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A battle was on the horizon, one I hoped to avoid. In January 2016 I’d received news about my youngest son, Tim, who had been in foster care for 3 years. Social Services was seeking to terminate our parental rights to make Tim more desirable as a potential adoptee, or that’s what they said.

Tim had a challenging medical condition that if left untreated it could be fatal. After I was incarcerated my husband failed to care for him properly, and Tim nearly died. After receiving life-saving surgery he was placed in a foster home. Eventually Tim would revolve through over 30 foster and group homes.

At the onset I was given a lawyer by Washington state who encouraged me to sign a waiver of my parental rights. Initially this was a very confusing time for me, a frightening time. Normally I’m a resistant and defiant person, assertive. Prison is an information vacuum, a misinformation petri dish. It shrinks a person. Initially, facing 5 more years in prison, I signed the waiver. I don’t think I understood what it was. Three years later, hardened, ready for battle, I was ready to learn.

Have you ever made a decision without feeling informed? What did you learn from that experience?

In January I asked my lawyer to revoke the waiver. I had become angry. I’d gone from scared to defiant. My release seemed closer, and Tim was having a hard time. I wanted to give him hope for the future and make plans with him in it. Social Services responded by filing for termination of our parental rights. A trial date was set for September.

“Holly, you can keep your son if you can find a home for him,” my lawyer mentioned one February afternoon. “That home, however, has to be in Minnesota,” she finished. Tim lived in Washington state, where my husband had moved from Minnesota after I was incarcerated.

Court records show my husband’s violent behavior towards women resulted in new restraining orders, his arrest record grew, probation violation became ordinary, and homelessness was common.

“That’s great news!” I nearly shouted. “Thank you!” I made immediate plans to start calling everyone I could think of, certain Tim would be out of foster care soon. This seemed doable. I missed Tim very much.

Six months after I entered prison my husband kidnapped my four younger children from my parents, violating a restraining order, and he fled with them to Washington state. I’d only seen them once since.

Life didn’t go well for my children in Washington. Court records show my husband’s violent behavior towards women resulted in new restraining orders, his arrest record grew, probation violations became ordinary, and homelessness was common.

After Tim was removed by Social Services my husband gave our daughter to some woman he’d had an affair with, a side hustle, no legal paperwork. Three years later, with just 2 children remaining at home, he kicked out Lukas, age 17.

Lukas was the first to return to Minnesota. Eventually all of my sons would return.

Fortunately, a family took Lukas in and encouraged him to graduate high school. Lukas suffered serious depression. My parents went to his graduation and were shocked at his appearance. My mother, a nurse, immediately urged him to return to Minnesota with them, concerned by his malnourished appearance. Lukas was the first to return to Minnesota. Eventually all of my sons would return.

Finally only Tom, age 16, remained with my husband. Just after Tom finished 10th grade my husband informed him, “I can’t afford this apartment any more. We’re going to be homeless again. Sorry. I’m going to live with my parents in an RV in their driveway. Sorry again but there’s no room for you. You’ll have to find your own place to live.” And that was that. Tom did find a place to live. Now my husband was alone.

That being said, I know it’s possible terrible things might have been reported about my ex-husband not true at all.

I try to say all of this carefully. I was not witness to any of it. I know from experience court records and official documents aren’t perfect. Often Social Services sent reports stating that as Tim’s mother I “refused to call him” during my court ordered visitation when in fact the entire prison was on lock down for a riot. I had no access to a phone.

That being said, I know it’s possible terrible things might have been reported about my ex-husband not true at all. What I do know is how angry all of this made me feel at the time.

I was angry at my husband. I was also angry at anyone who didn’t respond in rescuing our children or who participated in furthering the hurt. Most importantly, I was angry at myself. I set all of this in motion!

Well, most of this was in the future. This day I set my mind to finding a home for Tim and happily went to work. My new love of the Bible had led me to read it every day. I worked as an English tutor at the prison. Our job included grading papers, helping students and occasionally creating assignments. Our teacher encouraged reading. When we didn’t actively have work to perform we were instructed to lead by example.

I had begun saving ten percent of my income in January because then I had learned about tithing. Ten percent feels like a lot, especially when one makes less than a dollar an hour. I had always been foolish with money, but I desired to be financially successful. Ten percent seemed doable, however, if one really tries. It made me feel good.

This day, I slipped into my chair at work and prepared for another day of grading papers. Jae, who had taken a sabbatical from tutoring for several months had just returned last week. She slipped into the chair next to mine, dropping her books on the table. She eyed my side of the desk. Usually prepared for the day with a stack of fiction books, the Bible sat alone by my hand. Jae raised a brow but said nothing. Her side of the desk included several new books.

I turned the page and stopped cold. A verse jumped out at me and I felt sick.

Jae and I had been working together for a year and knew each other well. We both loved reading and shared favorite books. For the past year I’d read a fiction book a day. Since January I’d read nothing but the Bible. Jae had missed the transition, but now she was back, and curious.

This day class began and I opened to I Timothy. Class hummed along as I read, occasionally peeking over the book to check for raised hands. Scratching my arm I turned the page and stopped cold. A verse jumped out at me and I felt sick. It said:

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. I Timothy 5:8

Let me back up a minute. I had learned some phrases in prison I’d heard no where else. One is “criminal thinking,” at least this term was used in a way I’d never heard before. It refers to distorted perceptions of reality, rationalizations or lack of consideration for others that can lead to bad behavior such as entitlement, justification, manipulation, minimizing consequences, defiance, being impulsive, or shifting blame.

