonder: is he testing the soundness of the lock? Trying to remember if he turned off the coffee pot? Who knows? But with the same deliberation, Todd struggled to reconcile my beer-drinking and cynicism with his idea of how the Christian life should look.

He hadn't yet decided that I was a heathen: when Christian guys are interested in you, they tend to see your weaknesses of spirit as growth areas where they can be of use to you. So at this point, I think Todd merely concluded that I had been bruised by some mysterious sadness in my past, and that I had intense, probing questions born of the ache in my soul. He appeared on my step one evening with an anthology of essays by Christian authors, telling me he thought I'd "really enjoy it." And one morning as I was leaving for work, I almost trampled a brown envelope that had been laid neatly on my doorstep: inside was a sheet of paper with a handsomely formatted quote about how suffering brings us closer to God. Clipped to it was a note from Todd: "I can tell you suffered a great disappointment in the past. I hope this quote will be encouraging to you."

The funny thing was, I did have some doubts and questions, but Todd couldn't have guessed the extent of them. Two years before, I'd been a card-carrying member of the church community that Todd still called home. I had come to that community fresh in the wake of a messy breakup with a guy, and in the ecstatic newborn flush of loving God, I thought I'd finally discovered a life free of heartaches and messy breakups with guys. In my gratitude, I did what so many new Jesus-followers do: I spent a couple of years craving godliness, striving to wring every nonspiritual thought out of my brain, and working hard to be a faithful member of my community.

Like any secret society, that community had a unique code of behavior that identified its members—and, in their view, showed their corporate closeness to God. I eagerly adopted the code: I said "really" a lot to indicate a heightened level of emotional experience, and said I was "feeling led" by God when I made important decisions (for example, "I'm REALLY feeling led to find a new job"). When anything went wrong—from a head cold to a flat tire—I made guesses at "what God was doing," assuming that everything was something God was "doing" to shape me or my faith. (For example, "This cold has REALLY been sapping my energy. I think God is trying to teach me to rely on his strength.") I attended a social activity with other Christians every weekend, unless I found I'd been "doing too much lately" and it was adversely affecting my time with God. In that case, I'd say something like, "I REALLY just want to stay home this weekend and spend some time with God."

When I did go to a party, I'd sit in a room of young people with smiles that twinkled without warmth, like clear Christmas lights, and have a strained twenty-minute conversation with someone about his plans to install a high-speed Internet connection. There'd usually be one person at the party who had recently found Jesus and was so on fire about it that she spilled her guts to everyone over the Brie and crackers, but most of them looked at her as if she had a communicable disease: this much naked self-revelation was simply not in good taste. After a few hours of acceptable levels of self-revelation (that is, hardly any), I left the party not knowing most of the people there any better than when I arrived. Still, I told myself that I was having a much better time being alive than all the "lost" and "searching" people in the world who didn't know God.

But none of my efforts, I discovered, could prevent another messy breakup with a guy—even a Christian guy. I jumped through all the hoops: I was "feeling led" to date the guy; I prayed long and hard for the relationship to work. So when it ended in rejection and heartbreak, I felt as though I'd fallen off a speeding train and come to rest in the mud. At church, someone might tell me energetically about the insects that were eating her rose bushes, and "what God was doing" in the situation, and I'd just stare at her with a feeling of disbelief. I was starting to feel trapped in a surreal episode of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood": we all crept into a little playhouse we'd constructed, smiled sweetly and simpered that we were neighbors, and delighted each other with finger puppet plays about the God we imagined to be dancing around us, arranging events for our benefit, gilding the edges of our precious, self-involved understanding of him.

But when I was lying motionless in the mud, staring up at the peaceful blue sky, none of this fretting over "what God was doing" seemed to have anything to do with actually knowing God. I didn't give up on God—but I was gradually giving up on my community.

Maybe my weariness showed in my face. Maybe it was evident in my attitude about prayer, or my sporadic church attendance: Todd, whose kitchen window afforded him total surveillance of our parking lot, must have noticed that my car remained still in its space on Sunday mornings. Instead of going to church, I'd sleep in on Sundays, then head to a café around noon (after Todd had left for church) to spend the day writing. If I bumped into Todd during the week, he often asked what church I was going to, and I'd throw out a name to satisfy his curiosity. But the truth was, I didn't want to talk to him about my spiritual struggles. I knew he'd assume I wanted to get past the phase I was in and find my way back to the place where knowing Jesus felt just like living next door to Mr. Rogers. But I only wanted to be where I was, ask my questions, and take as long as I needed to find the answers.

