Being like a Butterfly

This is the “learning time” I wrote for Sunday, September 12, at Harrow United Church. It was our first in-person worship service after the province moved to Step 3 in its re-opening plan. It was great to be with some folks I had not seen in person for quite some time. Our sound guy, Eric, brought some special guests. He knew I would be speaking about Monarchs, and has a friend who raises them. Eric brought a portable enclosure containing five adult butterflies. They were on the communion table for the worship service. Afterwards, we brought them outside and members of the congregation helped release them.

Acknowledgment of the Land:

We live, and make our living on land that was known, and cherished, lived on and travelled long before explorers claimed to discover it, and settlers arrived from other lands. The area we call Essex County is traditional territory of the Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, and Caldwell nations of the Three Fires Confederacy, and the Huron/Wyandot nation. The people who knew this land long before our forebears arrived, had rich history, and culture, and spirituality, and a deep and profound relationship with Creation.

Psalm 8 (The Message)

God, brilliant Lord,
    yours is a household name.

 Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you;
    toddlers shout the songs
That drown out enemy talk,
    and silence atheist babble.

 I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
    your handmade sky-jewelry,
Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
    Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
Why do you bother with us?
    Why take a second look our way?

 Yet we’ve so narrowly missed being gods,
    bright with Eden’s dawn light.
You put us in charge of your handcrafted world,
    repeated to us your Genesis-charge,
Made us stewards of sheep and cattle,
    even animals out in the wild,
Birds flying and fish swimming,
    whales singing in the ocean deeps.

God, brilliant Lord,
    your name echoes around the world.

Caring for the Earth: Some words about Monarch Butterflies

Just the other day Greg Iler was on his ATV, heading from his house to the equipment barn, and he noticed the sound of the ATV roused hundreds of monarch butterflies from the cedar hedge.

Greg told us about it at this week’s meeting of the church board. I offered a devotion that asked people to remember if they’d recently had an “awe” moment- when they saw something surprisingly, wonderfully beautiful. There are moments that we just want to share, and that lift us out of the ordinary, and I think, remind us of the holiness of life, and creation.

The video can’t completely capture the wonder of what he saw, when all those monarchs flew over his head. Maybe it was one of those you had to be there moments.

The Monarch is in peril of becoming an endangered species, which makes the “you had to be there” seem a little more urgent. Monarchs depend on milkweed as their place to land, rest, feed and lay their eggs, if they can find them.

Over the last 20 years, millions of acres of milkweed plants have been plowed under to farming or uprooted by development.  In 1996, the annual monarch count was about 1 billion butterflies. Recent counts are down to around 50 million, a loss of around 95 percent of the monarch population.

We are blessed to live in an area that is on one of their migration routes. This is a great time of year to see them as they gather to head south.

It wasn’t until I watched a video of the Monarch’s development from the laying of an egg to the emergence of a butterfly that I grasped all the stages that must happen. It’s truly amazing, and for me, a reminder of the mystery and wonder of life.

We often use the image of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly to talk about transformation- but seeing all the stages, from egg, to the first larva, or instar stage, to 4 more growth stages where the larva sheds its skin, to pupa building its cocoon, or chrysalis, then to the imago, or adult butterfly, was a powerful reminder that transformation, while it is a natural process, is also a lot of work.

It takes a lot of determination, and energy, and time to become something new. Even if we already have the DNA, the genetic blueprint to guide us, the changes don’t come quick and easy.

Everything in creation is changing, all the time. Everything goes through stages of transformation.

The monarch’s transformation leads them to become something wondrous, and beautiful. If you didn’t know about butterflies, and you saw the little translucent egg perched on a blossom, or the tiny, odd-looking larvae scrunching around, chomping holes in a milkweed leaf, would you ever imagine what it is destined to become? How does the larva know when to stop chewing and swallowing, and spin the little sac that becomes its cocoon? How does it know when one stage of life must give way to the next? What urges it on, to do the next thing?

We can look at the Monarchs, and enjoy them as marvelous creatures, part of God’s amazing creation. We can also learn from them.

As we take steps towards re-opening the church building, and working together, in person again, at our ministries, the leaders of the congregation are beginning to see, and wrestle with the likelihood that some of the changes that happened during COVID are going to lead to other changes, and that we are being kind of urged into a new way of doing things.

We’ve learned a lot about making online worship videos over the last year and a half, and we recognize the need to carry on with them. We will move to live-streaming our services, so folks who can’t be here on Sunday morning can watch and listen, and worship with us, as it happens.

Our families with school age children have been through different stages of how education is delivered, and we hope and pray with them that the return to in-person school goes well. We are still pondering how we can do our ministry with children and young people in this new time. How will Sunday School evolve? How can we best stay connected to these families and children, who are so important to us?

The caterpillar works hard to build the cocoon, and maybe it looks like it gets to rest, but inside the cocoon its body is changing, developing, becoming something new. It’s hard work.

Does the caterpillar ever ask, “Why can’t I just stay a caterpillar?”

