Winter came early this year, covering much of the map with snow and downright frigid temperatures well before Thanksgiving.

Last night, I grabbed my thermal shirt and sweat clothes to layer up before heading out to the track, and wondered how will I survive my first Christmas inside a place as cold sounding as prison? Insulated clothing may keep my physical body warm, but how do I keep my spiritual body, my soul, warm? Place a liter bottle of soda in the freezer long enough and the expanding pressure of the cold will eventually explode the bottle. How do I keep my soul from getting so frozen that it breaks under the pressure?

The holidays are about family and tradition. We are bombarded with media images of hearth and home – a warming fire, warming food, warming friends and family. And as a child, though no one I knew had a fireplace in their 1970s ranch home, my family celebrated the holiday with warming traditions.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, wrapped mysteries would trickle in to find a tempting place under our tree. These presents were riddles. Fed up with our constant nagging of what Santa might bring, my Mom would put out one present for each of us in the family; a present that could withstand our “gorilla with Samsonite luggage” examinations. Guesses of the contents were based on exhaustive attempts to decipher Mom’s cunning disguises.

Large, lightweight boxes were as deceptive to decode as were weight-laden small boxes: to a child “large” should be heavy; “small” – light. Violently shaken, a silent box was as annoying as those resounding of gravel or nuts and bolts. What items from the Sears Wish Book catalog made those kind of noises? These gifts were like human pet toys, entertaining us kids with Holmes-like suppositions for hours upon days.

On Christmas Eve, we would pile into the station wagon and head for church. It was the one time of the year my Mom had no trouble getting the whole family to go to church; mostly because Santa came to our house while we were at the evening service.

I would sit in the pew imagining what Santa was doing moment by moment. Was he enjoying the milk and cookies we’d left? We’d gone to such lengths to leave him our favorites. Would he appreciate how good we had been by not eating all of our favorites in advance – overcoming our daily pre-Christmas temptations for his sake? Were the other reindeer jealous of Rudolph because we only left one carrot especially for him, or did he share by letting a different reindeer eat the carrot at each new house? Rudolph was the most popular with all of my neighborhood friends, so I knew no one ever thought of Blitzen or Prancer by leaving more than one carrot. Did Rudolph remember the pain of being left out of the reindeer games, which is why he gave his carrot away as an act of forgiveness?

One year my Mother forgot to buy carrots, so out of fear I panicked. I ran over to the neighbor’s snowman and stole the carrot from it. As I sat in church that Christmas Eve, I realized I had done wrong. I knew Rudolph wouldn’t eat, let alone share, that shriveled, weeks old frost bitten nose, plus I feared Santa would find out I had stolen it. Surely he spoke to all the snowmen in the neighborhood – after all, they had magic in their silk hats. Robbing Frosty to pay Vixen is always naughty. As a child in the pew, sometimes the secular and the sacred would become interwoven.

My favorite part of the service, the part where I forgot about Santa, Rudolph, the olfactory-deprived Frosty, and all the rest, was when Minister Peters asked us all to kneel as he read the Christmas story, Luke 2:1-20 (RSV).

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…,” and as he read, the organist began to quietly play an interlude into the hymn Silent Night. The lights over the congregation were dimmed down and out so only the altar was swathed in bright light.

“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth…,” and the congregation softly joined the organ and sang as underscoring to the minister’s narration.

When the lyrics started, an acolyte took the center candle of the Advent wreath and lit the handheld candles of the first person seated in the front row on both sides of the center aisle. As Minister Peters continued and we sang, those first people used their candles to light the candle of the person next to them. Slowly the darkened congregation began to glow in candlelight as each successive person passed the flame from their candle to their neighbor’s.

“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them…”

“…all is calm, all is bright…”

I tipped my unlit candle into my Mom’s flame and then turned to offer my light to my sister. And so it moved down the pew through my other siblings to my Dad, and then to my grandparents in the pew behind, and on to my uncles and aunts, my cousins, continuing row by row to the very back door of the sanctuary where eventually even the “standing room only” glowed in flickering light.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men…”

“Christ the Savior is born… 

Christ the Savior is born.”

In that candlelight, with tears of joy streaming down my face and my soul wide open, I understood the mystery of God and the truth of Christmas. On a silent and often cold winter’s night, light and love moved from the altar, spreading across a sea of humanity, to fill that room with the hope that it would continue to burn in our hearts, and before our eyes, lighting our way long after the candles were out and we went forth into the cold, dark world.

