As I write you this note I’m sitting on our sun porch on Saint Simons Island watching a monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. It’s happening in our kitchen right now.
Debbie has been protecting this creature from the time it was a caterpillar on a milkweed. It traveled with her by car from Saint Simons to New Orleans and from New Orleans across about a third of Texas to pick up our granddaughter Grace and back to Saint Simons. This newly emerged butterfly was already well-traveled before it ever got its wings. This morning, while Debbie and Grace were at the beach it came forth from the chrysalis.
Until the past few weeks I was embarrassingly ignorant of the way butterflies come into existence. I knew the stages. My second grade teacher made sure of that. But I didn’t really comprehend the magic.
As you know a butterfly starts as a caterpillar munching away on leaves, until one day it transforms into a chrysalis. Transforms is the key word here. In my ignorance, I thought the caterpillar built a chrysalis, crawled inside, and grew wings. Nope. The caterpillar actually becomes the chrysalis. And those bits of the caterpillar that are inside the chrysalis become a gooey sort of bug soup. That soup is transformed into a butterfly and eventually breaks free to dry its wings and fly away. Incidentally, this process is really difficult for butterflies. And if humans try to “help” them, the butterflies will die.
Debbie and Grace came racing home from the beach when I called them with the news that a butterfly had emerged. Carefully they took the milkweed plant outside, the butterfly still hanging precariously from the chrysalis.
This is miraculous stuff: Transformations that can neither be seen nor really comprehended. Of course, this is why in the Christian traditions, this process has been used as an analogy for resurrection.
Why am I telling you all of this?
We living through a period of enormous stress and confusion in our history. The pandemic has upended the commonplace and introduced anxiety to everyday life in a way we couldn’t have foreseen. A renewed awareness of the ways in which our black neighbors are often maltreated and traumatized by the very systems that should serve and protect all citizens has awakened many of even the most dormant consciences. Going into both of these events our nation seemed more divided than many of us could recall. More than a few people have said to me, “I just don’t know where we are headed.”
In response to these realities, and in response to this question, I’d would like to offer two observations.
1. If a future monarch butterfly had any consciousness of what it was going to go through on the way from caterpillar to butterfly, I have a hunch it would freak out. Really. I imagine most prospective butterflies would opt to remain caterpillars crawling around and chewing away on a nice green milkweed, enjoying its legs and dodging the occasional mockingbird. The stories about flying it may have heard will sound like silly fables. The risk of dissolving inside an apparently dead shell of its own tissue and hanging from a leaf would be far more real than the eventual possibility of wings. That miracle of transformation, so ordinary that it occurs all around us in nature, makes me reflect hard on the nature of spiritual and social transformation. And it brings to mind that wonderful passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans reminding us that as followers of Christ ours is not to conform to the self-serving and self-centered mold of the world but to allow ourselves to be transformed through the renewing of our minds into the very image of God.
2. It’s hard for me to believe, but as July approaches I will have had the privilege and joy of serving as your interim senior pastor for almost a year and a half. What I have discovered as your pastor is that if there is a Christian congregation anywhere in America that can embrace the hard work of continuing spiritual and social transformation it is you. I have never known a group of people more eager to learn and grow in faith. I’ve never known more courageous and generous people. Every day I am with you (even now when we have to keep a safe social distance) I love and admire you more as a congregation. Miracles are happening all around us. God is at work throughout our world and in our society. The crises and challenges we face provide a chance for transformation like nothing else. We have a wonderful opportunity to respond to the needs of others with grace and mercy; with lamentation, confession to be sure; but also with deeper understanding and tenderness; and with compassion and a renewed sense of our common humanity. We have the opportunity to fly, as hard as that is to imagine as we crawl around in these leaves.
For the next few weeks, although you’ll hear me preaching through Steven’s digital magic, I will be away from New Orleans. I hope each of you know, however, you will always be in my prayers.
God bless you.