“I had a time with Aissha alone. Her soul was clouded and I could get no response heavenward. She was preparing to go, winding her coarse white haik round her. I could only call silently on God for some touch. Then her eyes rested on a vase of flowers on the table – celandines from the lanes, and cream and gold jonquils from the fields. I said, ‘How pure they are – that is the purity that God wants.’ She looked up with her face soft and shining, ‘Yes, I should like the life of Jesus in me to be like that.'” 21 February 1906
A lifetime ago, or so it seems, Sunday morning was the most difficult time of my week. I was left to prepare three little children for church – alone – their father (my husband in absentia!) being safely ensconced in his study at church, putting final touches on his sermon. This morning, in particular, it seemed almost a travesty to offer thanks for the food, the children being “at” each other from the very moment they awakened. In a last-ditch attempt to redeem the morning, I suggested we “ask Jesus to forgive us and give us a brand-new start.” With a collective sense of relief, they agreed, and one could almost feel the air clear with the final “Amen.”
Later that day, I rushed about trying to put the house in order for a meeting. Time was short and so was my temper. The children were “too much with me.” But single-mindedly I kept to task, pressing forward toward my goal. Young David, who had been around the edges of things, stilled me with a question: “Mommy? Do you want to stop right now and ask Jesus for a brand-new start?”
There was no mistaking the implications of his suggestion nor the earnestness with which he offered a solution. I checked the impulse to come to my own defense: too much to do; too little time in which to do it. I realized that from his point of view I had been short-off and badly in need of a “brand-new start!” Humbled, I apologized, and together we took a moment to ask Jesus “for a new start for Mommy.”
Who doesn’t love “a brand-new start?!” Often this is an opportunity associated with fresh beginnings on our calendars: a new day, new month, new season, new year. Sometimes it is a new job or house or locale. Whether it is the blank slate of a calendar or the changes that accompany a new place or space, we anticipate “a brand new start” with all its fresh prospects and possibilities.
There is a yet deeper, more profound “brand-new start” than that associated with the blank pages of a calendar or the challenge of new opportunities. It is the “new start” of a brand-new heart.
Such was the challenge facing Lilias as she came alongside the young Arab girls who peopled her life. Girlhood was brought to an abrupt end with early marriages. The brides, in turn, were often cast aside for yet younger women when scarcely out of their teens, leaving them vulnerable and subject to unthinkable temptations.
So it was with Aissha from the nearby village of Blida. Young, pretty and separated from her husband for two months, she was living alone and had become visibly “flighty” – if not worse – definitely exhibiting a show of pride and temper. Sensing that she was distancing spiritually, Lilias longed to penetrate her “cloudy soul,” praying silently for “some touch” from God.
The opportunity presented itself at the end of a seemingly unproductive visit. Just as Aissha was leaving her eyes rested on a vase of flowers – “celandines from the lanes, and cream and gold jonquils from the fields.” Lilias observed, “How pure they are – that is the purity that God wants.”
Aissha’s response was immediate: “She looked up with her face soft and shining. ‘Yes, I should like the life of Jesus in me to be like that.’ ”
Lilias answered, “Yes, they came pure and sweet out of the black muddy earth, without a soil on them. Shall we pray that you may be like them?” Together they prayed, Aissha’s head resting on Lilias’ shoulder, asking for the forgiveness that results in a “brand-new start,” pure and sweet like the flowers gathered from lane and field.
We long, at times, for a brand-new start – “pure and sweet” – in the deepest places of the soul. Such a start is the promise of Scripture but it comes with a caveat. Repentance. Not only for the “big sins” but more often for the subtle attitudes and actions which inoculate our consciences and cloud our souls: indifference to God. . . irritability and impatience with the people with whom we live and work. . . pride. . . harboring a grudge. . . dissatisfaction with our “lot” in life. . . jealousy or envy for those who seem to fare better than ourselves. . . We want refreshment of Spirit but often resist the very conditions requisite for the same. Yet when we humble our spirits and acknowledge both the sin that clouds our relationship with God and our helplessness to correct the situation on our own, we are ready to receive His wonderful gift of forgiveness. “Now you must repent and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out that time after time your soul may know the refreshment that comes from the presence of God.” (Acts 3:19)
A new year. A brand-new start. Yes, but may it be deeper than mere experience: plans, goals, resolutions. May it begin in a heart “pure and sweet” that meets the requisite conditions – contrition followed by repentance – thus receiving the “refreshment that comes from the presence of God.”
Create in me a clean heart, O God;
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from the presence;
and take not thy holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with thy free spirit.
Painting: Diary 1906