"Svithe" is a word coined by Th. It means roughly "to tithe a seventh," and refers to the blog posts he puts up on Sundays. I have used it in the past and do so now with all proper homage and deference.
In 1740, John Wesley started a new tradition in his young church. As an alternative to the usual drunken revelry that was (and is) New Year’s Eve, he held a special late evening service called “Watch-night” or “Covenant Renewal.” Worshipers would contemplate the past year, make confessions, give testimonies, and prayerfully formulate specific resolutions to keep their Christian covenants more fully. Watch-night is one of the sources of our modern-day New Year’s tradition. In late December, we think about the year that has past and the year that is to come. It’s a time of measuring and contemplation, and above all, resolution.
Judaism has a much older, if similar, tradition—but the order of events is a bit different. The faithful celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year—which usually falls some time in September. It is said that the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah in order to judge the nations, and any people found lacking have the ten days until Yom Kippur to repent and make things right in their lives so that they can be “sealed up unto life.” Observant Jews fast and attend synagogue services on Yom Kippur, repenting and making restitution for wrongdoings in the past year and resolving to become better in the new year to come.
Many of us will at least consider making a resolution or two sometime this week. Maybe we want to lose weight or save money or learn a new language. There’s a reason that every gym in America has a membership boom every January.
Of course, many (if not most) New Year’s resolutions end up failing. I know lots of people who don’t even make resolutions anymore, because they seem to lose steam any time between mid-January and March. What’s the point of making a goal that’s doomed to fail, they ask.
It can be a discouraging prospect, but perhaps it’s helpful to compare resolutions to baseball. In the only true and living sport, a player’s batting average is a calculation of the number of hits divided by the number of times he comes up to bat. A season batting average of .300, or three hits for every ten at-bats, is considered excellent, and a season average of .400, or four hits for every ten at-bats, is a nearly unachievable statistic. So, whereas a thirty to forty percent is a miserably failing grade on, say, a chemistry final, in baseball, thirty to forty percent is outstanding. Apply baseball stats to your resolutions going forward, and maybe you’ll feel a little better about your success rate.
Of course, we can’t define success by intentions alone. Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells is famous for saying, “You are what your record says you are.” This can be a bleak doctrine, except for one thing. In real life, unlike in sports, repentance can change our record entirely. In Mosiah 26:30, the Lord promises “as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.” Further, he tells us in Doctrine & Covenants 58:42, “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” This, to me, is one of the great miracles of the Gospel. Jesus, our Advocate with the Father, will literally no longer remember our mistakes once we fully and sincerely repent.
LDS composer Leroy Robertson based the text for a treble chorale in his masterpiece “The Book of Mormon Oratorio,” on 3 Nephi 12:47. “Old things are done away, all have become new, fulfilled in the coming of our Savior. The Father maketh his Son to rise and smileth down in favor.” The chorale is sung at the moment the resurrected Christ descends from heaven and shows Himself to the Nephites, but the scripture has a broader application than that specific instance. When we repent and allow the Savior into our lives and hearts, old things are done away. The Holy Spirit renews us; Christ’s covenant is fulfilled again each time we fully avail ourselves of His Atonement. “Old things are done away” when we forsake sin and apply the healing, atoning blood of Christ to our wounded souls—and all becomes new.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for a once-a-year transformative renewal. The Lord, in his wisdom and mercy, instituted the ordinance of the Sacrament, ideally to be celebrated on a weekly basis. In Doctrine & Covenants 59:9, the Lord instructs us: “And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day.” By doing so, we can have the tremendous privilege of having the Holy Ghost for our companion. As we mindfully partake of the Sacrament, offering up our broken hearts and contrite spirits, we will find renewal, and peace. The Holy Spirit will give us the strength and courage to keep the commitments we’ve made.
I read a fascinating book this week written by Marie Kondo, a successful Japanese decluttering expert who has a huge following in Tokyo. Her approach to home organization resonated with me, and I found it applicable to the way we should live the Gospel. Kondo’s key to success is simple. Instead of focusing on what you want to get rid of, she explains, focus on what brings you joy. She outlines a detailed plan for the resulting decluttering process that includes the following steps: taking a thorough inventory of your belongings in a given category; picking each one up and holding it in turn; and noticing whether that particular belonging sparks joy when you touch it and contemplate it.
If it does not, Kondo recommends thanking the item for however it has served us or whatever it has taught us—and we should be specific—and then let it go. To the trash, to the charity shop, wherever—just out of the house (which includes the basement and garage). Kondo promises that if we do this thoroughly and as quickly as possible, we’ll be left with only that which makes us happy or is useful to us in our lives going forward.
I only had an hour between finishing her book and dinner preparation time last Friday, so I decided to experiment with her technique on a relatively small job: my knitting cabinet. Over the years, I’ve acquired a fair amount of yarn, most of it for unspecified purposes—projects to knit “someday.” Living in Southern California, I’ve known for a while that I should probably find another home for some of the heavier wools that simply won’t be useful to me here—but I hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it.
On Friday, I took all the yarn out of the cabinet and held each skein individually. I found that some of the yarn I still wanted to keep; it still sparked the thrill of creation for me, and I could imagine beautiful, useful things to make with it. But I discovered I could easily part with two thirds of the stash. I’ve boxed it up and will send it to a fellow knitter in New York next week.
How does this apply to the Gospel? Too often, I think that we as members of the Church approach change with a Puritanical attitude. We look at our bad habit or poor choice or foolish behavior with disgust and shame. Regret, or “godly sorrow,” as it’s called in the scriptures, is part of the repentance process; shame is Satan’s counterfeit. Regret inspires honest, forthright change; godly sorrow recognizes the lessons learned from the mistakes made. But shame isolates and encourages us to hide. Shame brings both despair and a perverse desire to wallow in our past rather than learn from it and move on.
So, let’s not focus on what we want to discard; let’s focus on what we want to keep, and let the rest go. In 1992, Elder William Bradford gave a General Conference talk on uncluttering our spiritual lives. He cautioned against letting terrestrial pursuits take time away from celestial goals. Notice that he didn’t mention telestial pursuits, but instead reminded us that the good can often rob the best if we’re not careful. Do we make time for sincere, heartfelt prayer? Do we immerse ourselves in careful scripture study, or do we merely read a few verses in a hurried half sleep?
Do our personal relationships with the Lord and our families come before work, hobbies, or even Church callings? Both Marie Kondo’s decluttering philosophy and Elder Bradford’s talk remind me of my favorite quote by President Ezra Taft Benson: “When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord will govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities."
That’s a promise from a prophet of the Lord: when we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. That is the very definition of holding onto what sparks joy. And as we let go of the past, we can do so with gratitude for the lessons we’ve learned. When old mistakes resurface in our memory, we can mentally thank them for how they’ve shaped us into better people, and then refuse to obsess over them. How streamlined and serene could your spiritual life be if you followed this principle faithfully?
In the days to come, consider taking a page from John Wesley’s book. We have no Watch-night service, but a visit to the temple or a quiet hour with the scriptures and our journals can accomplish similar results.
One of my very favorite hymns is #215, “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote the words in 1850 to express his grief over the untimely death of a close friend. While listening to distant church bells swing wildly in the wind of a major storm, he outlined nearly every New Year’s resolution we might possibly make. Crawford Gates loved Tennyson’s poem so much that he set it to music. Gates used only the first, second, and last verses for the hymn, but the original poem is seven verses long. I find all seven to be a perfect meditation as I contemplate changes I want to make in my own life in the coming year:
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.