Still, Todd continued to show interest, even as I gave him reasons to add marks to the "heathen" column on my scorecard. There were knocks on my door almost nightly, on random pretexts. There were a couple more notes on my doorstep—an invitation to a movie, and to dinner—tucked under the welcome mat and bearing the mat's soggy, gridlike imprint. I grimaced and declined both invitations with the unimaginative excuse, "I can't." I figured if Todd pressed for further explanation, I'd simply tell him I'd been doing too much lately and wanted to stay home and spend some time with God.

But after several months, I made it clear I wasn't interested in Todd when I started dating another guy. One balmy evening in June, my new boyfriend and I were returning to my place after a wine-tasting party, chattering in a loose, slightly tipsy way. As we walked into the circle of light under the porch lamp, Todd appeared on his own step from the opposite direction, like a phantom emerging from the shadows. "Oh, hi!" I gushed. "How are you?" As I fumbled in my purse for my house key, Todd reached for his own doorknob, sizing us up carefully with his eyes. "Fine," he said flatly. With a wave of relief, I found my key and plunged it in the lock, not even thinking to introduce Todd to my date. It was funny: someone who should've been a trusted member of my community seemed, at that moment, more like a KGB informant.

After that night, Todd and I didn't talk for awhile. If my new boyfriend happened to arrive at my place when Todd was entering or leaving his apartment, I'd see Todd's dark eyes scanning him up and down, the corners of his mouth turned down. My boyfriend was not the rosy-cheeked, twenty-something dude in faded chino shorts that I would've been dating if I were following the code of my old Christian community. Instead, he sported a beard, had gray mixed in with his dark hair, and sometimes wore his polo shirts untucked—which to Todd probably signaled some sort of intellectual independence, as though he might consider God an improvable proposition.

So there were no more notes under the door mat, no knocks on the door, and no conversations on the step. There was no more generosity in Todd's view of my behavior, either: the Heineken he'd once managed to overlook now drew withering gazes when he saw me taking the empty bottles to the recycling bin. If I bumped into him on the doorstep, he only gave me a cool glance and mumbled "Hello" through motionless lips, before ducking into his apartment.

After a few months of icy relations, however, Todd thawed suddenly and for no apparent reason. From my experience in the Christian community, I guessed that he'd probably told friends about my wanton behavior: the beer, the bearded boyfriend, the infrequent church attendance. They, in turn, had decided that I was "searching"—quite possibly on the brink of being "lost." After a brief discussion of "what God was doing" in the situation, they probably suggested that Todd show me warmth and compassion, so I'd be drawn back into the arms of God's community. As a side benefit, Todd could soothe his bruised ego by showing that he was holy enough to faithfully extend me a Christ-like hand, even though he'd been rejected.

So the friendly greetings on the door step resumed, and Todd's stony face was open and welcoming again. He tried to involve me in group activities: one day I got an email from him, inviting me and several others to dinner and a movie. Oddly, his email had the fizzy, impersonal tone of a press release: "It's Oscar time again!" wrote Todd. "Let's prepare for Oscar season by seeing one of last year's notable films. 'Finding Forrester' is the charming story of a veteran writer who takes an aspiring student under his wing, and ends up on a journey of self-discovery. If interested in attending, please meet at the theater at 6:30."

It was bizarre; I felt like Todd was my cruise director. But this kind of manufactured good cheer was typical of the well-meaning, disjointed group of strangers that comprised my old Christian community. Individually, any of them might've been someone I could get to know and enjoy over time. But together, they reminded me why I never felt a part of their world: they worked harder to adhere to a code of conduct they had defined as "spiritual" than they did simply to be themselves. Lacking genuine comfort with each other as individuals, instead they put on a helium-filled production of what looked to them like camaraderie, all dutifully taking their parts, assuring themselves that they belonged to this world, and that it was the best world to belong to—if only because of God, the one thing that had drawn them together in the first place.

When I didn't accept Todd's invitations, I moved a few more steps away from the shallow water of his good opinion. But one Tuesday morning, I finally dove off the edge into the abyss of heathenism. My boyfriend had spent the previous night at my place. At about 9:00 in the morning, I walked him to the front door and opened it to see Todd, poised on his own step with a plastic grocery bag. Todd stared at the two of us where we stood—me in guy's boxer shorts, my boyfriend with bed hair and rumpled clothes.

I gaped at Todd for a second, then said, "Hi." He mumbled something unintelligible and lurched to open his door. I turned quickly and pulled my boyfriend's arm, propelling him in the opposite direction toward his car. "Was that OK?" he whispered, but I shushed him irritably. Because I could tell it definitely wasn't OK. The look on Todd's face told me he had realized, for the first time, that my male companion was staying the whole night at my place—and we didn't just spend all that time talking about what God was doing. The truth was horribly clear to him: premarital sex was happening in the apartment next door.

