“I wish it was that easy,” I think to myself as we speed past a bright green sign boasting an exit to a California town named Freedom. What if we could take something as quick and easy as an exit ramp to find the wide open space our heart longs for? I imagine what the streets of that city might look like. Do people skip down the sidewalks, laughing with their friends without caring who overhears? Do they say “Hi” to strangers, let others cut in grocery checkout lines, reach out for help when they’re in need?
I doubt it. Even a land named Freedom can’t guarantee citizens who have chosen to be free. I know this full well. The first verse of Romans 8 has been my mantra since college: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. I say it when someone makes a belittling comment about my job. I say it when I hit a woman named Wanda on Main Street-my very first car accident. I say it when I know I’ve let a friend down. When another Sunday morning comes and we’re not going to church. When the money is low, when the rent is high, when it rains and when it pours, I say it.
But do I believe it? Is it more than a wise teaching-is it taking root in my heart? I look back on the road I’ve traveled. It's much too curved and rugged to be leading to anything so beautiful as Freedom. There are unresolved pains in my heart that I’d pay big money to shake. There is a need for forgiveness, lingering like the last customer at closing time. There is failure back there. There are conversations that haunt my dreams. There are turns I never should’ve taken. So does all that past mean that today, I’m not free?
I let that question rest and do a little research about the promise-land sign. You'll never guess what I find. Before Freedom, there was another name: Whiskey Hill. Home of vagabonds and prostitutes, get-rich-quick types and unseemly characters. Home of some of California's worst saloons and brothels. Before Freedom, friends, there was bondage. And then one day at the turn of the 19th century, concerned citizens rose up and said their town needed a new name, a new reputation, a new direction. They decided Freedom would do just fine.
Now truth resounds in my heart like an anthem: each day presents a new choice. And Freedom is a decision I can make, a promise, a gift from God that even if the road is long and dusty, even if some of those old masters try to weigh me down with rusty chains, even if there's no guarantee that I'll be safe wherever I'm going, even then, I'll never have to go back.