By Cheryl Stenson
My parents separated when I was five years old. It was a very acrimonious split. My mom and I went to live with my grandparents but my dad was allowed to take me out on Saturday afternoons. Not being as informed as we are today about healthy psychological approaches for a child regarding family break-ups, my mom and grandparents said things around me about my dad that I should not have heard. Their side of things, of course. My dad did and said inappropriate things as well. All of this to say, I loved my dad but also had some fear around him.
Nonetheless, when after our visits he would drop me off at the bus stop and watch me walk down the street to home, I kept my back to him and cried all the way. Not for me but because I could feel his pain. I was too young to understand the emotional intricacies of the situation but I felt – not knew in my mind but felt – that this man agonized over not living with his little girl and daily being a part of my life. I would discover, years later, that coming from a family of fifteen in rural Cape Breton how profound the loss of family was to my dad. But the good news is that I found that out because I am an oyster.
Nacre [nay-ker] is the name of the substance that lines the inside of an oyster’s shell. When any foreign substance, like a grain of sand, slips into the shell, the oyster is physically irritated. It’s kind of like the oyster getting a splinter. The oyster responds by continuously covering the irritant with nacre which stops the irritation and eventually forms a pearl.
As I grew older and began to have a more mature understanding of my father’s pain, my sympathy for him caused me suffering and I became determined to make our mutual situation and relationship better. By the time I was in my early twenties my dad had asked me countless times to go with him on his summer vacation back to Cape Breton to connect with his family. I had always been too nervous to say yes but, when I was twenty-two, despite my fear and trepidation, I agreed. And that decision grew into the most beautiful pearl.
Cape Breton is lovely and, far more importantly, so is my Cape Breton family. Having no extended family on my mom’s side, the warm embrace of my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins provided me with a sense of belonging I had never had. With very few exceptions, I have visited my Cape Breton family every year since then, including after my dad passed in 2001. Early on, I began to send the family and all the neighbours Christmas cards. My dad was not someone to express his feelings but his comments made it clear that this brought him great pleasure. The minister began having me do the children’s story and my dad wore that with unspoken but evident pride. I always sent family birthday cards a) because I loved these people and wanted to but b) because I knew that his family was everything to my dad and it would bring him happiness. When my dad retired and moved back to Cape Breton the length of my visits increased and, as the years passed, our relationship grew and deepened. A far cry from the estrangement and fear we had both felt so many years before. The irritation of my youthful pain for myself and my dad had morphed into a lustrous pearl. I am an oyster. So are you.
I recently wrote a reflection on the battle between good and evil and what we can do to contribute to good outweighing evil – feeling the horror of events in our world and committing to change what we can – “fixing” things. After the service at which I delivered that reflection, a congregant and I were chatting and he commented, “A happy oyster never made a pearl.” I loved the concept and ran straight to my binder to write it down and later research. As it turned out, the internet was a virtual bevy of factual information and metaphorical inspiration about oysters and pearls. The first gem I encountered was this:
Rubem Alves was a Brazilian theologian who became a psychoanalyst, educator, and writer of children’s stories. In fact, he wrote a short story called “Happy Oysters Don’t Create Pearls.” In it, he tells the story of an oyster that was different from all the others. This oyster could not be happy like the others and was always very sad. The cause of his sadness was a grain of sand that had entered his body. He felt that excruciating pain day and night. As a way to survive the pain he sang sad songs. His songs were so sad that they tormented the oysters that sang happily. “Why is he so sad?” they asked. But the truth was that he had to live with the pain caused by the arrival of that unexpected grain of sand that was plaguing his life. One day, a fisherman threw his nets and took all the oysters, the happy ones and the sad one too. At dinner, the fisherman was eating oyster soup with his family when he felt something hard inside his mouth. When he took that stone out of his mouth, he realized it was a pearl! And he gave it to his wife. The author then says that happy oysters do not produce pearls, only those that suffer pain.
Our Galatians reading encouraged me to continue investigating the promise of the pearl, of discomfort moving us to action: “you reap whatever you sow…. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”
Echoing that sentiment, Susan C. Young writes:
“As a pearl is formed and its layers grow, a rich iridescence begins to glow. The oyster has taken what was at first an irritation and intrusion and uses it to enrich its value.”
I believe that our answer to achieving this metamorphosis in our lives is found with the Holy Spirit. Among other functions, this spirit is our motivator. Marion Jordan Ellies writes,
“Throughout the Bible, the Holy Spirit is referred to as the Breath of God. This name encapsulates both the Spirit’s supernatural power and divine purpose. The Holy Spirit brings life and fills us with the power of God.”
Today we’re looking at the Holy Spirit as influencer, as our inspiration to get the job done. The Serenity Prayer says,
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.
The Holy Spirit works with us on the courage to change the things we can. The Spirit breathes into us the desire to remove the spiritual, emotional, or mental irritant and replace it with something positive. And the Spirit guides us to how to do that, guides us in the decisions we make toward that end.
