On the 5th Year of Freedom

Today marks the 5th anniversary of my release from the Federal Correctional Facility in Oakdale, LA.

I can still vividly recall the strong feelings of excitement and eagerness to face what awaited me, as well as the profound sadness I felt about leaving those men behind that I had grown so close to over the previous 4 years, 2 months and 20 days.

The memories of being ‘processed out’ and Mr. Rogers, one of the CO’s (guards), shaking my hand (no one had done that who was not an inmate since I entered the prison) and wishing me luck are still quite clear in my mind.

The ride through the Louisiana countryside to Lafayette in the Prison truck driven by an inmate from the ‘camp’ and being left at the bus station, a free man, still an incredible feeling to reflect on.

I was going to devote today’s space to a recap of the past 5 years, but so much has happened and God has placed so many incredible people in my path and blessed me with so many opportunities to serve Him and to glorify His name, that it would take me too long to be fair and celebrate each and every person and each and every blessing.

Instead, I found an article I wrote on the first anniversary of my release and I think it is worthy of posting again. The article recounts the prison years and without those years I could not possibly have had the 5 years that have followed.

Some of you will recall the post upon reading it. Others will read it for the first time. Regardless of which camp you are in, I hope you all enjoy it, and recognize the significance of taking

‘Perfect Prison Steps’

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” 

2 Corinthians 3:17 NIV

In talking with someone recently, I referred to my time at Oakdale FCI as ‘the perfect prison experience’. There was a brief look of surprised confusion that preceded the request to, “Explain that please.”

There is a somewhat cynical, yet broad public perception that ‘everyone’ in prison ‘finds God’. There are those, of course, who try to pose as having undergone a spiritual enlightenment, feeling that it will look good in their file. While in Oakdale, I didn’t try to determine whose faith was real and whose was posturing. That was revealed soon enough through their words and by their actions. Even when it was obvious there was a lack of genuine faith, it was still not my place to judge or comment. But even though there were a few who would fall into that group, most inmates didn’t bother to ‘fake faith’. The majority of people in prison are simply ‘doing time’.

There were those, of course, who actually had been brought to their knees by the lifestyle that caused them to be in prison in the first place. Those were the individuals who realized that prison afforded them the opportunity to focus on a relationship with Christ, and those who had actually waved their own “White Flag“ and surrendered to Him, made an important discovery: That there was freedom inside the confines of the fences surrounding the prison, and that freedom was what contributed to making my experience ‘perfect’.

Those who were posturing obviously didn’t really have faith, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”  (Hebrews 11:6 ESV)

The reward for me was the experience I had while I was in prison that I would come to call ‘perfect’. The reward for taking those steps necessary to seek God was having my eyes opened wide and finally learning to see outside of myself and the selfish, self-centered, self-destructive lifestyle and behavior that kept me a prisoner to sin. While my body may have been free for 56 years, my spirit was enslaved by my willingness to cover up the humiliation and pain of my youth letting satan guide my steps rather than taking refuge in God and letting Him be my guide.

As the years in prison wore on, the track in the prison recreation yard became a place of worship and praise. God was present with me and all those I walked with. He was a part of most conversations that took place as men who had exhibited an egregious disregard for decency struggled to take steps to a life that would offer them renewal and restoration, things which can come only from God.

We took the steps necessary to claim the promise that, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) If anyone wanted – indeed, needed – to be ‘new’, it was those of us who had betrayed decency, and taking the steps illuminated by God brought us closer to being those new men some of us sought to be.

In addition to the positive influence of the time spent walking on the ‘track’, I had the relative peace and solitude of my cell in Allen Unit. It was there, sitting at my desk while my ‘cellie’ was at work, that some of the biggest ‘steps’ were taken. It was there that I began writing “The Oakdale Chronicles”, and “TOC” was where I took my first tentative steps towards publicly proclaiming my faith.

That is not an easy thing to do for someone who started out as far away from God as I did when I began my journey, but slowly I became more comfortable and more confident. The time I spent sitting outside that cell in the mornings praying and reading the Bible contributed to that comfort and confidence. In addition, asking God to help me understand how I could drift so far from Him and allow myself to be used for my own destruction eventually gave me “TODAY IS….A Gift From God” as an answer.

