THE OYSTER TECHNIQUE
The Oyster has one trick which we could well I imitate at times—though never in a sulky manner. It can "shut up!" But, better still, it can make pearls; and it is this faculty, and the techniques the oyster uses for the making of pearls, that I want to talk about now.
In South Africa, I would ask my theological students where pearls come from, and they usually answered, "from pearl mines". This was because they were personally familiar with diamond mines. But diamonds and pearls are very different things. Once, in Kimberley, we watched a weathered old diamond prospector working through a sieve-load of wet crushed shale and little stones, cutting slice after slice, spreading them out, then tossing them aside. I asked him, "How do you recognize a diamond when you see one?" He replied, "Oh, it smiles up at you!" If a diamond is a smile, a pearl is a tear-drop, for it is born of suffering. Or a pearl also is a smile—the kind that shines through tears.
Maybe some of you don't know how pearls are produced, so I had better explain, at the risk of boring those who do. Oysters have a gland which secretes a fluid that dries in a thin, hard, translucent film. They deposit layer upon layer of this film as a smooth lining for their shells: we call it mother-of-pearl, or nacre. If a speck of grit, or a tiny living organism, gets inside the shell, the oyster covers this over too. Sometimes, in very rare cases, the irritating object remains loose, and the fluid flushes around it, making a tiny ball, which, after dozens or hundreds of layers have been deposited on it, becomes a pearl.
The milky translucent layers are comparable in thickness to the wave-length of light. In each layer, the light is reflected from both surfaces simultaneously; so, if the thickness is three-quarters of the wave-length of some particular colour of light, that colour is blacked out by interference; but if it is exactly half the wave-length of another colour, that colour is intensified. The white light is thus split up into rainbow hues, but differently in each layer, right the way through to the core. As you view the pearl from various angles, the colours change, for the layers are irregular in thickness. So you get the effect of a mysterious iridescence glowing in its shadowy depths. There is not the brilliant surface-sparkle of the diamond, which seems to suggest truth, but an inner glow, which tells of love.
On the mud flats in pearl-fishing areas, one can see piles of oyster shells as high as a church. These have all been examined, and a certain number of pearls were probably found among them. But natural pearls are so rare that a big industry of cultured pearls has developed—particularly in Japan. The oysters are kept in tanks. Grit, larvae, or tiny specks of mother-of-pearl are skilfully inserted under the shells to stimulate the flow of the fluid and set the oysters going about their important work. The pearls thus produced are as genuine as any formed at the bottom of the sea, and much cheaper.
I hope this doesn't suggest to you that you should deliberately irritate one another, to encourage the manufacture of spiritual pearls! Most people have troubles and annoyances enough without their friends adding to them. The lesson we should learn from all this is how to deal with the troubles and annoyances which beset us in the ordinary course of events. We should glorify them, as the oyster does the grit. We should "overcome evil with good."
This, I am afraid, is a very unusual line for us humans to take. Our normal reaction is just the opposite to the oyster's. If people hurt us, our instinct is to retaliate and get our own back, plus a little! Let's face it, pearls are rare. You might have a pile of people as high as a, church (in a church?) and find very few pearls. Yet how beautifully the pearls stand out when you do come across them!
In the Bible there is the case of Joseph who was sold by his brothers into slavery; but, instead of wreaking vengeance on them when he had them in his power, he forgave them completely and did all he could to help them. What a pearl! And think of David: an outlaw, living in a cave, harried by King Saul—for no fault he ever committed. On two separate occasions, Saul fell into his hands; but David spared his life, returning good for evil. Another magnificent pearl.
In more recent times there was the case of a prisoner in one of the Communist countries who showed so much love to his full-time professional tormentor that eventually the tormentor broke down and sided with his victim. But the case in all history that stands out uniquely is that of Jesus Christ, who, while his enemies were actually nailing him on the cross, cried: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." That was our Lord's last and most terrible temptation—the temptation to hate, to "get his own back." If he had given way to it, and (say) struck his torturers dead with a thunderbolt, or summoned twelve legions of angels to defend himself . . . then his whole redemptive work would have been undone, and the hells would have won a resounding victory. Instead, he smoothed his agony over with love, producing the pearl of great price, sought after by all the merchants in the world.
Temptations are worse than irritations, because temptations come from within. Evil spirits from hell inject their subtle suggestions into our hearts. Here again we should employ the oyster technique, flushing the evil over with pure love—love to the Lord, and love to our fellow men. By taking a positive attitude and directing our thoughts and energies into useful and wholesome channels, we can render the temptation harmless. Every time we achieve this end, another thin layer of film is added to our characters, which thereby gain in gentleness, strength and beauty. We are making goodly pearls.
That is why the Lord allows us to be tempted; why so many things go wrong; why the road to heaven is so gritty and rough. It is a law that everything worth having in the human personality must be obtained by a correct reaction to stimuli. We are confronted with situation after situation, and the manner in which we respond to them determines our future lot. There is no other way of getting to heaven than by first suffering hell. That is why we are told that the gates or entrance ways into the holy city New Jerusalem are each—what?—A pearl!
Literal-minded people will wonder how a pearl, which is ball-shaped, can serve as a city gate—apart from the problem of size! Nor can we accept the explanation that the city gates were merely coated with pieces of mother-of-pearl, for the Book of Revelation expressly states: "The twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl." Of course we must understand it spiritually, not literally. The one-ness of each gate implies that the character of every inhabitant of the city, as formed by all his experiences throughout life in this world, is homogeneous. His mind can be scintillating with a thousand different truths: it can be garnished with all manner of precious stones—diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, rubies and the rest; but his heart (the pearl) must be integrated into a single unit. Wisdom divides; love unites.
During our life on earth, we are continually modifying our characters, in keeping with our spiritual growth and development. We are spiritual merchant men, exchanging one pearl for another—always, I hope, a smaller for a larger, a poor-quality gem for one of a higher grade. The Christian life consists not only in obtaining pearls, but also in trading them for costlier pearls. We must sacrifice the comparatively lower for the comparatively higher, until we have achieved the highest of which we are potentially capable. And will not that bring us into relationship with the most beautiful and costly Pearl in the whole world—the glorified Humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ?
"The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it." We shall find, as we take up our cross and follow in the Lord's footsteps up the stony road to the holy city, that "He is the way, the truth, and the life"; and that the gate of pearl through which we must enter is none other than Jesus Christ himself. As he said to His disciples, "I am the Door."