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A Brother's Love: Reconnecting Amidst Trial and Turmoil

“Noel, do you have Tim’s newest phone number?” I asked my oldest son. I was concerned about Tim and felt certain additional support from family and friends would help.

“I do,” Noel replied. “I have not called him lately though,” he added. I imagined Noel busy with his work in the Army Reserves as well as his regular job.

“Could you call?” I queried. “I think he’s lonely and would love some time with a big brother.” Mentally I urged Noel to agree.

“Yeah, I can do that,” Noel answered. “I’ll try later this week.”

Satisfied, I headed to my room. It was July 2016, 2 months to go before the trial that might terminate my parental rights with Tim. I was running out of people to call who might take him out of foster care for me. I began shifting my focus towards how I might win at trial regardless of where Tim lived.

Have you ever encountered a situation where you felt let down or misunderstood by a professional who was supposed to support you? How did you cope with that disappointment?

Navigating the Legal Maze: Seeking Support Where It's Hard to Find

My newest lawyer provided me with no help in winning at trial. It seemed she saw her role not as an advocate, but rather a paper-pusher to usher me properly through the process of being tried and losing my rights.

“I have a great idea!” I told my lawyer one evening on the phone. “I’d like to ask family and friends to write supportive letters for me as testimony for the court!”

My lawyer was taken aback, responding, “You can’t submit anything like that to win the trial. It just isn’t done!”

Now it was my turn to be surprised. I’d repeatedly asked what I could or should do to prepare myself for the trial. My lawyer repeatedly answered, “Nothing.” Perhaps she was referring to her own level of effort.

I didn’t understand my lawyer’s attitude, but experience had taught me that she’d likely not submit anything I sent her to the court, even if I thought it was a good idea. Every time I had mentioned winning at trial, she’d seemed surprised I’d think such a thing was possible.

“I didn’t understand my lawyer’s attitude…Every time I mentioned winning, she’d seemed surprised.”

Throughout the summer, God continued to teach and transform me. I was eager to obey Him, but I was sometimes doing so in my own ways. I would soon question – is it possible to have a good life doing everything God’s way?

As I headed to my room, I thought about the most recent Bible verses I’d read. I was discovering themes repeated throughout Scripture. One of these was helping people who are poor. There certainly were many poor people around me in prison. Excited to obey, I considered how I might do so.

Discovering God's Guidance: Transforming Rules Into Pathways of Grace

The challenges faced by every inmate are in providing for themselves, paying for hygiene, medical visit co-pays, laundry soap and other necessities. For women, the prison did not even supply things like pads or tampons. For an inmate, a full month’s pay could be as little as $6 for full-time work, yet supplies were not sold at any discount. I would argue just the opposite – that inmates and their families are targeted for price gouging by unscrupulous companies who take advantage of people in desperate circumstances.

The prison wasn’t much different, giving only a token nod towards meeting the needs of people too poor to supply their own. A prison “indigent” status does exist, but the status was nearly impossible to achieve, requiring one to have zero dollars in their spending account for at least 2 weeks before qualifying. Since a job is mandatory, one’s three dollar, two week paycheck (for full-time work), naturally prevented indigent status.

State supplied indigent items are also laughable. It’s my opinion that whoever manufactures these products is running a scam. None of these items are usable nor even resemble the products they are meant to replace. I clearly remember using their toothpaste as glue to stick photos to the wall. It worked well….as glue.

This led many to find alternative methods for earning income, which is against prison policy. It also encouraged women to ask for or give needed items to others. This violated another rule as inmates are barred from “passing.” Passing is a term to describe giving anything to anyone, ever. Once a woman asked me for a phone number and, writing it on a piece of paper I gave it to her. Immediately a watching guard challenged what I’d done, telling me it was against the rules to give someone a piece of paper.

Nevertheless, most (if not all) inmates and even some guards give only a token nod to these rules. Like society’s obedience to street speed limits, people know what is expected but believe it’s impossible to live well within those boundaries.

In fact, to obey the rules was often considered immoral and uncaring by other inmates. “Are you going to eat that?” I was usually asked at meals. I had come to hate red apples, hard boiled eggs, and single serve drink packets. The real question being asked was, “Can I have that?” Refusal to pass uneaten items would generate an angry, perhaps even violent response such as, “You really aren’t going to share that? It’ll just go in the trash!”

Breaking the rules was expected and applauded. This behavior isn’t prison specific. Just try driving the speed limit on the highway and see how well that’s received. Breaking the law isn’t just common, it’s expected! If you don’t break the law, you’ll be heaped with abuse. Criminals aren’t special in this area, it’s human nature for all.

I had broken all these rules, from earning money outside of prison employment to passing whatever I felt like, anywhere I felt like. Mentally I agreed that these rules were rubbish, impossible to live within.

God was about to teach me that I had it all backwards. My new understanding would begin as I sought to obey God – first as He taught me that He can supply my every need and second, that He will do that for others, too.

