silent alarms

Bank corner. Laurel, Mississippi. Russell Lee 1939,
Library of Congress Collection

I’ve run into our past again.

Not just once, but repeatedly.

I want to write about these meetings, but I wrestle with the words for days and weeks until I choke them out.

It’s funny, isn’t it? How something innocently trips a wire and sets off alarms no one hears but you.

Someone must hear it . . . But no. The world hears nothing. Sees nothing.

* * * * *

The first came up in a meeting at work. I was sure the alarm showed on my face, so I looked down, writing nothing on a creative brief.

Ah, relief! — I didn’t have to write this story that created an instant knot in my throat. And then, weeks later, I did.

Edit this and rewrite it with more emotion. 

The story was about a little girl whose daddy went to prison for credit card fraud he’d committed to support his prescription drug abuse.

The hours I spent in that job were a George Bailey-esque angel journey through what might  have been.

Even now, looking back at an old email exchange with a lawyer, I feel a little faint.

At the time, I didn’t understand. All I could see was a debt that was being repaid by garnishing his wages . . . all of them at once . . . leaving our family in poverty.

Some would say, and did say, he deserved it.

That we, the kids and I, deserved it, they would never say. And yet, our lot was tied together . . .

The debt was paid off by God’s grace and provision within a few months, but we were left to wonder if there was more coming. And to this day, we don’t know.

I wrote. For hours. With a box of kleenex.

* * * * *

Deserving . . . a filter I must constantly apply to my fundraising writing. Will donors see the person as deserving? Of their dollars? Of their sympathy? Of God’s grace?

The wire is tripped in a conference room by someone whose vision and passion for outcasts pierces my heart:

Jesus came to set prisoners free. And all of us have been in a prison of some sort: anger, abuse, greed, discontent, unforgiveness . . .

We nod in response. We believe that not one of us is deserving of God’s grace.

There is a debt hanging over our heads and we are blissfully oblivious. All of us fall short. All. Not just law-violators. Not just cheaters. Not just drunks. All.

. . . but now we’re back to what is marketable. What Christians will respond to.

People respond to transformation, someone says.

* * * * *

Another story comes across my desk.

A family leaves Southern California in search of a new life in Washington. What they find is no work, welfare and rain.

But can you make it compelling? they say.

Easy. . . It’s my story, too . . .

I haven’t been back to Tacoma alone in eight years and it’s only an hour away.

I am surprised, after so many years in the country, to realize we’d been such city-dwellers. Our old house is just blocks from downtown.

Curious, I take a side street and drive to the house.

How many times did I walk up and down these streets, pushing a heavy double stroller, coaxing my older kids and bribing them with a popsicle, worrying about what we would eat, about how we’d pay the rent?

I see myself — she’s so young, so thin (but thinks she’s fat), and has so much hardship to go through still. I feel like she’s not even me. A lifetime ago.

How have you experienced transformation?

The question takes me by surprise. I’m not prepared for this.

And yet I am.

Down the street from the room where we sit is the bank with the great, ornate, old-world hall where I sat small and pleading, weak with misery, eight years ago . . .

The manager places stop payments at no fee. She closes the account and sets up a new one in my name only. She gives me a small line of credit. The kindness I received from a corporation still astounds me.

Up a few blocks is the unemployment office where Dave reported in every week. Where he waited in line with the rest of Tacoma’s poor. Where month after month the job search was fruitless.

The sun pours through the tall windows, and I think how to answer this big question.

Transformation is not just something I market. We have lived it. Dave and I.

We are not the same people who came to this city ten years ago. We are not the same people who thought they were experiencing rock-bottom right here, just blocks away. We are not the same people who left a ministry years now ago, in shame.

I know real transformation is possible. I say. I have seen it in my husband. He is nearly five years sober and a changed man.

Amen, they say. And I am freed by their affirmation.

So I tell them that I am still in the process of transformation. A transformation that began right here in this city when a good little Baptist family in seminary was blindsided by addiction. A transformation that is still going on.

I tell them that I understand now what I didn’t even then — that there is no difference between me and an addict. We are all saved by God’s grace and mercy.

I tell them I’m still discovering that I am a sinner. That though there were times I thought I was better than Dave, I really wasn’t.

I tell them that my sins of attitude, of speech, are “acceptable” ones. The ones we find not as repulsive as dirty-and-sleeping-on-the-streets drunkenness. And yet I know that they are.

We are all addicted to something, says one . . . .

. . . . I’ve read your blog, says the other. It’s why he wanted to meet me.

Keep writing, they say. There is not enough written about addiction.

I am astonished. They do not know I have been overwhelmed with this burden of writing hard things. Pestered with feelings of worthlessness. That I’ve been shrinking from the fight to be heard in a noisy world.

And another wire is tripped.

This time, however, the alarm that sounds is just a still, small voice. A voice I strained to hear in this very city. The voice that told me to stay when I longed to run. The voice that tells me someday this will all work together for your good and for My glory. 

And He says, You see, I told you so.