Starting with a Clean Heart

Well, happy New Year, Friends. I hope you’re feeling hopeful and looking forward to all that 2023 will bring. As one year transitions to the next, it’s a natural time for us to reflect on what we’ve just lived through—we take a moment to look back, so we can move forward a little wiser, with more understanding and experience. If we spend too much time and energy looking back, though, we can get stuck in the past, replaying mistakes and regrets and missed chances. That won’t make for a happy new year.

But the flip side is that if we leap too quickly into the future without considering the lessons of the recent past, we might miss some important things we learned, valuable insights Life gave us, ideas and experiences that may come in handy in the months ahead.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg suggests this way of reflecting at the close of the year:

“Pause to honor all the ways that you have grown this year.
Pause to honor all the ways you have been generous this year.
Pause to honor all the ways you have been resilient this year.”

Those are three important lenses to look through as we consider where we’ve been and where we’re going. I love that reflection because it encourages us to take a moment to appreciate what we truly accomplished during the year. No matter how much we may have messed up, no matter how many challenges we faced, if we were able to grow, to learn something from it, to give what we could, and to bounce back from adversity—however uneven or incomplete that may be—if we could do those things, we lived that year well. Those are all things to be grateful for—grateful to God and grateful to ourselves, that we found the courage, the hope, the ability to keep moving forward, whatever we may have been dealing with. That makes it a good year. Looking back, it helps us see 2022 with kinder eyes, grateful for all that has been, all that God helped us through.

And that is a great starting point for the year to come. What will it have in store for us? This time next year, we’ll be able to answer that question, but for now, it is all unknown. Anything is possible. We start the new year with fresh expectations and closely held dreams. We may hope the year will bring healthier days, or more contact with family, trips to fun or exotic places, or perhaps the mastery of a new skill or the achievement of a long-sought goal. Some hope and pray for partners; others yearn for peace and joy for their kids. We all share a basic human desire for happiness, peace, and well-being, both for ourselves and those we love.

Many of us start the New Year with resolutions—and those usually have something to do with the idea of correcting habits or practices we weren’t particularly thrilled with last year. “In 2023 I’m giving up sugar,” one person might declare. “I’m going to the gym at least three times a week,” another might say. “No more home shopping network!” another might write in her journal. Whatever it is we’re trying to control—our calorie intake, our social media consumption, the hours we spend watching television—typically our resolutions are an effort to make us better in some way, to bring our behaviors more in line with what we think is good for us, something we haven’t quite lived up to before.

And while it’s good to have goals, perhaps there’s a better way to start the new year. Why begin anew based on the things we did wrong—or at least didn’t do well—last year? Maybe a better place to start is with the heart of who we are, as the loving children God created us to be. What is our true potential for love and light, peace and goodness? Let’s start there, instead. What might our year look like if we started with God, if we gave all we could—the moments, the memories, the experiences, the plans—to God to arrange in the best way possible for us?

Focusing on the good God created at the center of our souls—that of God in each of us—doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reflect with some honest self-awareness about the places we fall short and the areas where we can do better. That’s just what the Light of Christ will do for us—lead us toward self-honesty, inspiring a reckoning that will help us see where our selfishness gets in the way of love, our distrust undermines community, and our fear steals our joy.

Margaret Fell wrote about this self-revealing aspect of God’s Light in this passage from a letter she wrote to newly convinced Friends:

Now, Friends, deal plainly with yourselves, and let the eternal Light search you, and try you, for the good of your souls. For this will deal plainly with you. It will rip you up, and lay you open, and make all manifest which lodges in you; the secret subtlety of the enemy of your souls, this eternal searcher and trier will make manifest. Therefore all to this come, and by this be searched, and judged, and led and guided. For to this you must stand or fall.

Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? But she’s pointing out how important it is to listen to the leadings of God within us. To hear the truth about our intentions, our motivations, the real stirring behind our actions. This type of reflection helps us see where we need God’s help in our hearts and lives. And it humbles and prepares our hearts to be washed clean by Christ’s light so we can truly start again—this time, with God in the lead.

Our Old Testament reading is part of a psalm King David wrote at a very painful time in his life. He has just had the kind of reckoning Margaret Fell was writing about and now sees what a horrible thing he did in seducing Bathsheba and conspiring to have her husband killed. David suddenly saw how his actions had not only broken several of the commandments he tried to live by, but also betrayed God’s trust in him and his leadership. He prayed this prayer, as deeply as he knew how:  

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

David knew that the sweeping change he needed in order to change his life wasn’t something he could do on his own. There was nothing he could humanly do to undo his tragic actions; no apology would ever be big enough, no gesture able to restore what was lost. What he needed was for his heart to be washed clean, for the center of his soul to be reset with the goodness of God’s spirit within him. He prayed that God would restore him to the essence of his being, “that of God” within him. And he knew that his joy would return when he was once again back in harmony with God.