The Acts of the Apostles has sometimes been called the “Book of the Holy Spirit” or the “Acts of the Holy Spirit”. From the start, the reader is reminded that the ministry of Jesus, while he was on earth, was carried out through the power of the Holy Spirit and that the “acts of the apostles” continue the acts of Jesus and are also facilitated by the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes, the Spirit works through our conscience. Dr. and Pastor Sam Horn writes,
“As the Spirit educates the believer’s conscience with the things of God, the personal standard formed by the conscience begins to align with the standard of revealed truth. As a result, the renewed inner man becomes increasingly in tune with the will of God.”
And being more in tune with God’s will makes it more difficult to rationalize one’s own behaviour. Things we’ve done or said not sitting right with us can be looked at as the influence of spirit. And if we’re uncomfortable enough, we’ll act to make amends and repair any damage done. And, in so doing, we’ve created a pearl.
Reverend Colquitt Nash turns this idea around. He writes:
“An oyster which has not been hurt does not grow a pearl. A pearl is a healed wound. Have you ever been hurt by an unkind word or deed…Then grow a pearl. Cover your hurts with layer after layer of love… By covering those irritations with love, you will transform a hurt into a pearl and bless those around you. Return good for evil and make pearls out of the hurts in your life. By this we not only learn but teach the lesson of Jesus’ life.”
We can create pearls and we can be the irritating cause of their creation.
What’s the irritant or wound that can motivate you to make some changes for the better? We all have different grains of sand. One of mine, as a child, was the feeling of repression. Not that anyone was repressing me. I was my own victim. So many feelings bottled up in an extremely shy and fearful little girl. When I discovered creative writing in elementary school, I began unwittingly to create a pearl. When I got the opportunity to act in high school plays, the pearl developed more layers. I went to theatre school to explore this freedom and way of self-expression and, after beginning to work professionally, an actor friend I’d met brought me to a company he worked at between acting jobs. The owner of that company, Bill, was a wonderful man with a drinking problem to whom I would eventually be so happily married. Before he got help though, to get help for myself, I began attending Al-Anon, a spiritual program for friends and family of alcoholics. The Al-Anon focus on spirituality motivated me to seek a firmer grasp of my faith and I began attending church. Eventually, that familiar need to express myself led me to take the Licensed Lay Worship Leader course with the United Church and here I am. Answering the need to express myself, one pearl at a time led me here. I am filling my own need to serve and make a difference and, somehow at the same time, I am receiving healing of my most profound wound of losing my Bill. Grains of sand working together over time to form a blessed strand of pearls.
I found a helpful article in the Huffington Post written by Jennie Lee entitled “Five Steps to Turn Suffering into Blessing.” She writes:
“The seed of our healing lies deep in the darkness of discomfort, waiting for us to allow pain and suffering to teach us, not define us. The challenges we face and overcome determine the strength and resilience of our character. The secret alchemy that turns life’s difficulties into blessings lies in the following steps.
- Practice Acceptance
What is happening is what is happening. If we resist this basic truth, denying or pushing away the reality of a situation we find ourselves in, we actually perpetuate suffering… We must accept the challenge of our predicament and ask a new question. What do I need to face? What could life be trying to teach me through this challenge?
- Change the Focus
Rather than blaming that which is around us, we can shift our attention inside – taking personal responsibility for whatever we now must face.
- Become Humble
Through self-reflection and accountability, we learn that we are not determined by what life delivers from the outside.
- Learn to Forgive
Crying “tragic and unfair” just keeps us stuck in what hurts.
- Be Willing
Healing comes on many different levels of our being. We cannot reach the state of being ‘healed’ until we are willing to move out of the old story and into a new one.
… Now we must be willing to move courageously forward through fear.”
All of Ms Lee’s suggestions make complete sense and are helpful in and of themselves. But I can’t be the only one who finds the Holy Spirit between these lines though, most probably, that was not Ms Lee’s intention.
RE: Acceptance: John 8:32 – “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Re: Change the focus from blaming others: Galatians 6: 4-5 – “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.”
Re: Humility: Proverbs 16:18 – “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Re: Forgiveness: Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Re: Willingness: 2 Timothy 1: 7-8 – “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
Which brings us back to the Holy Spirit breathing us into the discomfort that will motivate us to change and grow, that same spirit giving us courage and direction if we have the willingness to follow.
This oyster and pearl metaphor extends to groups as well as individuals. The United Church of Canada is facing diminishing congregations and, consequently, numbers of churches. Closings and amalgamations happen weekly. I can’t help but think that the irritant of the decline of our faith homes will lead to the pearl of continuation and thriving if we accept that our old ways of doing things must change, must evolve to something new and fresh. God is leading us and we must follow. I don’t know the specifics of where we’re going but I know that change is afoot.
Our Isaiah reading today:
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?”
There’s a feeling of excitement in that verse. A feeling of looking forward with great anticipation. Rather than bemoaning our individual or group upsets, we can let the hope and resilience which the pearl represents centre us in a bright future.
Lama Surya Das calls it “The Pearl Principle” – no inner irritation, no pearl.”
Do we ever get irritated? Are we ever wounded? Yes?