For years after the service, my grandparents would ride back home in the car with us. Without fail, my Grandma would point out a red blinking light in the sky and declare it was Rudolph leaving our house. She did this long after my sister and I grew old enough to insist the light was just a plane circling O’Hare airport.

My Grandma kept the fantasy alive for my youngest brother and sister by rebuking that “planes never fly on Christmas Eve so Santa doesn’t have to worry about the reindeer getting hit by Pan Am.” (Later in life my Grandma came to despise the song Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, mostly because she felt betrayed by Rudolph for all those years she gave him credit in denying the existence of an aircraft holding pattern.)

I’m not sure how I’ll recapture those feelings of Christmas while I’m here at Oakdale FCI. Without family, longtime friends, and all the traditions that go with celebrating Christmas, it could become a bleak midwinter’s night. How can the light shine here?

Bundled up on the track, I stood contemplating that and the Christmases of my past, while trying to imagine this Christmas to come. I looked up into the chilly night sky and thought of Grandma. No blinking red noses in sight. But there was a star. A bright star. I know I’m no wise man in finding my way here, though I did come from east of Oakdale. That star, and all the stars that filled the night sky, reminded me that I am free, even though I am imprisoned. Funny how reminders of comfort and love are often right in front of our eyes, if we only open our souls to see.

There will be no traveling for me this year, and I definitely don’t have any gifts to bear. I don’t even have a drum on which to play a song; however, my heart does beat the rhythm of life. A life that can once again kneel, see the light, feel the light, and pass that light on to others. With that knowledge in my soul, I am more free inside this prison than many who sit in their homes before a warming fire, or even some who sit in the packed pews on Christmas Eve.

I’ve realized it doesn’t really matter where I spend my Christmas – as long as my heart is in the right place. That is the flame of truth I’ll burn bright with, warming my soul from the inside out.

May you know peace and joy this holiday season, celebrating love with those who surround you, and sharing that light with others who are still out in the bleak, cold dark night.

This Woman…A Gift From God

by Tony E. Casson

“Many will say they are loyal friends.
But who can find one who is truly reliable?” Proverbs 20:6 NLT

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive,
and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” Anais Nin, The Diary Of Anais Nin

God rarely announces His gifts with a lot of fanfare, as evidenced by the gift of His Son, whom He sacrificed in order to offer Hope to the world.

Shortly after arriving here at Oakdale FCI, a friend of my sister – a person I had never heard of, let alone met – sent me a note of encouragement written on a card which had a verse taken from the Bible printed on the front. That card arrived quietly and without fanfare, and while it was appreciated, it certainly was not viewed at the time as being anything beyond a nice gesture which required me to remember my manners and send a note of thanks by return mail.

The name of the woman who sent that card is Diane Woodall, and while I did not view this unknown person as any sort of gift from God at the time, the relationship that was begun when Diane first put pen to paper and reached out to another human being has blossomed into the most beautiful friendship imaginable, and her placement into my life could ONLY have come as a gift from God as evidence of His grace and His indescribable ability to attend to even the minutest details of our lives if we only afford Him the opportunity.

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord.’ They are plans for good, and not for evil, for a future and a hope.'” This quote from the Holy Bible, Jeremiah 29:11, was the message on the front of that card. It has occupied space above the mirror in my cell since it was first received. It is my personal assurance from God that the insanity which precipitated this period of incarceration is over, and the future is at hand. They are words that have kept me focused on God and the task before me of building a relationship with Him that is enabling me to become the human being He intended me to be when He first gave me life.

The card itself was an introduction to the woman who would grow to become the best friend I have ever had. Quietly, unobtrusively, and totally devoid of fanfare, God gave me the gift of a stranger’s Christian love which has guided me, kept me company, and helped me to take confident steps toward His promise of a future and a hope.

I have written – and wadded up for the wastebasket – several attempts to continue beyond this point. There is so much to say about this person who has given so much of herself, her time, and her money to type, print, mail, copy, research, edit, redo, reprint, recopy, remail, advise, consult, console, and correct. Hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars spent lending support to a very, very broken man as God walked him through the process of healing, restoration, and renewal. And for what? Because God dumped me in her lap, and said, “You need to help this person.”

