Glimpsing Danaus Plexippus

John 20:19-31  – The Second Sunday of Easter – for April 27, 2014

“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them with Jesus came.” (John 20:24)

I rode my bicycle, all smiles and pedaling fast.

Then a butterfly attacked me!

I ducked . . . whew!

mexico-monarch-butterflies.jpeg-620x412However—since I’m a two-hundred pound guy, and was riding at twenty miles per hour, and wore a goofy-looking helmet—shouldn’t I instead say: I avoided smacking a butterfly?

After all, who’d have suffered more from 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 and mostly minding my own business. Then, whoosh! On the far left side of my peripheral vision a winged creature dipped into view. I ducked. All survived the near miss.

It was my second butterfly encounter within the week. A few days before, I’d been lounging 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 up and down, a splash of brash gold and black against the tree’s green backdrop. Unlike an anxious, frenetic hummingbird or a proverbial busy buzzing bee, the monarch took its time.

I watched, my mind wandering until the insect disappeared over the fence and into the neighbor’s yard.

I wondered, 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 my friend Dan, a pastor in the California town of Pacific Grove, the self-proclaimed “butterfly capital of the world.” I had visited Dan only a few weeks ago. Every year in Pacific Grove, monarchs arrive from a thousand mile journey from Mexico, creating a springtime explosion of fragile glory. Viewing my temporary backyard companion prompted a brief prayer for Dan. I enjoyed the winged reminder of him.

monarch-emergingAs the monarch meandered, I also recalled a Lenten activity done during children’s time in worship a few years back. One of the church’s other pastors knew where to acquire butterfly cocoons. Every Sunday we designed lessons for the kids based on Lent’s preparation and Jesus’ emergence from a tomb. From cocoon to butterfly; from Ash Wednesday, through Good Friday, to Easter.

The winged beauty had finally 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 on a bicycle path, barely there in my peripheral vision. Another became a luxurious moment of reflection. Both gone.

In the time following 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 was eaten. The disciples didn’t believe 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. John’s author, after Jesus’ first encounter with Thomas (and after Easter), explained Jesus had done many other things, but the few related were written . . . “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the messiah.”

The cocoon breaks apart. And after, a butterfly emerges. Beauty takes flight.

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

For me, because I fervently believe Jesus called us more to a relationship with our fellow humans and with the Holy, rather than to dwell on him, I am always humbled by the glimpses of glory I experience. A butterfly blazes into 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 what I know and control.

And yet I believe. Once I gathered with children to observe a cocoon, for weeks a still and somber shell, to recall stories about hope, forgiveness and even doubt that will open hearts and heal wounds. What will I do here and today to care for the earth? Here and today, 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.

I am called to believe. It’s always right after Easter.

(Butterfly image from here; cocoon image from here.)

I published a version of this essay in 2009.

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