TITLE: The Oil of Gladness
By Mike Watson
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THE OIL OF GLADNESS
The following short story is the result of an inspiration given to me at the beginning of a conference retreat in the Northwest. It is a joyful part of my spiritual journey while we occupy enemy territory. I’m delighted that you will join me.
It had been several years since I’d been back and it felt good to drive through the gate. The conference had always been well attended and something told me I could look forward to its spirituality. But after the long drive my back tightened up and I became a bit headachy. What really did it was the hour or so in the left seat of the minibus. I just can’t survive car seats that don’t recline. Once unpacked I stepped into the shower and let the jets of water course down my spine. Dreading another headache I hung my head trying to stretch some sore neck muscles. Then I leaned against the wall and for a while just closed my eyes. Soon, the stream increased and became forceful. I knew the taste of salt as the water began to rise around my feet and ankles. The floor tipped forward and then back at an awkward angle. The deck shuddered hard – then wobbled from side to side and I heard the deafening sound of heavy timbers cracking and splintering. Now a torrent – the water quickly rose above my chest as massive wooden structures churned the water around me. Now I could smell cool night air.
The vessel that held me safe disappeared – useless debris in a chilly ocean. Those few timbers I could reach quickly sank when touched. Adrift with no support my sharpened senses looked for help. With stars above me and ocean swells all around, I thought I heard waves faintly lapping a distant shore line. Striking out with measured but urgent strokes I headed for land. Stopping every dozen strokes to reorient, I would pull several sets and roll onto my back to rest for a count of thirty. With uncertainty I tried to convince myself I was slowly gaining land. Finally, after about an hour of steady work I could discern some progress. Fearful of tides and other ocean hazards, I wanted to capitalize on my progress but all I could add was determination and I had to be satisfied with steady effort.
Fatigue became a condition of survival and my mind found itself tunneled into stroke after stroke. I don’t know for how long or how far – I only knew the treadmill of ocean swimming. Finally I could discern a faint light on the horizon. On my next pause I saw the jagged outline of land and struck out with renewed hope. Eventually my hands and feet bumped the sandy bottom in the wave troughs and I soon found myself floundering and staggering away from the surf. Exhausted, I collapsed and slept in the sand.
When I awoke it was to the full light of day and a hot sun on my aching but rested limbs. I looked around at a barren land – no structures or other signs that man had been here. During my initial look around there arose a gnawing impression that something was not right. To my left I could see a rocky, impassable shoreline, to the right there rose a steep cliff extending for miles up the coast. A broad valley stretched inland and I began walking toward higher ground. A blend of peaked and rolling hills rose in the distance off to the left. To my right, the ocean cliffs had turned in and marched up the valley ahead ascending many thousands of feet. Everywhere I looked the broad expanse of rolling meadows was dotted with bare trees and sickly shrubs. A former pasture of rich growth had become swaths of grass scorched and trampled. Several copses of trees appeared to have forgotten the passing of winter and stood leafless in the hot sun. Once over a rise I could see a deep swale of many acres beaten and churned as if plowed by the oxen of hell.
On the far side, one tree, larger than the rest, caught my gaze. The reason for the desolation seemed to be bound up in it and as I plodded closer it dawned on me that this was a land of neglect. Nearly barren, now I could see a number of shriveled, brown leaves, and diseased branches as well as what looked like a few nuts on the ground underneath it. It turned out that this was an olive tree and these were the only remaining olives. There were four left and I stooped and picked one up.
-------It Just Isn’t Fair!
My mind flared with rage. NO! I will not be tricked. This is my land and I refuse to submit to deceit. I screamed. I cursed. I hollered at the heavens. With blind anger I bellowed my defiance at being seduced into an adventure I didn’t want. I spent hours refusing to accept the unfairness of where I’d been left. As time passed I realized I had gained a sympathizer in my little olive. It looked normal enough but with each torrent of rebellion it had supplied me with a fresh case load of reasons to be angry at my unjust condition. Each belch of rage provided supporting evidence that added credibility to the next round of propositions.