Each individual caterpillar is being a caterpillar for the first time, and doesn’t have other caterpillars to watch, examples to follow. Everything they must do; they’ve never done before!

When it’s time for the mature butterfly to emerge, it wrestles itself out of the chrysalis sac, to begin its new life. Change is hard! Adapting to new conditions, to a new stage of life, is challenging.

As a congregation, we may find that things will have to be different, going forward.

We’ve missed the Harrow Fair, but last weekend the ministerial organized a worship service on the fairgrounds, and we had 130 people attend. It was not the same as what had been done before. It was something new, that grew out of the former event, emerging like a new butterfly

We now sell our famous and wonderful Harrow Fair pies through Lee and Maria’s Market Garden in Kingsville. For Thanksgiving we will be taking pre-orders, and folks can pick up their pies here at the church.

Plans are under way for the turkey supper, the first Saturday in November, as always, but for the second year in a row it is all take-out, and you’ll pick up your meals at our drive thru. It’s not the way we used to do it, but it’s the way we are able to do it now. We’ve had to become nimble, creative, and patient with ourselves and others as we find our way.

There are champions of the monarchs in Windsor and Essex County, who promote planting milkweed, to provide places for the butterflies to feed and rest and lay their eggs. I bought milkweed plants at the Fruit Wagon two years in a row. We now have two varieties of milkweed thriving in our backyard, and it sends a little thrill of joy through me whenever we are visited by Monarchs.

My wife and I listened to a book this summer while we travelled up to Thunder Bay, written by a naturalist and adventurer named Sara Dykman. It’s called Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration.

Her story opened with the author climbing a mountain in central Mexico, to visit one of the protected butterfly reserves where tens of millions of monarch butterflies winter in the oyamel fir tree forests.  They fill the sky and cluster so heavily on the trees that the branches bend with their weight and look like they’re covered with orange and black leaves.

Lexie and I were cycling at Pelee on Thursday evening and saw a cluster of monarchs on one branch high above our heads. Maybe you’ve seen similar sights. Imagine what it would be to see millions of monarchs in one place.

When things begin to warm up in March, it’s time for the Monarchs to migrate north, through the U.S. and up here into Canada. Each butterfly can travel 25-30 miles a day. It was the author’s plan to go along with them, making the journey on her bicycle.

The book includes valuable observations about the butterflies, and other creatures, their habitats, and the threats to their survival. She described her visits to schools, parks, and community groups, during which she shared her conservation message, and her reverence for nature with all who would listen. Everywhere she went, she encouraged ordinary people to do their part, by planting and protecting milkweed.

Sarah Dykman made her amazing journey in 2017, including stops at Point Pelee, and a school in Windsor. It would have been great to hear her speak, and see her pictures, and her bicycle, which she called her ButterBike. I bet it was a great experience for the students in the schools she visited.

Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention when I was in grade school, and we learned about Monarch Migration. I knew they fly north from Mexico in the spring, and back south in the fall, kind of like the migratory birds.

I didn’t realize that except for the adult butterflies that make it to Mexico and go dormant in the cold air of the mountains, each butterfly lives only for 2 to 6 weeks. They fly along, breed, stop and rest and feed and lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The butterflies die not long after breeding, and it’s the next generation that continues the journey. It takes 4 generations to complete the long journey from Mexico to Canada and back.

Scientists have different theories about how each new generation knows where to fly. They may be navigating by the stars, or by the angle of the sun in the sky, or perhaps by the earth’s magnetic fields.

Scientists put tiny bands on butterflies at various places on the known migration corridors and can tell that generations of butterflies descended from the same ancestors follow the same routes every year. Butterflies with different genetic profiles follow different routes.

As I pondered it taking four generations for the monarch to travel from their winter homes to where we live, and back again, I thought about the Seventh Generation Principle, which comes from the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois people, that says decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.

As we have been finding out these last two years, the present and the future do not always turn out the way we expected, and we face new decision points. As we make plans for our families, our businesses, our communities, our church, perhaps the Monarchs can be good teachers for us. Each Monarch has their part in something so much larger than themselves. Their efforts are part of the ongoing survival of their species.

Do we think that way? Do we consider that choices we make, for good or for bad, have implications for our families, communities, species, that will last for generations?  How do we calculate how much effort we are willing to make and what level of inconvenience we will tolerate, for the benefit of those who will come after us, generations, and decades, and centuries down the line?

I was cycling with some friends the other day, our own little migration from Kingsville to Harrow, and back. One of the guys, who is in his 70’s talked about spending a day near Peterborough, with a group of volunteers who were planting trees. He observed that most of the tree-planters were older than him, and many would not live to see their saplings grow big and tall. He thought that was a good example of optimism.

I think’s it’s more than optimism. It’s a sign of spiritual transformation, when a person grows to a stage in life at which they find meaning and purpose in doing things for the benefit of future generations- and act more like Monarch Butterflies. Amen

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