There is so much of what I have been able to accomplish that would have been extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, without her invaluable assistance and devotion. She took over the management of these “Chronicles” some time ago and she was utterly irreplaceable in completing “TODAY IS….A Gift From God” (my book of daily devotionals on Kindle, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention). I literally shudder to think how much less I would have achieved here without her friendship. I am leaving here eager, confident, and prepared to face the future, and a very large part of my ability to be that way is directly attributable to her.

When I expressed reservations about going back to the state of Florida, Diane quietly investigated a possibility which has recently become reality. In May, upon my release from this place, I will be heading to Washington, DC rather than the sunshine state of Florida. Some may view this as a step in the wrong direction, but I can only say the reasons why this is the greatest blessing I have ever received are numerous, and I am completely overjoyed! I humbly offer thanks to God and all of those who helped make it happen! I will be taking up residence in the Central Union Mission in downtown Washington (www.missiondc.org), and I will be participating in programs to help me continue to grow in my relationship with God, and I will be immersed in an environment of service to others. An environment I believe is one God Himself chose for me. Don Woodall (Diane’s husband), is very involved with the Mission and provided the link to Reverend David Howard, who is the director of the Spiritual Transformation program at the Mission. My sister Kathy spoke with the person who will be my new Probation Officer upon my release and was able to gain approval for the transfer, which will also serve to place me close to family members. Did I say I was blessed?

In making this move, I will be able to learn how to follow Christ OUTSIDE of this prison, and I will be able to focus on a life of service to other people. I have learned many valuable lessons while in prison. Some directly from God, through the Holy Bible; some from reading what others have written as daily inspiration in devotionals such as “Streams In The Desert”, “Our Daily Bread”, and “The Upper Room”; and I have learned many valuable lessons from the friendship of Diane, and the willingness of her husband and Reverend Howard to lend a hand to a stranger. I have prayed, meditated, walked and talked with God, and through it all, I have thanked Him for His gift to me of this person who is as important in my life as any person has ever been. Rising above all that I have learned is this: We can do the most to help ourselves, when we reach out to help another. You see, folks, this is what God intended all along. It’s not complicated or difficult.

Diane Woodall helped me to learn this, and other, valuable lessons and I am forever grateful. No one person has ever exhibited such kindness to me. It is an amazing thing to think about, and I do think about it often.

For those of you who think it is impossible for a severely broken human being to undergo a complete, and total, spiritual transformation, you simply do NOT know God! And for those of you who don’t believe that friendship, kindness, Christian love, generosity, and selflessness can contribute mightily to that transformation, you simply do NOT know Diane Woodall.

Diane, my dear, dear friend, may God bless each and every one of your days and show you the love, kindness, and compassion that you have shown me, increased 10, 20, 30…..a HUNDRED times!

Man Imprisoned, Man Freed.

We are steadily approaching what will hopefully be my dad’s release from Oakdale, and many days I consider the journey. I admit, I smile.

Many years ago there was a man who did what he could. He had a house, some work, a son and a growing relationship with a long-lost daughter. He had dreams of creating. He had many things that, when stacked against the idea of imprisonment, were considered highly favorable. But because of delusions, these conditions were contaminated.

Several years ago there was the same man. Still with a son, and a rocky but existent relationship with his daughter. He barely had a home, and he had recently lost his parents. He fixed and cleaned filthy objects and was once attacked by someone while working, but he had a job. He lived in a sunny environment, albeit amidst financial poverty. He had dreams of improvement and then of creating. And still, when stacked against the idea of longterm imprisonment, he had some favorable conditions. But because of delusions, these conditions were contaminated.

A few years ago there was the same man. But imprisoned. Cut in many ways from the world outside an institution built for punishment; a place that, when stacked against the outer world, had terrible conditions. But because of a release from delusions, these conditions were purified.

For those of you wonderful readers who have followed this story over the weeks, months, years, you see it too. For those of you new ones, you will see it soon. You will feel, “Which of the men were imprisoned, and which of the men were freed?”

When I consider my father, I am not disturbed by his situation as others may think I am — have thought I am. Ordinary appearance reveals a human being who had freedom and was then locked away; ordinary appearance reveals ugliness and sadness. And yet there is neither ugliness nor sadness.

There remains only beauty and joy and hope and inspiration. And internal freedom for a very worthy individual.