Learning the first lesson I began to tell myself, “If I have it, I need it,” referring not only to what I desired, but some things I wished would go away like suffering. Similarly, I reminded myself, “If I don’t have it, I don’t need it.” I was beginning to understand the differences between wants and needs.

And while I was coming to accept these lessons when they applied to me, I apparently didn’t see them as true for others. I seemed to doubt God could fulfill His own promises within the confines of unlikeable prison rules.

By this time, I was earning a dollar an hour, more than many. Wanting to help people, my mind immediately went to sharing what I had. I thought I’d go further and ask people what they need and buy it for them.

At first things went well, and I felt very good about what I was doing. I would identify someone in need, and then share with them my desire to help. I began ordering items for others on canteen, passing these items to them outside of a guard’s notice and sharing more at meals.

 I seemed to doubt God could fulfill His own promises within the confines of unlikeable prison rules.

I discussed the issue with my parents. They brought the matter to their church and soon I was given more money to fund my activities in “helping others.” Carefully I kept track of all canteen receipts, adding up money I’d spent on others to be a good steward of what I’d been given in donation. I would quickly learn a valuable lesson about rules and my own abilities versus God’s abilities.

One day Jackie approached me in the day room. I’d helped her with canteen items recently and she wanted to know if I would help again. I cheerfully agreed. As was typical, she requested basic hygiene items and over-the-counter medicines.

Two weeks later her items had arrived, and we all went to canteen to pick up our orders. Leaning on the wall across from the canteen window, we waited in line. Jackie, ahead of me, stepped up to the window and gave her name. I could see the canteen worker wander off to find Jackie’s order. Shelves lined the walls, orders arranged on shelves by last name.

Returning, a worker hefted two large bags onto the counter in front of Jackie. Staring in shock, I pushed away from the wall to get a better look. Seen through the clear plastic bags were junk food, hobby craft items and other extras. Delighted, Jackie accepted her order and stepped to the side.

Retrieving my own order I stopped beside Jackie, questioning. “What is all of that?” pointing to the bags at her feet.

Following my gaze she joyfully lifted a bag and waved it at me. “Isn’t this great?” she answered excitedly. “Because of you I was able to afford all these things I don’t usually get!” I eyed the bags in dismay, her order easily totaling over one hundred dollars. I felt sick, thinking of truly needy people I could have helped instead.

Looking away I said nothing, but Jackie noted my lack of enthusiasm. Lowering her bag, she said nothing. I wondered what to do differently. How could I have been so foolish? Later in my room I prayed, asking God for wisdom. His answer was counterculture.

I opened my Bible as usual and began reading. I was in the book of Romans which I’d now read several times. This time something caught my notice and shocked me.

“Let every person be loyally subject to the governing (civil) authorities. For there is no authority except from God by His permission, His sanction, and those that exist do so by God’s appointment. Therefore he who resists and sets himself up against the authorities resists what God has appointed and arranged. And those who resist will bring down judgment upon themselves [receiving the penalty due them].” Romans 13:1-2

Was this really saying that God was in control of the prison, its rules, and those who enforced them? Was it really telling me that resisting prison authority was the same as resisting God’s authority? I wanted to obey God but doing so in this way was radical.

I didn’t understand how caring for the poor could be done inside of the rules, yet I knew God would never contradict Himself. It was not His character, but my own mischaracterization of Him, that was the issue here. I prayed again for clarity and resolved to start following the prison rules.

Lessons in Obedience: Embracing Change Within and Beyond the Bars

Soon I found this was difficult and possibly even dangerous. I began the next morning at breakfast. “Are you going to eat your boiled egg?” the lady seated beside me asked. Our mealtime was nearly over, and it still sat untouched on my tray.

Tensing, I considered how to answer, finally responding with a quick, “No.” I looked away, hoping to dismiss the conversation before it went further.

Instead, the lady continued, “Can I have it?” pointing at the egg on my tray. My eyes followed her hand, staring at the egg. I was finding a new reason to hate them.

I swallowed a lump in my throat and answered another quick “No.” I braced myself for her response and wasn’t disappointed.

“What! How rude is that! It’s just going into the trash. What’s wrong with you?” Slapping the table for emphasis she stared at me, demanding I explain myself. Heads turned at the commotion, others began to stare.

Face burning, I pushed my tray in her direction and mumbled, “Just take it. Whatever.” She grabbed the egg and turned away. Ashamed, I hoisted my tray and made my way to the dishwashers, hoping to prevent another request. I resolved to do better next time.

“Let every person be loyally subject to the governing (civil) authorities. For there is no authority except from God by His permission, His sanction, and those that exist do so by God’s appointment. Therefore he who resists and sets himself up against the authorities resists what God has appointed and arranged. And those who resist will bring down judgment upon themselves [receiving the penalty due them].” Romans 13:1-2

Next time became harder than I expected, as this time it was me who wanted something. I love cake, love it. While in prison I was determined to attend every meal that served cake, including muffins and cornbread in the cake category. Fearing mealtime interruptions (like a fight), I would eat my cake before anything else. I didn’t want to miss out for any reason.

