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I can feel January coming —feel it in my soul. I could even if I were wintering in some unfamiliar climate with the seasons all out of place.

Along with the usual reflections about what has passed and what is to come, the start of a new year often, for me, triggers a sense of chagrin and failure. This is my usual time for remembering, once again, all the goals I meant to have accomplished, all the resolutions I meant to have crossed off my list, all the personal and spiritual growth I’d hoped to see in my life.

If I’m not careful to avoid the old trap, I find myself projecting my own harsh self-judgments onto God. Surely God must be tired of trying to shape me by now. Some winters I’ve become so absorbed in self-condemnation that only a divine epiphany could shake me out of my pensive melancholy.

One winter I had to drive five hours north to cover a news event for work. In order to arrive on time, I’d left in the wee hours of the morning and was, as usual, insufficiently rested and stressed from the haste of a disorganized departure. After perhaps two-and-a-half hours on the road, I pulled into a little all-night Chevron station, where I filled my tank with fuel and my travel mug with some cheap approximation of cappuccino.

Hurrying back to the car I passed a man in faded jeans, plaid shirt, and a threadbare jacket, sitting on a curb at the edge of the parking lot. He looked at me, grinning, and bobbed his head. I nodded back and muttered, “How are you.” It wasn’t really a question. But his answer was every bit an interjection.

It bubbled forth in a quiet, exultant shout: “I’m free!” he said and kept repeating with obvious joy. “I’m free! I’m free!”

Curious now, I turned back to talk with him and learned he had just been released from prison. Yes, he had some problems. No shelter, no money, no job. And on the credit side he had a criminal record, an estranged wife, and children lost somewhere in the social services system. But suddenly all he saw before him was his freedom and the hope it conferred—the exponentially increased potential in life this side of the bars. He was free now, free to begin rebuilding his circumstances and reclaiming all he could of what he’d lost.

Conscious of my schedule, I soon left him with my congratulations, a handshake with a little cash in it, and best wishes for the journey before him. Like any good evangelical, I felt convicted that I could not stay to “witness” longer and had not “blessed him” with more money or biblical wisdom. But after working up a good head of guilt it occurred to me that perhaps we’d met so he could witness to me and I receive a blessing from him.

He helped me to see that, as a child redeemed by the blood of Christ, freed from bondage to sin and adopted into the family of God, with every reason in the world to exult, the truth is I do not feel free. And most of the time I do not act free. Rather, I act like someone shackled, bound by the flesh that challenges my spiritual resolve. Like someone barred from access to the deliverance and delight promised to me not sometime in the future but now. Yet God’s Word promises grace and joy today. That’s something to smile about.

As I drove off into the pre-dawn darkness, a gentle spirit of conviction tweaked my cheek and asked, “So why aren’t you smiling?”

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