It boiled down to the fact that I was right. And the rightness of my position entitled me to a fair hearing. How could anyone possibly deny this basic right? There must be reciprocity and I want it balanced. In a land such as this the advantages were unfairly tipped away from me; after all, wasn’t I a whisker from drowning? Now the olive began to indicate that this whole affair had become one obnoxious trial and I had been given no recourse or means of appeal. Unfortunately I was here and had to expend so much determination just to achieve survival. Why couldn’t this effort be channeled in a more productive direction? I had a multitude of responsibilities hanging and this excursion had me separated from reality.
I pulled up short and looked at what seemed at first to be an advocate. As realization swept over me I snorted at the utter stupidity of it all. In shock now I realized that this is an adversary. I marveled at this small thing. Turning it several times in my hand an annoyance a bit like resentment rose in my mind. I spun one direction, stopped, then turned the other way as though anger could compel the better part of my logic to figure on the right course of action. Briefly, I saw the trick. I blinked. Then almost without thinking I casually tossed the olive to one side. It shattered like a glass bulb on the loose stones and I let out a long, slow breath. Looking around I saw that I’d climbed a knife edge between two low peaks. I had lost a burden like a pack slipping from my shoulders. Anger fell away, tumbled down the slope, lost forever. Even the guilt of being angry seemed to leave as quickly and I laughed at the feeling that in some small way I’d been cheated out of the opportunity for repentance for such a display.
A voice came to me – peaceful yet with the strength of the ages:
Indeed the wrath of man does not work the Righteousness of God.
-------Too Much to Think About.
Squinting, I looked around at the land and realized where I was. After a while I picked my way back to the olive tree. Looking at the other three olives I picked up the largest of them – about the size of an apple. It seemed almost alive with a desire of its own. As I held it – its weight increased and I felt my fingers widen as this bloated olive became even larger. Alarm started through my mind and I chose a sharp rock and laid the best edge against the fruit. It seemed stupid but I felt bound to cut it open but lacked the knowledge to complete the task. I must know more. Do I clip the top? Should I cut the girth? Or do I slice from top to bottom in segments? The importance of the proper method consumed my thoughts but so much lay ahead - my task on this forsaken land had only begun. After many anxious minutes and a tumult of methods I realized that idea followed idea, and numerous methods followed on their heels and I was no closer to cutting the olive. In desperation I ignored all my hesitation and knowledge. With the olive steadied on a flat rock I forced the sharp edge into the meat of it and fell back clutching my head in agony. The rock fell to the ground and the olive rolled off its makeshift altar. As my vision cleared I looked at the wound in the fruit and thought I caught a glimpse of the pit in the center.
I whimpered at the thought of more pain. Then I steadied the olive in its place, positioned the rock over the first cut and closed my eyes. This time I took a deep breath and in an attempt to destroy both the olive and its ability to communicate pain I gripped the rock and put all my weight into the next cut. Pain grew quickly and I determined to know nothing except the rock penetrating through to the stone beneath it. White heat flashed through my head and I fell back again – stunned but now aware of capability. I can do this. Another deep breath and I looked at the olive, crudely split in half. Next I took the stone from the center and my head swam while I held it. Vague thoughts began to suggest a patient approach. In rebellion I put the small pit on the altar. Careless of consequences I grabbed a larger rock and quickly smashed the pit. My mind went blank.
Unbidden – the same eternal voice came to me and said:
We all have knowledge – indeed knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.
I Corinthians 8:1
-------Its None of Your Business.
