It was the first day back to preschool after Christmas break, and my three sons and I were off to a slow start. It was four degrees below zero outside, so I was in no hurry to take them to afternoon preschool. Still dressed in our pajamas, we sat munching on peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.
As we ate upstairs, flames from an old stove licked at the walls and scorched the ceiling below us in the family room. Oblivious to the danger we were in (the smoke detectors malfunctioned and never sounded), I sent my three children downstairs to their lower-level bedroom to get dressed for the day. When I went downstairs to check on their progress five minutes later, smoke streamed through the basement hall into their bedroom where they played with their Christmas toys, unaware of what was happening. Panic-stricken, I dashed from room to room, yelling, "What's burning?"
When I got to the end of the hall, our family room was engulfed in flames. Like a train gaining speed and getting closer, the room rumbled and shook as heat and fire consumed plastic, wood, walls, and floor. I knew I couldn't battle the blaze myself with our household fire extinguisher. "Run!" I shouted. We tore out of the basement door and ran down the block in bare feet, frantically knocking on neighbors' doors for help. Adrenalin pumped so forcefully through my body, I wasn't even aware I'd sprained my ankle or that our feet were freezing in the polar air.
In the safety of my friend's living room across the street, I held my boys tightly, comforting them and thanking God we were safe. Waves of shock rode through me as I envisioned our house burning. I wanted to break down and cry, but the boys were already upset enough without seeing their mother fall apart.
In the minutes that followed, I dared one peek out my neighbor's window. The smoke was so thick, I could barely see our house across the street. Firefighters swarmed the house like a SWAT team. Water hoses snaked through the front door and doused everything while workers with axes smashed windows to relieve the heat. My stomach turned. We've lost everything.
A short while later, when my husband, Dan, rushed home from work to make sure we were safe, we walked over to the house to assess the damage. What had been a home of post-Christmas clutter was now a cave of putrid-smelling rubble. The family room was a smoldering mess of burnt beams and melted linoleum. You'd never guess we'd owned a white upholstered futon draped with a souvenir blanket from Mexico, or a doll house my uncle had built for me when I was twelve. No sign remained of the brand new Power Ranger tent or Little Tyke's art desk. Worst of all, our family photos, baby books, and wedding albums had disintegrated into ash.
I was devastated. Where will we go now that our home has been destroyed? I wept. How can we cope without our things? What will we do without picture memories of our children?
Our family stayed in hotels for nearly two weeks, then moved into a sparsely furnished apartment, bringing with us only one laundry basket filled with clothes and toiletries for the five of us. When I dropped the basket to the floor, it made a resounding thud that echoed off the bare walls, reminding me of how little we now possessed. I sat in a rented chair and cried. As tears flowed, they brought with them a torrent of memories of the previous year, and the lessons God was teaching me about material possessions.
Five months before the fire, we had sold our house in Illinois to risk a business venture in Minneapolis. Though Dan and I both had felt God's leading to make this fresh start, I uprooted with great resistance. I knew I was saying good-bye to the best friends I'd ever known and to the security of family nearby.
The move might not have felt so scary if we'd known where we were going, but we hadn't yet located a new home or a site for our business in the Twin Cities. So we locked all our belongings in mini-storage and I moved to my in-laws' cabin in Wisconsin with our three boys while Dan rented an apartment and house-hunted in Minnesota.
While I tried to adjust to our interim housing and the concept of borrowing my in-laws' belongings, all I could picture were our paisley print sofa and oak end tables, our books, and the memorabilia I'd saved, all gathering dust and mildew in storage. Then one Sunday after church, in the midst of my self-pity and whining, it hit me how much of my identity and security I derived from my home and possessions. Without any of these trappings, I felt vulnerable and anxious. So when we found our duplex in Minneapolis, I quickly immersed myself in setting up house, relieved God's little lesson in letting go of things seemed to have come to an end.
Fast forward to our post-inferno residence. Though it was comfortable, it wasn't my idea of home. We had no choice but to rent every single item necessary for a functioning home, from the beds we slept in to the spoons we ate with. I felt like a prisoner of circumstance, sentenced to live without ownership rights to anything. Gradually, as I learned to accept the situation we were in, it dawned on me anew: I don't have ownership rights to anything. Everything I have is because of God's gracewhether it's my next breath or our next paycheck. Since when is a comfortable lifestyle one of my inalienable rights?
SlowlypainfullyI began to recognize the difference between what is mine (nothing) and what is God's (everything). And as I struggled to gain this perspective, it became easier for me to see the benefit of having lost so much. Without any of our material goods left to define us, we were poor by the world's standards but still rich through our relationship to Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 8:9). Borrowing everything, we were completely unattached to the encumbrances of the world.
Looking back, I see how the fire was the culmination of a process of prying my fingers loose from the things I'd held on to so dearly. Like iron that's purified in the white heat of a furnace, God used the fire to reveal my tendency to find more security in the things of this world than in his promises to care for us. Movingthen losing our possessions to fireproved the futility of becoming too emotionally attached to a home and everything in it. Rarely does one choose to get rid of everything and rebuild from ground zero. But that was the gift of the fire. It forced us to start over.
After the contractors completely gutted and rebuilt the interior of the duplex, we moved back in and began reestablishing our home. Starting from scratch, I've been able to add back into our lives things that enhance it rather than mindlessly allow clutter to infiltrate our living space. For instance, we allow each of our kids three shelves on which to store their toys. When this space is full, they can't add anything more until they've given up something they no longer use. Similarly, I keep in my closet only clothes and shoes I wear regularly. If I go one season without using an article of clothing, I pass it on to the Salvation Army or to the consignment shop. Our goal is to live more closely to the level of need rather than of want.
Paring down our lifestyle has freed up more time to spend with each other instead of maintaining our possessions like I used to do. That's not to say we're never challenged by the lure of accumulating more. In fact, as I write this, we're in the midst of settling into a new house we recently purchased. Knowing how subtly my heart attaches to the place I call home, I'll have to work hard at remembering the lessons I've learned. I never want to deceive myself and let the comfort of our home seem like a safer haven than I have with God.
I'm sure I haven't finished learning about letting go of things and becoming more attached to the Lord. But one thing I do know for certain: To lose was to gain. Outwardly, we have less. But what remains on the interiorthe contents of my heartis the security of knowing I have an indestructible home with God. This is one emotional attachment even fire can't destroy.
Marian V. Liautaud is a freelance writer who lives with her family in the Minneapolis area.
Copyright © 1997 by Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman Magazine.