It was 2 days later, and I’d missed breakfast. Hungry, I anticipated lunch and quickly ate it. Finished, I realized I was still hungry and would have to wait another 10 minutes before leaving the cafeteria. My eyes roamed the table, spotting several women apparently on a diet and ignoring their cake. My stomach was quick to note that their cakes appeared even more delicious than the one I’d been given. My eyes roved thick layers of frosting and luscious sprinkles.

Determined not to ask I sweated bullets, waiting for the announcement to leave. Cake continued to be ignored nearby, growing more attractive as my time to eat it grew short. Arguing with myself I sat, tortured. Unable to resist any longer I asked for someone’s cake, which was quickly handed over without thought. Guiltily I ate it while yelling at myself. Why was following rules so difficult?

Failure continued week after week. I’d succeed at one meal only to be defeated the next. The problem wasn’t limited to meals, either. Recently I’d begun giving birthday cards to students I tutored. While cards purchased through canteen came with a stamped envelope, I wasn’t mailing the cards. I passed them to students in the classroom, keeping the envelope for use in mailing letters to my children.

These behaviors were about more than having an extra envelope. I was a disorganized person who struggled to arrive on time, send Christmas presents BEFORE Christmas, or get a birthday card to someone on time. I remembered two years previous, when I was still able to talk with my young daughter Vivi.

It was the end of September, her birthday just days away. “I’m sending you a present!” I told her.

As children often do, she replied candidly, “Yes, but your mail is never on time!” She was right, and I knew it. Back then I had comforted myself with the fact that I sent gifts at all. I had tried to do better, but something always came up. I was full of excuses. I was no better at providing timely birthday cards to students, solving the issue by breaking a few rules and passing the cards in class.

Now I felt challenged to do better and was quickly confronted by my lack of foresight and self-discipline. “Holly, why didn’t you give me a birthday card?” Sheila asked, standing at my desk. “You gave one to everyone else but not me!” Hurt showed on her face.

Stung, I quickly soothed, “I decided to mail it to you!” Sheila looked confused. Why would I do that when I see her every day? Embarrassed, I chose not to tell her about obeying God and following rules. Instead, I continued, “Mail is fun to get! I want it to be special.”

“Ok,” she answered, “but I didn’t get any mail.”

‘Oh boy,’ I thought, wondering how to explain. As usual I’d waited until the last minute, and then waited some more. I’d finally mailed it yesterday in a panic. It would take a week for her to get it. Should I blame the delay on the prison and pretend I’m perfect? It was tempting. I settled for responding, “I’m certain it will arrive soon. Sorry for the lateness.”

She walked away and I was determined to do better, but I was quickly defeated at my next canteen pickup. I’d carefully calculated timing, yet arrived at canteen to find birthday cards “Out of stock.” I’d received none yet had 3 birthdays coming up soon! I ordered cards again while choosing how to combat this new problem in the future. Canteen was often out of things.

From Disobedience to Redemption: How God's Power Transforms Lives

Over the next several months I’d become an organized, careful planner, recognizing I was not a helpless victim of bad circumstances. Ordering cards months in advance, creating alarms and reminders in my tablet and calendar, and mailing cards early soon became my routine. Success made me feel good about myself.

I found success in not passing other items more elusive. Meals were a frequent source of failure, and I began praying for help constantly. I wondered why God would cure my rage instantly yet fail to provide me immediate success in this.

While I begged God for help, I began keeping records of my daily successes and failures. I’d stare at passed weeks filled with evidence of obedience followed by a day of messing up. I began to recognize the depth of my sin nature. Again, I read in Romans:

“18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot perform it. [I have the intention and urge to do what is right, but no power to carry it out.] 19 For I fail to practice the good deeds I desire to do, but the evil deeds that I do not desire to do are what I am [ever] doing.” Romans 7:18-19

“18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot perform it. [I have the intention and urge to do what is right, but no power to carry it out.] 19 For I fail to practice the good deeds I desire to do, but the evil deeds that I do not desire to do are what I am [ever] doing.” Romans 7:18-19

I would spend the next year learning to overcome this sin and be reliably obedient to it. Along the way I was transformed further by the experiences. Soon I would be so stable, my mental health so good, that I would no longer need meds for depression ever again. God is a Great Physician!

“For to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father [of Eternity], Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

DISCUSSION:

  1. Reflecting on the story of seeking support from family and friends during challenging times, how has your own experience with seeking support impacted your faith journey?
  2. In the face of adversity and uncertainty, how do you navigate feelings of doubt and fear while maintaining trust in God’s plan for your life?
  3. Holly learns to differentiate between wants and needs. How do you discern God’s will for your life when faced with competing desires and priorities?
  4. How do you maintain hope and trust in God’s promises during seasons of waiting and uncertainty?
  5. Discuss ways in which you actively seek to align your actions with your faith beliefs in everyday life, even in challenging circumstances.

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My youngest son Tim, aged 11, was in hospital for emergency surgery. Scared, I had many questions. My caseworker had no information. It would be many days before an update.

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