I shrugged and made my way down the slope back to the olive tree. I stopped and looked at the two remaining olives. Without thinking, I picked up the larger of the two and knew I had to be careful with it. This one needed particular caution and I looked around for some way of adding discretion to my approach. Dread entered my mind because I knew that if this olive didn’t get the right attention I would be lost forever. My entire reputation was at stake. This olive had to be disposed of. And not just anywhere. It had to be disposal I could use without exposing my shameful humanity. I’d worked so hard to build and preserve my reputation and it was all based on my ability to hide my real self, my fallen nature and all its insecurities from my fellow man. If anyone found this olive I was terrified that they’d instantly realize:
“What?! Is that all you are?! I could never let them peer into my soul. I could never let this olive or anyone who found it expose my condition and its shame. The whole crux of the problem had to do with disposing or hiding this olive so that no one could find it.
It was silly but I found myself walking for hours looking for the perfect solution for this stupid olive and I had both my hands cupped around it; afraid that someone might see it and discover my true condition. That was it! This olive was my shameful humanity and I pondered, schemed for long hours for the sake of my image. My ego, the Self, prodded and annoyed my soul, using unsupported expectations to justify myriad denials – I am worthy and more of a person than the one you think I am; I should have ascendancy before my peers; I’m also entitled to the respect that I’ve explained many times before. I built elaborate plans. I tried to hold my head up.
But reality pressed in on me. As I trudged on I realized I began to feel guilty for having held on to it for so long. Soon I felt the weight of accusation pressing in on me. The longer I paced through the land with it the more I cried out against my own possession of it. It wasn’t fit to dwell here. Its very presence defiled the land. No! My possession of it is what defiled the land. I found myself aching to be rid of it. Where can I put it where nobody else could possibly find it? Do I throw it into the ocean? No. It’d wash backup on shore. Do I bury it? Never! It’d surely take root and then what?
Finally, I determined to try something and my mind cried out in shame. No! It said. Don’t be careless! Wait until you get to the right place, wait for the prime opportunity and then make your move. Gingerly, against my fears I uncovered the olive and felt naked. Between thumb and forefinger I took the olive and with horror I placed it on top of a large rock. Then I closed my eyes and took a half a step back. Scared to death I dared to look at my shame. Gradually, I smiled. I looked around the land and noticed a local peak. I plucked the olive off the rock and headed for it. Now, no longer afraid, still the olive cried out and waves of embarrassment shot through my being. I blushed – I looked down at the ground, but I trudged on up the slope.
Once at the peak I placed the olive on the highest part. The place most exposed to the elements. As I turned to go the olive cried out for comfort and safety and I found myself amazed by its ability to communicate betrayal. I walked away and left my shame – indifferent to those who saw it. I left it there for all to see – or, like me, to ignore it.
Again, the voice of truth spoke the following words:
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel since it is the Power of God resulting in Salvation for all who believe.
-------Forcing the Issue - My Way.
By now it was dusk and my eyes grew heavy. Finding a low overhang I curled up on the warm rocks and went to sleep. Somewhere during the pre-dawn hours I woke with a chill and swung my legs over the edge of the rock and sat up. I found fresh determination and started down the hill towards the olive tree. Three down one to go. Pondering the previous day’s conquests I solidified my will and considered my last adversary as good as done. Nothing could stop me.
When I got to the tree the sun had just risen over the hills before me and bathed the scarred land in its warmth. It would be a hot day. I picked up the last olive and noticed it was hard, about the size of a bean, and badly shriveled. I looked toward the sun and decided that the answer probably lay in that direction. Why, I don’t know but it seemed to be the best place to bring this to an end. Stepping off, I probably went about a quarter mile when I felt the urge to shift the olive from one hand to the other. After a while I looked down at it and wondered “What’s up with this?” It felt as though it weighed about a pound. Every so often I would bobble it from one hand to the other like a grapefruit. But for such a small object the practice became awkward. I dropped it once and when I stooped to pick it up its weight seemed to double. Yes, I was a bit puzzled. But I’d find out what this was about when I got to the peak. For now I had no idea what passion would assault me. Whatever demon dwelt therein the first thing to do was get there and not let my attention be diverted.