In John Woolman’s Journal, he writes extensively about a struggle he had with God when he was a young man. He went through a time of sickness when life looked very dark; he had lost touch with hope; and his own selfish desires seemed to be stronger than any resistance he could muster. Finally realizing that his lifestyle was causing him pain and keeping him from accomplishing anything worthwhile, he wrote:

“I sought deserts and lonely places, and there with tears did confess my sins to God and humbly craved his help. And I may say with reverence, he was near to me in my troubles, and in those times of humiliation opened my ear to discipline. I was now led to look seriously at the means by which I was drawn from the pure truth, and learned that if I would live such a life as the faithful servants of God lived, I must not go into company as heretofore in my own will, but all the cravings of sense must be governed by a Divine principle. In times of sorrow and abasement these instructions were sealed upon me, and I felt the power of Christ prevail over selfish desires, so that I was preserved in a good degree of steadiness, and being young, and believing at that time that a single life was best for me, I was strengthened to keep from such company as had often been a snare to me.

I kept steadily to meetings, spent first-day afternoons chiefly in reading the Scriptures and other good books, and was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life, wherein the heart does love and reverence God the Creator, and learns to exercise true justice and goodness, not only toward all men, but also toward the … creatures; that, as the mind was moved by an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible Being, so, by the same principle, it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world... I found no narrowness respecting sects and opinions, but believed that sincere, upright-hearted people, in every society, who truly love God, were accepted of him.”

So John Woolman had found a way to keep his heart clean and ready for God’s presence and leading. He saw clearly which ideas and behaviors got in the way of his deepening connection to God, and he purposely let those obstacles go. He instead filled his mind with worship, quiet, and scripture; he began to sense the stirrings of God’s love within him. Soon it began leading him forward. And all that change—transformation, really–began with his desire for a clean heart.

When we talk about the heart, we often refer to it as the place that holds our deepest beliefs, our most precious understandings, and our greatest hopes. We use phases like, “Follow your heart,” or “She’s so good-hearted” and “he really needs to get to the heart of the matter,” and all those phrases point to the essence of who we are, beneath our day-to-day thoughts and behaviors. When we talk about the qualities of the heart, we’re really saying something about the soul, the eternal essence of a person’s being. We can love whole-heartedly. We can share what’s on our hearts. Those are both spiritual acts. We can do what Mary did in those first few hours of Jesus’ newborn life—she witnessed all that was happening and treasured it in her heart.

Our New Testament scripture is a single sentence from Jesus, taken from the teaching of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus says, “for they will see God.” This is the effect of having a heart washed clean by the Light of God’s loving presence. When our hearts are pure now—no matter what happened back in 2022—when our hearts are clean, we can start again with God at the helm. We’ll be able to love what God loves. We’ll feel inspired to make our relationship with God a priority, like John Woolman did. We’ll get more familiar with the way God guides us: inspiring us, sharing ideas with us, helping us through our days.

And when we begin to “see” God, as Jesus said—and George Fox said this too, and lived it—we will be able to recognize “that of God” in everyone. We’ll see God’s beauty in all people and situations in our lives—even when things are momentarily hard or a bit of a struggle. We’ll have hearts pure enough to watch for God to show up in our circumstances—because God will–and soon things will come right once again.

And because of that, we’ll begin to carry more hope for our world. Once we see how God works with us, we’ll feel certain God wants to share that same love and grace with everyone, the whole world over. The fear fades. The worry recedes. And the ocean of Light and Love—the agency of God—becomes an increasingly present and reachable reality.

Do these sound like high hopes for 2023? Every bit of it is possible. It all begins with our willingness to start with a clean heart. If we ask God to help us start again, God will. And then step by step, day by day, we’ll learn what it means to live with a heart made pure by the tender presence of God.

In closing, I’d like to share, “Prayer for a New Year,” by the Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan:

“O Thou who abides in our hearts,
most Merciful and Compassion God, Lord of Heaven and Earth,
we forgive others their trespasses and ask Thy forgiveness of our shortcomings.
We begin the New Year with a pure heart and clear conscience, with courage and hope.
Help us to fulfil the purpose of our lives
under Thy divine guidance.”

Amen.

RESOURCES:

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