The book itself was never written with any expectations of being a national bestseller (although there certainly would be nothing wrong with that.) Instead, it is a vivid demonstration of how we can build a relationship with God and how He will help us to use the Bible to guide our lives here on earth if we will only give Him the opportunity!

The book gives glory to our great God and holds up His amazing power to do wonderful things within us when we allow Him free reign and, in doing so, deny it to satan, who has had it for so long and who used that free reign so effectively against us. His power, put to work within us, gives us the ability to take each and every step that is required to follow the path to eternal freedom.

I would never want to live my life in a manner which could cause me to go back to Oakdale FCI, or a place like it. At the same time, it is almost impossible for me to adequately describe the perfect prison experience that my steps there provided me with. Of course, if you find that you are in a prison of sin, you don’t have to go to a physical prison like Oakdale FCI or any other correctional facility.

You can simply follow those steps I have outlined and allow God to reward you with freedom from that prison, and you can take your own “Perfect Prison Steps.”

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May 19

TODAY IS…

an excellent day for company.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”  Revelation 3:20 NASB

Well? Are we just going to leave Him standing there on the doorstep, or are we going to swing the door open wide and welcome Jesus into our lives?

Some of us have welcomed Him into our hearts, our minds, and our lives and are living happier, more fulfilling lives as a result. But far too many of us either have not heard Him knocking and calling out to us or we are afraid to let Him in.

Perhaps we feel we do not need Him.

If any of us are in the group that does not hear, we need to start listening more closely, because Jesus calls to us constantly. He wants to come in and be a part of our lives. He wants to help us and to teach us. He wants to help that which is good within us totally supplant anything that is bad within us. He wants us to be spiritually healthy, wealthy, and wise. If we are faithful in prayer and in our reading of the Bible, we will hear Him knocking and we will hear Him calling to us.

Then all we need do is open up our hearts and invite Him in.

If we are afraid, we need only know that He knows. For some of us, opening up and allowing Jesus to come in can be a frightening thing. It truly shouldn’t be, but accepting Christ into our homes and our hearts can be scary because change is scary to many of us. But accepting Christ is the best kind of change and there is no need to fear. He is gentle and He is kind, and He will help us be the same way.

Some of us simply do not feel that we need Him because life is wonderful and we have everything we want. We mistakenly feel that all we have gotten, we have gotten on our own, through our own efforts. Well, only this can be said: standing on the other side of the door, knocking and calling out to us is the epitome of patience and persistence. He will wait as long as it takes for us to realize that the talent we used to accumulate our wealth, material possessions, and good fortune came as a gift from God. He will wait as long as it takes for us to discover that it was His blessing that gave us our fortune. He will wait patiently while we figure out that He has a use for us and He gave us our talents to benefit others and not only ourselves.

No matter where we fit in this picture, we must all open the door and allow Him to come in. Jesus is excellent company and today is an excellent day for company.

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Taken from “TODAY IS….A Gift From God”, (C) 2013 Tony Casson

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May 18

TODAY IS…

the right day to ask, “How do I see things?”

“To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.”  Titus 1:15 NIV

We are all familiar with the question, “Is the glass half full or half empty?”

No matter who is looking at the glass, the amount of water in the glass is the same, so what could possibly account for people seeing things differently? Is not the human eye basically constructed the same in all humans? The color of our eye doesn’t change what we see; the shape of our eye doesn’t change what we see; and the gender of our eye does not change what we see.

What, then, does cause us to see what should be the same thing, in different ways?

Obviously the difference must come from within. Our education definitely influences our perception, but so does the environment in which we were raised.

How we were raised spiritually also affects how we see things.

Some of us look around at the world and manage to see good things everywhere, in spite of the evil that exists. Some of us look at the same thing and see mostly that which is evil. When Paul wrote his letter to Titus instructing him how to organize the churches on the Isle of Crete, he pointed out that people see with their eyes, but how they interpret what they are looking at is determined by what is in their hearts.