How many of you have ever thought of being impulsive as possible criminal thinking? I bet not many. But there you have it. Well these types of thinking lead to bad behavior. I was now being reminded that this is what I was doing.

Due to a legal loop hole I wasn’t obligated (legally) to pay child support. I was still married, so the state was blind to my financial situation. I knew women in prison who were not married and had children. Their meager pay was garnished, even in prison.

The Bible told me I had denied the faith, was worse than anybody. I had no integrity. I couldn’t recognize responsibility without being forced to do it.

I thought of my friend Katy. She was the hardest working person I knew. Because of fines and enforced savings in addition to child-support she received only 25% of her prison income, which to begin with was less than a dollar an hour. Despite this she worked over-time relentlessly in order to meet her needs. Additionally she was cheerful, generous and kind.

In contrast there was me. Having already paid restitution I received my full income. Was I cheerful, generous, kind? The Bible told me I had denied the faith, was worse than anybody. I had no integrity. I couldn’t recognize responsibility without being forced to do it. I did not take care of my own children.

I was cut to the quick! Where was my hate now? Where was my pride? Nowhere.

Misery prevented me from giving up emotional eating.

I wanted to obey this, and yet I was concerned. Inside I felt myself to be a weak person, emotionally ready to cave when things got tough. For the past few years I’d been spending money on junk food to feel better. My usually petite frame had taken on a lot of unwanted weight. I’d been unsuccessful at any attempt to lose weight. Misery prevented me from giving up emotional eating.

And yet, God had caused me to read his Word, crave His Word! I recognized this as God giving me abilities I didn’t have inside. I had read previously in Psalm:

Taste and see that the Lord is good! Psalm 34:8

This means literally “Try it! You’ll like it!” In order to try it out, you have to take a step, use the demo. Reading the verse in I Timothy now in class I nodded to myself. ‘I’m going to try it,’ I thought. ‘Hopefully God will make me do this too!’

After about 6 weeks something amazing became noticeable.

After class I grabbed a yellow kite form. Filling it out I requested that Accounting automatically garnish my pay by an additional 25% and put in my savings. I determined that every so often, maybe once a month I’d mail a check from my savings to my husband. Finished with the kite, I dropped it in the mail.

Time passed slowly. As my husband and I were not on speaking terms I made no attempt to tell him of my plan to send money. After about 6 weeks something amazing became noticeable.

First, God was giving me the ability to do this, faithfully. It was not easy. I had to learn how to budget, plan really well for the future, and understand suffering and want in whole new ways. God was teaching me that He did give me everything I need.

Second, I began to lose weight without trying. This was unexpected. I was slimming down nicely, back to my size right out of high school! I must admit this, maybe more than anything, was such a reward I praised God and happily obeyed Him all the more. My inability to afford junk food caused me to lose all the unhealthy weight I’d gained. I’d have never guessed it!

What a great and awesome God!

I praised God in my heart, and worshiped Him everywhere I went. I craved His Word even more. What a great and awesome God!

And then came the day to drop my first child support check in the mail. Immediately fear swooped in. I imagined how this might turn out when the check arrived. Perhaps my husband, unused to receiving letters from me and expecting unkindness, would toss it out unopened. All “my” hard work for nothing. All my suffering for nought. Perhaps he would open it and seeing the small amount (less than $20), he would use it to make fun of me in front of our children. Again “my” hard work could be used to ridicule me.

I froze, check in hand, considering. I hated my husband so much. I knew he smoked, drank, did drugs. I knew he cheated on me. I knew he hit our kids. I knew he hated me. It was entirely possible, if he did open this envelope and cash this check, that he would spend it on things I hated to even imagine. Out of my hands was out of my control.

I desired respect, admiration, love. I was prideful, hurting and insecure.

I desired respect, admiration, love. I was prideful, hurting and insecure. This check in the mail would be about obedience to God, I realized, not praise from a person.

What had obedience to God gotten me so far? His inner strength to be faithful with money, put others ahead of myself, and the reward of physical health. I glanced down at my feet, feet I was easily seeing again for the first time in years. I kicked out a toe, smiled.

I released the letter into the mailbox, flooded with warmth. I was accountable for my actions, not my husband’s response.

I spun from the room and headed outside to enjoy the day!

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” Luke 16:10

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Reflecting on the Holly’s decision to start tithing, even with limited financial resources, have you ever experienced the tension between financial obligations and personal beliefs or values? How did you navigate that tension?
  2. Holly experiences a profound shift in her understanding of responsibility and faith after reading a verse from the Bible. Have you ever had an experience where a religious or spiritual text profoundly impacted your perspective or behavior?
  3. Holly struggles with feelings of hatred towards her husband, yet ultimately decides to send him a child support check as an act of obedience to her faith. Have you ever experienced a conflict between personal feelings and a sense of moral or religious obligation? How did you resolve that conflict?
  4. Reflecting on Holly’s journey towards obedience and accountability, how do you think personal growth and change can be facilitated even in challenging circumstances? What role do faith, personal values, and support networks play in this process?
  5. Considering the verse from Luke 16:10 (“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much…”), how do you interpret the relationship between integrity in small matters and trustworthiness in larger ones? Can you think of any personal examples that illustrate this principle?

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