Glimpsing Danaus Plexippus*

Luke 24:36b-48 – The 3th Sunday of Easter – for April 22, 2012

“You are witnesses of these things…” (Luke 24:48)

I swerved, just missed a butterfly smacking me.


(Image by via Flickr)

However—since I’m a 200-pound guy, and I rode my bicycle at 20mph, and a goofy-looking helmet protected my noggin—should it be: I avoided hitting a butterfly?

After all, who would’ve suffered more from actual impact? Chunky Larry or Madame Butterfly?

I’d been dashing along the bike trail, admiring the scenery, alert to other bicyclists and the occasional walker, mostly minding my own business. Then, whoosh! On the extreme left side of my peripheral vision, a winged creature spiraled into view. Duck…swerve…whoa! All creatures great and small survived the near miss.

It was my second butterfly encounter within the week. A few days before I lounged in a lawn chair after finishing yard work. Just passing the time. Just enjoying a spring afternoon. And then, floating by the orange tree, I spotted a monarch butterfly. For a leisurely moment, the Danaus plexippus did what butterflies do so wondrously well: it flitted about, a splash of brash gold and black against the tree’s green backdrop. Unlike an anxious, frenetic hummingbird or the proverbial buzzing (and so business-like) bee, the butterfly bided its time.

I watched, amazed at how my mind wandered until the insect disappeared into the neighbor’s yard.

Didn’t I see more springtime butterflies when I was a kid? Was that because I was a curious kid rather than a busy adult? Or, with the continuing onslaught of asphalt and concrete, with pesticides and global warming, have humans made the world more perilous for monarchs and their fellow winged Lepidopteras? I fear it’s more the latter than the former.

I then thought of Dan, a friend and pastor in the California town of Pacific Grove, the self-proclaimed “butterfly capital of the world.” There, monarchs arrive from a two thousand mile journey, creating an annual explosion of fragile glory. Viewing my temporary backyard companion prompted a brief prayer for Dan. I enjoyed the winged reminder of my buddy.

I remembered the Lenten activity done during children’s time in worship several years back. One of the pastors on the church’s staff acquired butterfly cocoons. Every Sunday, each a week closer to Easter, we designed lessons for the kids based on Lent’s preparation and Jesus’ impending emergence from a tomb. From cocoon into butterfly; from Ash Wednesday and on toward Resurrection Sunday.

The winged beauty departed my yard. Here, for a gift of seconds, a fluttering of wings, encouraging an abundance of thoughts and memories. Gone, but I remembered.

One butterfly was a split-second gasp and duck, barely there in my peripheral vision. Another became a luxurious moment of reflection.

Both gone.

After Easter we no longer read scripture about the Bethlehem babe or the teller of tales or the Nazarene who wowed the crowds and threatened the authorities. Here and there, though, according to Gospel snippets, he appeared. Words were spoken. A bit of fish shared and consumed. The disciples didn’t trust their eyes. Joy and disbelief held hands like nervous teens on a first date. Luke gave us Emmaus with its burning hearts. John sketched Thomas’ doubts. The resurrected Jesus appeared . . . and then gone.

Gone. Luke said one of the Nazarene’s last statement was, “You are witnesses of these things.

The cocoon breaks apart. A butterfly emerges. Beauty takes flight.

In our day-to-day faith, in April or December, it’s always after Easter. Now, what of Jesus? Now, what of my witness?

For me, because I fervently believe Jesus called us more to a present relationship with our fellow humans and with the Holy, rather than debate his divinity vs. humanity, I’m always humbled by the glimpses of glory I experience. A butterfly blazes into my view. I duck. The length of the encounter was less than a singular, splendid tick of the clock. But it reminded me of the immense world around me, the world—and God’s ways—which are beyond full knowledge and selfish control.

And yet I remember. You are witnesses, Jesus declared. What will I do today to care for the earth? Here, because of human actions, beauty takes flight or may disappear forever. Here and today, I have friends and strangers to keep in prayer and to share a life with. Here and today, as I gather with children to observe a cocoon—for weeks a still and somber shell—I tell them stories about forgiveness that long to open hearts and heal wounds. And I learn from those same children, for I know almost nothing.

Zhuangzi, the 4th Century BCE Chinese philosopher, legendarily dreamed of a butterfly. Awake, he posed the fanciful conundrum: was I a human dreaming the butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming about being human? Whether a serious or playful puzzle, his question prompts other responses to Jesus’ statement. As a faith-filled witness, help me remember my view or opinion isn’t the only way to see or experience or dream God’s gift of creation.

It’s always after Easter. Awake, and today, I will be called to witness.


*This reflection was first written in 2009. I revised it and used it “again” because I took a vacation and thought a rerun would be just fine. What a chump, huh?

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  1. Have also noticed a decline in butterflies in our environs, from the time when we could see only three houses from our backwater street at the edge of town. But then again, I thought that last year, and soon after, the monarchs and the swallowtails reappeared.

    1. Glad for your “soon after!” I’m also aware how different my “child’s eyes” are from my “adult eyes.” Do I sometimes not see the butterflies because I think I’ve “seen it all?” Older I get, gotta work harder at staying alert. Especially after my nap!!

  2. I’ve not noticed a decline in butterflies. But then for many years a garden was planted to attract the fragile creatures. As hummingbird feeders are hung, I also have placed bowls/saucers of nectar on porch rails with a silk flower nearby to attract and feed both bees and butterflies. The creatures amaze me. And I’ve also made it a point to use more organic or home remedies to take care of pests. Like vinegar and hot sauce to kill vegetation. I have toads and skinks that eat a lot of bugs, so I’m doing my best to take care of things on both ends. Kills the pests and keep alive the good creatures. (Well I suppose that is a matter of opinion.) We are “all God’s critters”, as one of my favorite kids VBS songs go. I’ve even held butterflies on my fingers for several minutes watching in wonder as it moved, barely able to feel it. And I have been known to slow down considerably during the month of September when the Monarch’s migrate through Kansas so as not to smash too many into the windshield of my vehicle. And then there is the wonder of a butterfly in the eyes of a young grandchild. Trying to explain the “why” and “how come Grandma?” And I also have to admit that I do cage some plants so that newly emerging caterpillars do not ravage a crop before I can get part of it. We are witnesses to so much of God’s world and creation. How much of it do we see? I’m supposing we miss a whole bunch as we humans dodge to miss the more frail of God’s creatures.

    1. Nancy! Thanks for your response. It’s nice to see my butterfly story kept flying into your yard! Using vinegar and hot sauce to battle nasty bugs, eh? Gonna have to try that . . .

  3. A rerun is great for those who missed it first time around! I’m a lay preacher so don’t do this every Sunday.


    1. Hey, Wendy! Reruns are not only good for me because they can provide a “break” in my writing schedule, but I can revisit and rediscover the ideas I once struggled with.

      Thanks for reading, thanks for letting me know!

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