This is not to say, necessarily, that if we see only evil, or mostly evil, that we are evil. This only points out that the negative things in the world are what we focus on internally.

With Christ in control of our lives and with our focus daily on the lessons He taught, we can learn to fill our hearts with the things that are required to see more of what is right with the world. Of course, we don’t want to be blind to the pain of others or the needs of those less fortunate than ourselves, but we must focus our “…thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:8 NLT).

This will enable us to see more of what is good in the world and it will also enable others to see the good in us. And with everyone seeing more good, the world can slowly become less evil.

The question for today is, “How do you see things?”

Ask Jesus Christ to help you answer in the right way.

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Taken from “TODAY IS….A Gift From God”, (C) 2013 Tony Casson

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May 17

TODAY IS…

the day God gives us the freedom to forget.

“And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.”  Hebrews 10:17 KJV

How many of us have felt as if we are being restrained from moving forward? Like there is a ball and chain around our ankle. Some would say that they are carrying around a lot of “baggage”.

Sometimes the promise of tomorrow eludes us because we simply cannot seem to get out of the past.

There are many reasons we may feel this way. Our own guilt is very often a primary cause of inability to get on with our lives. Frequently we will find that we are our own biggest obstacle. Even when we feel that the opinion other people may have of us or something we did in the past is keeping us from making progress in our lives, if we examine it closely, it comes back to us.

Sometimes we simply give those around us incredible power over us.

But let us be realistic about whose opinion is truly important, and who has real power over us. The answer is the same in both instances.

Only God.

The Bible assures us that past sins are forgiven and forgotten. When we ask for forgiveness, what do we get? Forgiveness. And along with that forgiveness comes the freedom to forget, because that is what God does. He forgives and forgets, and allows us to unchain ourselves from our guilt and move on.

Whenever we see another believer who appears to be wrapped up in the past, we must reach out to them and help them remove the blinders from their eyes that keep them from seeing that God has removed the ball and chain from their leg or emptied their excess baggage so now they can set the bags down and move on.

If it is ourselves who are the ones afflicted, we need to read God’s Word for reassurance that with our sincere repentance and our request for forgiveness comes freedom given by God: the freedom to move forward and the freedom to forget.

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Taken from “TODAY IS….A Gift From God”, (C) 2013 Tony Casson

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May 16

TODAY IS…

an awesome day to follow the example set by Jesus.

“I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.”  John 13:15 NLT

We are all familiar with the lesson taught by Jesus that instructs usto, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.” (Matthew 7:12a NLT).

We all know this, and teach this to our children as “The Golden Rule”. Some may consider what Jesus said to His disciples after He washed their feet as simply another way of saying the Golden Rule, but it is far more than that.

Think about our relationship with the Lord compared to our relationship with those around us. We probably treat God with more respect than we do our next door neighbor. We are all very likely to fall all over ourselves to please God, but are only mildly concerned with what those around us think.

Of course, this makes sense since we ask so much more of God, right?

Actually, this is far from right. What Jesus intended to be learned is that if we are to ask for God’s mercy, then we must show mercy to others. If we are to ask God for His love, then we must take the love He gives us and share it.

How can we ask the Lord to treat us right if we treat others wrong?

Where do we find the nerve to ask God to hold out His arms for us if we are not willing to hold out our arms for others?

How can we ask God to help us see and then not use our sight to notice another person’s tears or pain?

It is a good thing to treat others the way we want them to treat us. This is important, because Jesus said it was. But it is even more telling of our understanding of what Jesus said if we treat those around us the way we want God to treat us.

We must learn for ourselves, and teach our children, that we must never ask the Lord for anything we are not prepared to willingly share with those around us.

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Taken from “TODAY IS….A Gift From God”, (C) 2013 Tony Casson

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May 15

TODAY IS…

a great day to remind ourselves to trust God even when we don’t understand.

