“GRADUATION DAY” by Tony Casson

I am a firm believer in the need for more than ‘rehabilitation’ if individuals are to actually accomplish anything resembling noticeable, and meaningful, changes in lifestyle, behavior, and actions. We all have heard “If you keep doing the same things, don’t be surprised if you keep getting the same results”. Prison provides an excellent platform from which to launch changes within our lives IF we are dedicated to the fundamental belief that something in our life NEEDS changing. It should come as no surprise if I tell you many individuals do not seem to want to change much of anything, except perhaps the fact they are incarcerated.

For those who realize that their lives need to be lived differently, it is not enough to simply try to adopt new practices, hobbies, or job skills. True change can only be accomplished through a complete, intensive spiritual transformation. Look at it this way: In an old house, black mold is apparent by looking at the walls and ceilings. An investment is made in paint and the time is taken to do the painting. The end result looks pretty darn good.

For a while.

The effects of the cover-up may even last QUITE a while, but sooner or later the problem is going to rise to the surface. Why? Because the ROOT of the problem was not fixed. The problem was not eradicated and replaced with something new, strong, and resilient to the mold itself. Unless all of the affected areas are cut out and replaced with new material, nothing much changes, and before too long, what temporarily gave the impression of being new looks exactly the same as it did before, perhaps even worse. Perhaps more dangerous. Perhaps more deadly.

There ARE men in prison who recognize the need for change. No, that’s not totally accurate. There ARE men in prison who recognize the need for a complete spiritual TRANSFORMATION. There are men in prison who sincerely and completely want to walk out of prison different on the inside than they were when they walked in. Some might use the negativity of the environment as an excuse for not successfully completing that transformation. Some may point to the plethora of temptation that permeates the environment. Some may point to a lack of dedicated staff, programs, or opportunities, and find their escape from the work required by blaming others. The simple fact of the matter is that GOD gives each of us the power to transform our hearts, which gives us the ability to transform our lives. We can accomplish this without ANY cooperation or participation of others, without ANY program, without ANY involvement of anyone besides ourselves, and many (certainly not anywhere near enough) men DO allow God to help them undergo just that type of complete and total spiritual transformation which can change the course of a human life.

There will be skeptics and cynics who will view the following claim with something less than acceptance, belief, or any other positive response: I have worked very diligently, with purpose and determination, to allow God to guide my own spiritual transformation. I have sought the companionship and counsel of like-minded individuals, and I have endeavored to benefit those around me with encouragement that all is not lost; that life is just beginning, if we choose to allow God to be the focus OF that life; that He can make us new people, and He will, but WE must welcome the transformation and be ready to ACCEPT it.

Most of my personal work was done in the relative privacy of my cell, but I had the opportunity to attend a 10 week class through the prison chapel this past October. It was a small-group study called “The Miracle Of Life Change”, and there were 15 of us in the group. The program was produced by Chip Ingram, and included workbooks and a DVD series. We were also given homework after each session which consisted of some very probing questions. Signing up for the class, I was excited, as were the others I spoke with. It was a positive offering in a truly negative environment. The class began with total immersion on the part of all involved, but it wasn’t long before we began to experience difficulties, most of them centered on the fact it took 7 months to complete that 10 week class due to frequent cancellations and rescheduling. Something which began on an extremely positive, upbeat note, became something cumbersome and intrusive. Enthusiasm waned and those participating just wanted it to be over. We finally completed the class and a ‘graduation’ ceremony was scheduled. I was asked to give a short speech. Despite the fact the class had become a long, drawn-out affair lacking in continuity, as I set about the task of writing the speech, I discovered that it held more relevance to what I had been doing for the past 4 years than I was initially ready to give it credit for. I realized the importance of the material, the message, and my own motives, and put into place the LAST lesson I was to extract from the class: Nothing in life is perfect. It is only by working through the imperfections and not letting them derail our original purpose that we truly learn how to live in the free world, how to cope, how to become different people than the ones who walked into this place.

I set about the task of writing a speech I felt reflected the positive benefits of the class, the experience of taking the class, the things that were shared and discussed between the men in the class, and I looked forward to the day I would give the speech. That day dawned and at lunch, an hour or so before the ‘ceremony’, I was told there was a sign on the door of the chapel stating, simply: “GRADUATION CANCELLED”. Not postponed. Not delayed. Cancelled.

This announcement was met with nothing other than resigned acceptance. It had become, after all, the ‘nature of the beast’. I was going to simply file away a copy of the speech and cancel my original plans to turn the speech into an article for posting in these Chronicles. Lessons are everywhere. God leaves crumbs for us to pick up in every situation we encounter and it is only when we allow our hearts and our minds to be opened that our eyes can finally recognize this fact.

The speech I wrote follows, but this statement, which was not a part of the original speech, SHOULD have been. Rather than insert it into the speech itself, I offer it as an afterthought since a few individuals have read the original speech, and some of them may read this article. That statement is this:

People, places, and other outside influences do NOT determine our ability to transform who we are. The ability for a definitive, complete, worthwhile transformation comes from inside of ourselves, and it is put there by God. If we are determined to purge ourselves of the habits, thoughts, actions, modes of speech, activities, practices and lifestyles which contributed to our incarceration, there is nothing anyone can do to prevent that from happening. The power of God trumps all the negativity, rescheduled classes and cancelled ceremonies that can be thrown at us, and when we let the negativity of our surroundings take our focus off of our purpose, we are only demonstrating we have taken our focus off of God.

Some time back I introduced an acronym I had created, and I will re-introduce it here:

PRISON

Personal

Responsibility

In

Spite

Of

Negativity

I – and only I – am personally responsible for the Miracle of my OWN life change, and I accept that responsibility. I have been incarcerated and I have not liked it, but I gladly have accepted PRISON.

