“The barracks were full of them. The image was repeated over and over again. Butterflies. They were everywhere I looked. Some were crude. Others were quite detailed.” In 1946 Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross visited the Maidenek concentration camp. The children’s barracks were particularly sorrowful, with toys and shoes scattered and left from lives now gone. But there was something else, too. The walls were covered with hundreds of butterflies, scratched and etched with fingernails and pebbles.
Why butterflies? Kubler-Ross said it took her 25 years of working with dying patients to fully understand. I get how–on a physical level–the butterfly reminds us that at death we physically leave our bodies the way that butterflies leave their cocoons. Or, how–on a spiritual level–the butterfly reminds us of the potential for transformation that we go through on an ongoing basis, as we evolve, grow and change.
But this story goes way beyond that. These were children, living in camps where they knew they were going to die, and yet found something within them to leave a message of hope; while their bodies might not make it, the butterflies somehow represented their souls, and they would live on in a different form.
Yes. This is somber stuff. The kind of thing I prefer to talk about cerebrally, uneasy when it–quite literally–touches my heart and my life.
And yet. While it is not easy, it is empowering and life-giving to know that transformation happens only when I embrace my life as temporal, fragile and ephemeral. Yes, I’d rather my life be irritation free. And I don’t do well when my spirit weighs heavy.
But these children teach me. The butterflies inspired and bolstered them; and teach us about saying goodbye. Unafraid to embrace the realization that life is interwoven with loss, disappointment, pain and the bittersweet.
Headed to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula last week, we landed in Minneapolis on the day of the Chauvin jury verdict. We drove northeast, listening to the reading of the verdict on the radio. Tears came freely as it was read. Our emotions best captured by Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, who said at the news conference following: “They’re all saying the same thing: ‘We won’t be able to breathe until you’re able to breathe.’ Today we are able to breathe again.”
And on Thursday, in Sidnaw, Michigan, family and friends gathered at the United Methodist Church to remember my Father (who died November 14, 2020). We told stories. We cried and we laughed. A lot.
Yes indeed. Even in death (and even when the death makes no sense), there can be light. There is hope and there is beauty.
Which is why Kubler-Ross’ butterflies story always does my heart good and makes my spirit lighter. The butterflies remind us of our beauty even when we see mostly or only darkness, and how they can be emissaries of the gifts of transformation, change, and connection.
So, here’s the deal: I can pretend it doesn’t hurt (telling myself that I can live without it or that it wasn’t important or that it didn’t really touch my heart), but I do so at the loss of the very beauty in life I so desperately seek.
What if? What if embracing the temporal nature of our life–that butterfly nature within–is about the permission to fall shamelessly and wholeheartedly in love with this moment? Whatever it may bring. And what if this permission to fall wholeheartedly in love with this moment is about hearing the voice of grace?
Know this: God’s grace is our ballast. But grace does not appear only where we imagine, because with our selective blindness we can be easily derailed. When are given the permission to see, we know that grace infuses the gentle beauty of the ordinary in our every day.
Life stretches us all. Sometimes to the breaking point. Life is difficult, and sometimes, unjust. This week, here’s our invitation: let us remember the butterflies and savor their dance.
Let us never forget that our capacity to give and to care is born in those times we have come face to face with our own vulnerability and intrinsic powerlessness and brokenness. These are not undesirable traits. No… they reveal the full measure of our humanness, and point to an internal reservoir of generosity and courage and compassion that is too easily buried.
Remembering that the light spills from that vulnerability. Hearing people tell stories about my father, you realize that you never know the impact of a simple gesture. You have no idea the power of compassion and camaraderie that will allow us to not only get through, but to thrive.
Stories help us to remember. It is reminiscent of an Old Testament tradition. When the People of Israel wandered the desert, and began to lose their way or find their morale flagging, they would build an Ebenezer, a 12-stone altar, one for each tribe. (Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the LORD helped us.”) And then, around the altar, they would tell stories.
With the children I see unimaginable suffering. They, with the butterflies and stories, see the light of grace.
This is not a matter of positive thinking or denial or extraordinary faith. It is about embracing the sacrament of the present and messy moment.
Speaking of beauty in the ordinary; the drive from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the Minneapolis Airport. It is very familiar and calming (evoking memories to a boy from the Midwest). For as far as the eye can see, fields (still in dormancy), pastoral, rolling and reassuring. The corn stalk stubble fields a biscuit beige, or maybe café au lait tan. Farms, anchored by barns and framed by silos all surrounded by large green lawn, speckle the horizon view.
I am writing this in Manasota Key Florida, which means I’m a little late for the Monarch butterfly migration that blesses parts of Florida in March. Even so, I can picture it.
Church this morning with my friends here; let’s call it vaccinated house church. And 5 of the 6 in attendance clergy. That makes taking the offering awkward. But the fellowship, well, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Note: Kubler-Ross from The Wheel of Life: a memoir of living and dying
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In the mailbag…
–Hi Terry. I have been getting Sabbath Moment daily for many years. You inspire me with your stories, theology, helping me find sanctuary inside first, outside places, and ultimately in the moment, which always brings me back to God, and to my God self… one with God. I can’t imagine not having you in my life. Thank you for sharing yourself so deeply, helping me to emulate your authenticity. Mine has been a long journey. And you support and encourage me finding my own path to God, nature, compassion and kindness, integrity, authenticity, and fun. These are my core values and I want to live into them each moment. I have found this so easy to write, as If you were a friend here in my surroundings. Thanks again for sharing yourself, as I learn to share mine. Love, Ramona
POEMS AND PRAYERS
William Blake, seated, in his old age, beside a little girl at a dinner party; Blake leaned down to her, smiled, and said, “May God make this world as beautiful to you as it has been to me.”
The Lord is My Shepherd
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word, you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley,
I’m not afraid when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.
Psalm 23 The Message
Oh balm in Gilead,
give me the ointment of mercy
to heal the broken-hearted this day.
May my tender mercy
give the aching souls of my patients
and those with whom I interact,
a chance to find rest in your care.