“His mother said to the servants, ‘Whatever He says to you, do it.’”  John 2:5 NASB

When Jesus’ mother instructed the servants, she had no understanding of how He could solve the problem. She just believed that He could. She gave the problem over to Jesus and then let Him take care of things. She probably was not expecting Him to perform a miracle, and things undoubtedly worked out better than she had anticipated.

This is something that is very difficult for so many of us.

We have the best of intentions when we speak of our faith in God and we give our problems to Him and ask for His help, but we often then sit back and expect Him to do things the way we would do them. It doesn’t always work that way and sometimes we simply cannot understand the approach that the Lord is taking to our problem.

Do we know, better than God, how any situation should be handled? Is it wise to even harbor the notion?

The truth of the matter is that with faithful and diligent reading of the Word of God, we must know in our hearts that whatever God decides is truly what is in our best interests in the long run. It is of the utmost importance that we accept the fact that, far too often, we base our decisions on what we think is best for today.

God is concerned about tomorrow – and the day after that.

If we are truly paying attention to what the Lord tells us in the Bible, we simply cannot harbor the thought that we are not satisfied with the way He is handling a situation we have given over to Him.

There is no safer place for our problems than in the hands of God. There simply is no possibility that we can know, better than the One who created us and gave us life, what is best for us.

We must all give our problems to God, and then trust in Him even when we cannot understand.

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Taken from “TODAY IS….A Gift From God”, (C) 2013 Tony Casson

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May 14

TODAY IS…

a superb day to keep our promises.

“But all the leaders said to the whole congregation, ‘We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we cannot touch them.’”  Joshua 9:19 NASB

Joshua, and those who had advised him, discovered shortly after making a treaty with the Gibeonites that they had been duped into believing that the Gibeonites were from a distant land. They were seeking to avoid being destroyed by Joshua’s armies in battle, so they engineered a detailed deception.Joshua failed to consult with God before making his decision to enter into a treaty with the people of Gibeon to protect them. He consulted only with his advisors and they were fooled.

To say that Joshua and those who encouraged and advised him to proceed were angry at being tricked is probably an understatement, but they had given an oath to protect the Gibeonites and there was no way out of it.

A promise is a promise.

No promise should be made lightly. If there is doubt that we will be able to keep our promise, then we should not make a promise in the first place. Particularly with our families, it is important that we are as good as our word. This teaches our children to be reliable, responsible, and honorable. Nothing is worse to a child than to have a mother or father promise to be at a recital, sporting event, concert, or some other event that is important to them and not show up. We do not want to be responsible for that level of hurt and disappointment. If we cannot do something or are not positive that we can, we must never make a promise. The truth may cause sadness, but weat least have taught them to be honest.

It is no different with spouses, other family members, friends, or co-workers. When we promise something, it should be a guarantee. It is important in all our relationships that people are able to take us at our word.

Our word should be a bond. Giving our word – fulfilling a promise – shows good character, so remember: If you can’t do something, just say so, but a promise is a promise.

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Taken from “TODAY IS….A Gift From God”, (C) 2013 Tony Casson

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May 13

TODAY IS…

the perfect day to think about “everything”.

“’What do you mean, what’s the matter?’ Micah replied. ‘You’ve taken away all the gods I have made, and my priest, and I have nothing left!’”  Judges 18:24 NLT

When the stock market crashed in 1929, there were numerous stories of people committing suicide, many by jumping out of the windows of tall buildings. Why did they do it? The reason given is the same in every instance: they killed themselves because they had lost “everything”.

Oh, really?

Everything?

When our lives are built around the wrong things, it is possible to feel that way. If money is what we live for, if money is what we “worship”, then it is understandable that a stock market crash that takes it all away could be mistakenly viewed as having taken ‘everything’ from us.

But those who live only for money, gold, jewelry, cars, houses and whatever other material possessions money can buy are living for the wrong reasons and are definitely worshiping at the wrong altar.

The simple fact of the matter is that as long as we worship only God; as long as we keep Him in our hearts; as long as we do all that we can to demonstrate our faith and our love, there is no way that anyone or any situation can take “everything”.

God can never be taken from us.

If we are unwise; if we are foolish; if we believe the wrong things, we can reject God, but He can never be taken from us.

