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Recently, while I was pondering on what to write about for this month’s Poynton Post comment, a friend mentioned the expression ‘clean slate’ to me.   That caused me to think about the expression ‘wiping the slate clean’, and how we often use expressions without really thinking about where they came from and what they might once have meant.


I found myself wondering about the origins of the term ‘wiping the slate clean’ and this is what I discovered!


Years ago, people could go into a grocers or pub etc and buy things "on account".  A record of transactions and money owed was written on a slate.  At that time, the debt was to be cleared on payday and it was always a great day when the debt was paid and the slate wiped clean.  Although slate was eventually replaced by paper or electronic record, the term ‘wiping the slate clean’ still remains in usage in this context.  


Secondly, during Victorian times, young schoolchildren used to write on slate boards made from a piece of quarry slate set in a wooden frame.  A pencil, also made of slate was used to write the letters.  The advantage of slates over paper was that they could be wiped clean and used again and again - very environmentally friendly!  Children had to bring a dampened cloth or sponge to school so that they could wipe their slates clean at the end of the lesson and start again but often they would use their own spit and the cuff of their sleeve! 


The third explanation for the expression ‘to wipe the slate clean’ is a nautical one.  The course steered and distances covered by a ship were recorded during each watch on a slate and after they were entered into the official log at the end of a watch, the slate carrying the ongoing recordings was wiped clean ready for the next watch to keep a fresh record.


Each explanation relates to the same thing - cleaning recorded information from a slate.


The biblical gospel is the promise of God to ‘wipe the slate clean’ for anyone who will admit their wrongdoings and flaws, accept their need of a Saviour and believe that the price was paid for them by Jesus Christ through His death and resurrection.  In return for faith in Jesus, our slate covered with a lifetime’s records of sin, is wiped clean for eternity.  Christians know the experience of forgiveness and freedom that accompanies that revelation that the record has been wiped clean and that each day’s transgressions can be freshly wiped away if we will just ask God to do it.


The Wiktionary online dictionary definition for ‘wiping the slate clean’ is:  “To forget about previous differences and disagreements, and make a fresh start.”


Forgiveness is very important to God because it makes us right with Him but Jesus also mentioned the importance to our own wellbeing of our forgiving of others and asking their forgiveness.


In my research, I also discovered that in the year 1999 - 2000, there was a ‘Clean Slate Campaign’ which invited people both  to take a practical step to wipe their slate of offences clean in areas of conflict and also to sort out parts of their lives that needed attention in practical ways.  The campaign spread all over the world.  Some of the testimonies on their website are very moving and powerful:  www.cleanslate.org/stories.html  A small selection appears below.


I had harboured a hurt for years against one old friend. I wrote a letter of apology. She phoned and asked me to forgive her. We talked for ages. The friendship that was dead came alive. (Anon, Edinburgh)


A friend introduced me to the Clean Slate Campaign when we were discussing giving something up for Lent. I thought about it and decided that my 'clean slate' would be to try to do in a day all that I planned to do. One evening I was thinking over whether I had carried this out and I remembered I had planned to ring my sister.  I looked at the clock - 8.30 pm - 'oh no, I'll leave it until the morning,' I thought....and then....'what about my clean slate?' So I rang. It took a long time before she answered, and her voice sounded strange. 'Sorry, darling,' I said, 'did I wake you up?' There was a long pause and she said, 'No, you didn't wake me up, you stopped me taking an overdose.' (Anon, Kent)


I'm writing to a friend about my "put down" of him years ago. The thought of it occupies too much RAM. (Bill Butler, USA)


I have decided that I am not going to feel guilty any more about my actions and behaviour from the ages of 19 to 27. These years included my college years when I behaved promiscuously and hurt my friends very badly. I thought only about myself and lost contact with God. I am putting the guilt of those youthful years behind me in the knowledge that if God can forgive all I've done then I can wipe my slate clean. (Anon, Oxfordshire).


If we in Poynton were to run our own Clean Slate Campaign, I wonder what the fruit of it would be in terms of peace of mind, restored relationships, hurts healed, hearts softened and lives changed.  I’m sure God would approve.  After all, He is the author of forgiveness and healing and the One who can make miracles out of our messes!

Poynton Christian Fellowship

October 2008