After a while one shoulder would get tired and I would shift the olive to the other hand. This went on for some time and it became clear that I would be caught unprepared in some way. I began to carry it low in front of me with both hands. One hand carrying the olive and the other supporting the first hand. Soon I noticed that as I continued up hill the trade off in balance became lost on support. I then had to carry it by turning my forearms upward and keeping the olive close to my chest. Now it was higher than my center of gravity and I was getting annoyed. It was almost noon and I began to sense an end to my hike; but the weight of my burden crowded my determination to get there. In my mind there was no way I would miss this appointment to attain perfection but the olive was defying my purpose.
Travel slowed noticeably. My steps shortened and my upper body motion changed to accommodate a small object, held high that now seemed to weigh about 45 pounds or more. A few times I carried the weight low but the effect of banging my hips and stomach to counter the mass of the olive was too much. I hefted it up a second time and it seemed to gain another 5 to 10 pounds with each effort. I’d been sweating freely for about an hour now. This was getting to be too much. I felt stupid. Even in the absence of anger, my determination created something different. I knew one purpose and in my mind there was room for nothing else. I was going to do this no matter what. Or, was I? My foot slipped on a rock and the olive, now off balance tumbled off my hand toward my chest. It banged off my leg, bruising my knee and left an impression in the ground. I went to pick it up and marveled at its new weight. I also found amusement at my technique for getting it off the ground. I had to go down on one knee, lay the back of my hand on the ground and roll the olive on with the other hand. Then I had to support the first hand with the second and stand with my legs well under me.
Great, now what? The top was less than a hundred yards away and I had to carry a bean-sized olive that weighed over 90 pounds. No, it was more than that. It felt like 110 or more. I began to panic. I had to do this. And I had to get moving, Now. The steps were awkward and unsteady and I didn’t dare try anything brave. I was hot and tired and I refused to give up. After a very difficult 40 yards I judged that the olive now weighed 130. Soon I wouldn’t be able to carry it. I’d hefted it to resupport my left hand in my right and the olive now weighed at least 160 pounds. I let it drop and watched as the olive split a fist sized rock under it. I could no longer support such a small, heavy object with my bare hands.
Sheer will took over. I managed to roll the olive another 3 or 4 yards with my hands, feet and even a few rocks that I was able to use as crude levers. Urgency flooded my mind. Someone was coming and I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared. I struggled against the olive with every means and managed to turn it twice before it became physically impossible to move. Aware of mounting failure I collapsed in a heap of dust, sweat, and tears.
Defeated – I sobbed for a while and then became aware of a new presence. Confused, I opened my eyes and saw a golden glow. The sun was setting behind me and this glow was in front of me, to the East. I raised my head and saw two nail-scarred feet and the hem of a white robe.
I said “Lord, forgive me.”
The sound of His voice both soothed and commanded me:
“My son, My brother, rise”
I backed away from the olive and rose to stand before my Savior. He stood in magnificent glory with a mighty sword in His right hand. At once peaceful and all powerful.
“Would you do my will?”
“Then destroy this olive.”
Then I took a large stone and raised it clear over my head to smash the olive. I added all my effort behind the weight of the stone and brought it down full force. The olive rebelled against me. The rock shattered and I was blown several yards away and landed on my back.
“Lord, I cannot destroy my own will for you. Will you help me?”
Then my Savior stooped and picked up this tiny olive and set it on a large rock. The olive cried out in my mind – begging, insisting, and demanding that I not give up. I must make one more effort. My knees shook against my own will. The King of Kings flicked His wrist and brought the flat of His blade down sharply on the olive. A small pile of dust remained.
I Can Do All Things Through Him Who Strengthens Me.
My hand went to my chin as though I’d forgotten something. I looked at the Lord of Salvation and noticed the warmth on His face. Then His expression changed and He raised His blade over my shoulder. Following His gaze I turned, realizing what I must do. As I stepped out I noticed grass sprouting beneath my feet. With each stride I could see new growth everywhere. The sharp tang of sage complimented the sprouting life.