Obviously, losing a job or a dramatic downturn in the stock market could create serious problems for us financially, but these are all only temporary problems of this world. Bad financial news is not worth a life. Our secure relationship with the Lord will see us through any difficult period in our life – financial or otherwise, and it is of the utmost importance that when life turns against us, we turn immediately to God.

When we have a good relationship with God, we have everything we really need, and it is nice to be able to live each day in confident assurance that no one can ever take “everything” away from us.

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Taken from “TODAY IS….A Gift From God”, (C) 2013 Tony Casson

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May 12

TODAY IS…

a fine day to go treasure hunting.

“I rejoice in Your word like one who discovers a great treasure.”  Psalm 119:162 NLT

If we were to be digging in our backyards and discovered a chest full of gold buried there, we would undoubtedly be overjoyed, celebrate, and tell everyone we know about our good fortune.

It is simply human nature to want to share the news of our good fortune with others.

The Holy Bible could be our “spiritual backyard” even though there is a huge difference between the Bible and the dirt that lies behind our houses. While one may contain buried treasure, the other definitely has treasure within and discovering it is a lot easier than digging holes in the dirt with a shovel.

Within the pages of the Bible is a wealth of the wisdom of God. Easily discovered within the words written there are precious gems in the form of instructions on how to live our lives in a manner that is pleasing to God. We don’t have to dig very long or very hard to uncover the sparkling radiance of the truth. Our hands don’t need to become soiled as we reveal the gleaming nuggets of joy, happiness, and love that are scattered everywhere we look.

The value of the treasures that are within the pages of this wonderful discovery is beyond calculation. Mere humans could never count high enough to determine the ultimate value of what we discover with a little digging.

Many treasure hunts turn out to be wild goose chases as men and women trace bits and pieces of history trying to locate valuable gold, jewelry, or other items lost or buried centuries ago.

Not so with the Bible.

Each and every individual who picks up this wonderful “treasure chest” is guaranteed to discover wealth beyond their wildest dreams inside. All that is required is an open heart instead of a sharp shovel. All we need is a little of our time each day instead of our sweat and our aching muscles.

And when we make discoveries, as we will each day, we should rejoice and share the wealth with those around us.

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Taken from “TODAY IS….A Gift From God”, (C) 2013 Tony Casson

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TODAY IS…

a good day to look at the clock.

“You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand. My entire lifetime is just a moment to You; at best, each of us is but a breath.”  Psalm 39:5 NLT

In the backs of our minds, we are all acutely aware that the clocks of our lives start ticking down from the moment we are born. At that moment, only God knows exactly how much time is on that clock. The best we can do is pray that we live long, “normal” lives. Beyond that, it is out of our hands.

When we are young, we feel like we are “immortal,” and we live like we are “indestructible.” Of course, a sense of mortality enters after we have been exposed to death, but even then, we consider a short life with an abrupt ending to be something that happens to other people, not to us.

We wind up spending a good many years chasing after the material pleasures, comforts, and rewards that can be found in this life. Yet far too few of us devote enough time preparing for an eternal life with God. Even as we proclaim our faith and let those around us know that we await our time to be with God, many of us spend all of our time focused on the here and now with very little attention paid to the hereafter.

Many of us know, or have known, people who have developed a terminal illness such as a cancer that has proven to be incurable. Those of us who have gone through the process have noticed the change in the sick person as they focus on what is next.

Their priorities change.

They want to spend more time with family and friends. They want to spend more time with God. Many of them are afraid because there are doubts that they have lived properly and in a manner that will guarantee them an eternity of peace and joy in the loving presence of God. But their focus is all on preparation. They see that the end, for them, is near and they realize that what comes after is far more important than the here and now.

Each one of us has been “terminally ill” since the day we were born. Time is short, even for those of us who will live what we think is a very long life.

None of us knows when our clock will run down, so it is important to know what is important and live each day in readiness for the tomorrow that may turn out to be the first day of our eternity.

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Taken from “TODAY IS….A Gift From God”, (C) 2013 Tony Casson

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