Any neighborliness in Todd's eyes now gave way to a dark, sodden-eyed distrust. When I saw him on the front steps, he barely mumbled my name; if I glanced at his face, I saw a look that spoke of death, destruction, and a thousand years in the eighth circle of hell. This season of judgment, which lasted literally for months, made me feel my life was shameful, and that I was unworthy of human fellowship.

And strangely, I acted as if Todd were absolutely right. On Sunday mornings, I didn't leave for the café until I'd heard the snap-snap-snap of Todd's deadbolt—my signal that he'd left for church and it was safe to walk out with dirty jeans, messy hair, and my laptop slung over my shoulder. If my boyfriend spent the night, I'd walk him quietly into the entrance hall the next morning, wincing at each creak of the floorboards, and send him out the door with a shove and a "Shhh!"

Sometimes I wondered why I went through these silly exercises. I think it's because I wasn't sure if I approved of my own behavior. I knew I'd make fantastic sermon material for a pastor from my old community, who would compare me to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, running and hiding from God after they realized they were sinners. I knew that because I demonstrated physical love for a man I wasn't married to, my old community would question my devotion to God and to all things pure and good. It was difficult to reject what that community had taught me about knowing God; if I did, I'd feel like I was rejecting God himself.

But a stubborn part of me knew that I was nowhere close to rejecting God. At the most painful time in my life, when I thought I'd lost love because I lost a bad relationship with a man, God had been there, showing me what love really is: a patient, generous presence of lasting good will. I still clung to that love, sought it out. If I slipped away from the community Todd and I once held in common, it was because I hadn't found that kind of love to be a governing force there. Other forces prevailed: the need to feel righteous, the need to have intellectual debates about religious minutiae, the need to look like a community rather than be one. Todd was a perfect example: he never asked me friendly questions about what was happening in my life—like "Hey, tell me about your new boyfriend," or "Did you have a bad experience at church?"

Instead, when Todd finally resumed talking to me, it was with a vague mistrust that bordered on hostility. His questions were usually like these: "Who are your friends? Where do they go to church?" Shortly after Easter, Todd asked what I'd done for Easter weekend. I told him I went to Tiburon, and he probed, "Did you go to church there?" I said, "Yeah, I went to—oh, what was it called?" and groped in my memory for the name of the church I'd visited that Sunday. As I did so, Todd cracked an ironic smile and snorted, "You can't even remember the name of the church?" In his eyes, I was derelict, separated from life and belonging.

In a small way, I was doing Todd a favor. I'd heard numerous people at my old church who'd been rejected by a love interest, later thanking God that something had shown them how unfit the person was to be their partner. It took the edge off the loss, even making it seem like a gain: they hadn't been rejected, God was just protecting them from a bad life. A man I knew at church once told me of a brief, difficult relationship that hadn't worked out, then said slowly, "Six months later, she was pregnant by some OTHER GUY." He didn't even have to say, "And I could've ended up with someone like that!"—his look invited me to draw the conclusion myself. In the same way, my being a heathen would've comforted Todd, proving that God had spared him from an alliance with someone who might damage his spiritual walk.

And in a way, I understood that Todd was merely being a good member of his community, identifying and resisting what was not accepted by the group. Really, this is all a spiritual community does: it continually reassures you that life works the way you have come to believe it does, and that you are living in the way that will bring you closest to God. It protects the investment all its members have made in their code of faith by telling them: Yes, we've got it right. Sometimes I miss the sense of safety it offered, the fellowship of a shared belief in our superior destiny. Sometimes I'll wake up at 3:00 A.M., my mind clogged with the horrible fear that I'm completely alone and far from God, and will continue to be unless I return to the community I left.

But when I wake up the next morning, the first sound I hear is the slam of Todd's door, and the snap-snap-snap of his lock. And I remember that my old community was a place where people sought to adhere to a code, rather than get to know their fellow travelers on their journey to the truth. If God was present in that community—and I do think he was—then I've decided he could be almost anywhere. I like to imagine someone from that community asking me "what God is doing" in my life these days, because I'd say God has been showing me he doesn't live within one set of walls or one group of people, like a plump feudal lord squatting in a castle. He's a roving spirit who has continued to walk with me even during the last couple of years, while I've wandered in a surprisingly livable wilderness. And I think he can be found wherever anyone—heathen or not—is seeking him out.


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