Downhill or not, it felt good to run. Casually I broke into an easy lope. Rounding a curve I came to a confusion of tall boulders I’d passed through earlier. For fun I leapt spread-eagle many feet up towards the mass. Shards of rock and dust came off the edge where my open palms struck the top of the boulders. Torso, waist and legs cleared the edge by many feet as I vaulted up and over. Effortlessly, I landed on the far side and hit the ground running, my stride covering yards at a time.
Then I noticed that my bare feet no longer demanded a carefully chosen path. In moments I covered vast stretches of ground with incredible ease. Each stride kicked up loose rock and dirt. All around me wildflowers were springing up. Small animals began to appear. Glancing behind me I saw the renewed hillside and ahead of me the land had turned lush with life. As I made one last turn a broad shimmering pool came into view. There were animals grazing at its banks and birds frolicking on the opposite slope.
While many yards away I gathered momentum and timed my steps. Grinning, I stomped the ground entering a mighty leap. The leaves shook on their stems and a few rocks came loose. I arched headlong into the air with arms outstretched and dove into the pool. As I broke the surface I could see a tall olive tree on the opposite side – the leaves were lush and green and the branches heavy with ripe olives. In several strong pulls I swam to the far bank. Climbing out to sit under the tree I laughed out loud realizing I was covered with fresh olive oil.
Drenched in the oil of gladness I reached up and plucked a few ripe ones. For a time I savored the taste but more than anything I drank deep the beauty of the surrounding land. I am its steward and its care had been restored. Then I lay back on the thick carpet of grass and dozed off.
After a while I recognized an odd brightness before my eyes. There was no health to it. Its light was pale and without warmth. With growing wakefulness I opened my eyes and saw a simple light bulb against a white cabin ceiling. Then I heard the sound of boots on a wooden floor. Looking up, there were two young cowboys about to leave the room. In a few more minutes the conference’s general session would begin. It was time to go.
A Final Note
I hope the reader understands that the previous story is not a fantasy.
The words in “The Oil of Gladness” are the culmination of long periods of a hard striving after spiritual maturity, growth and awareness. This striving is by no means complete - threats and temptations abound. Realizing the land of the intellect can become desolate I determined to demonstrate how the Christian’s interior walk with God gets impeded by subtle and beguiling habits of the mind and emotion.
This is what I have called a high metaphor illustrating the Christian whose soul actually gets to interact with the land of his own intellect. Left untended either by ignorance or deliberate sin, the intellect becomes a trampled and lifeless domain, void of vitality and a downright miserable place for the soul to dwell. Often enough the daily walk may reveal faults and immaturities previously undiscovered. At other times we walk unawares that our habits of the mind predispose us to a life incapable of achieving the multiple graces in store for us.
Writing the Oil of Gladness is both a joy and a soul-quaking experience to ‘know thyself’ and go far enough with it to put it on paper. There will always be a carnal nature and therefore it’s a discipline that won’t end until we are all translated to His glory. And it will come in due season so I encourage the reader to embrace the struggle. Animating my soul and having it apply murderous force against certain habits of the mind became liberating. I also saw my Savior more clearly that ever.
Look forward to knowing the Father’s moment by moment presence, and then accompany the practice of His mighty word with His presence. Learn to become like the Christian said “careless of consequences” and the oil of gladness flows freely. The mental terrain becomes renewed and the soul of the Christian can enjoy its riches with confidence.
I say to all who are reading this - be content with the God of your Salvation. Defy your fears, neglect your anxieties and be altogether rude with your own sin. In the true spirit of I Timothy 2:22, the pursuit of righteousness and other holy affections will by default result in flight from youthful lusts.
Finally, I pray that this story gives you courage and enables you to bring hard-edged reality to the soul’s ability to cultivate the terrain of your own mind and turn it into a paradise of God’s truth.
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