Here, then, is my “Graduation Speech”. I hope you enjoy it.

First of all, I would like to thank each member of this class for the time we spent together. There were deeply personal and revealing moments shared, some of which were painful to discuss, all of which contributed to the personal growth of those sharing, as well as of those with whom they were shared. I would also like to thank Ms. Johnson for making the class possible. For such an opportunity to be presented in an environment like this demonstrates a level of concern not often witnessed, and while nothing in life is perfect; while there is always room for improvement in everything we do; Ms. Johnson’s dedication to the purpose of the class cannot be denied or diminished, and should be held within the minds and hearts of all who participated as a very bright spot in a place capable of incredible darkness.

For some of us, Chip Ingram’s “Miracle Of Life Change” course of study is very aptly named in that the ability to change our lives IS a miracle in and of itself. Miracle – or simply the result of very focused, hard work – if we are to leave this place different people than the ones who arrived here, the need for a transformation of our hearts and thought processes was indicated by how we had all lived our lives previously and what we did individually to arrive at this particular destination.

The reasons we all had for feeling that a spiritual transformation was required, varies from person to person, but I would like to read something from my book, “TODAY IS….A Gift From God”, that I believe represents where we all began in our search for that transformation within ourselves. It is the message for August 14th, and it is titled “Today is the perfect day to take back what was stolen from us”.

It goes like this:

Every single one of us has had something stolen from us by Satan. No one has escaped except for Christ. We have all given in to temptation and we have all sinned and every time we have sinned we have allowed Satan to take something else from us. We have been his willing victims.

He has stolen dignity from some of us. From others, he has stolen decency. He has stolen our faithfulness to our spouses and our faith in God. He has stolen our truthfulness, and he has stolen our integrity. We have let him slip away in the darkness with our morality, and we have let him get away unnoticed with our kindness. He has pocketed our happiness, and smashed the windows to our souls and left the space empty. He has cheated us out of our love for ourselves, leaving us unable to love anyone else. He has conned us out of our certainty, leaving us with our doubts.

When we weren’t looking, he walked away with our compassion and left disdain in its place. While he distracted us with self-indulgence, he swiped our desire to help others and replaced it with selfishness. He has stolen our tolerance while trying to convince us that hostility and impatience were better suited to our personalities.

He has stolen our sight, making it impossible to see the pain of others and he has taught us to lie, cheat, and steal while we have hungrily pursued the education.

More than likely, what Satan has stolen from you is somewhere on this list. If not, it needs to be added, because everyone has lost something. Some of us have lost more than one thing, and perhaps more than a few of us have lost it all. He will try to prevent you from calculating your exact losses. He will try to cloud your judgment, distract you, or take something else from you. He pretends to be the best friend you have ever had, but he is – in reality – the biggest danger you have ever faced. He will suck everything good out of you until there is nothing left but your last breath and then he will take that as well.

But the Good News is that today is not going to be like yesterday. Today we are going to take it all back. God has been waiting for today for a very long time, and He is glad that it is here. We must reach out and ask God to take our hand and tell Him we want everything Satan has stolen from us. Today is the perfect day to take it all back, and God is the Perfect One to help us all get it.

God is the Perfect One, indeed!

Proverbs 21:31, in the New Living Translation tells us that, “The horse is prepared for battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord!”

WE are those horses, and Chip Ingram’s “Miracle Of Life Change” helps us to prepare for the battles ahead. Now that this class has ended we must be acutely aware that the end of this class is NOT a signal to allow ourselves to think that an irreversible change has come over us and what each of us had allowed to be stolen from us, and has hopefully been returned, will remain permanently safe – that those things can never be stolen again. The end of this class is NOT an occasion to pat each other on the back in congratulations simply to move on to the next item on our list of “Things I want to do in prison that will look good to my PO.” The end of this class is not an indication that we can let down our guard and live life in a carefree manner with no regard for what we have learned, or the progress we have made.

The end of this class is merely an indication that the rest of our life has BEGUN and we have been provided with valuable tools with which to help us live those lives differently. The end of this class is the BEGINNING of our opportunity to prove to others change is possible. The end of this class is the START of new responsibilities to ourselves, our families, our friends, and to God. The end of this class marks the INITIATION of our need for vigilance, to prevent Satan from slipping in the back doors of our lives to begin his work again.

We should be careful broadcasting the words, “I am a changed man”. Ecclesiastes 5:7, in the New Living Translation begins, “Talk is cheap”, and we all know this to be true. Nor does a certificate of completion, a diploma, or a notation in our file offer definitive proof that we have learned even one thing or taken anything more than the first step in transforming our lives. It is only through our actions, the manner in which we live our lives, and the way we treat other people that we can provide testimony to the fact that something is different; that we have allowed God to enter into our hearts and purge us of who we were; that we have allowed Him to make us new; that we have learned and that we LIVE the lessons of this class, and the lessons we receive reading God’s Word each and every day. Only by SHOWING others who we have become can the true miracle of our individual life changes be verified.

Completing Chip Ingram’s course is a step in the direction of new lives, and now that we have taken that step, we are better prepared to take each successive step, never getting ahead of ourselves, but never falling behind either. We must stay focused on Christ, keep following His example, and we must keep putting to use the things we learned as we explored our old behaviors and replaced them with new ones. The course materials we were given should remain with us as reminders of the work we have done, and as sources of valuable assistance to continue that work.

The Miracle Of Life Change is an ongoing process, and I will pray for God to provide each one of us with the strength, courage, wisdom and desire to continue what we have started.  Thank you.

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