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January 6, 2002
The migration of monarch butterflies is a mystery. These insects migrate thousands of miles every autumn, from the Eastern United States and Canada to a handful of sites in Mexico. There, they rest over the winter for the return trip home. But here is the amazing part: No individual butterfly ever goes to Mexico and back, yet thousands converge on the same few sites year after year. These insects know where to go, but none of them have ever been there before.
Sue Halpern is an author with a passion for monarchs, one that drives her new book Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly. Halpern studies butterflies in Mexico, tags and raises monarchs with her 8-year-old daughter at their home in the Adirondacks, and rides a glider to better understand the thermal forces that propel the butterflies for much of their journey.
"Monarchs are not guided by memory," she explains, "since no single butterfly ever makes the round trip. Three or four generations separate those that spend one winter in Mexico from those that go there the next." A monarch butterfly born in August in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state will fly all the way to Mexico, spend the winter there, and leave in March. Then it will fly north, laying eggs on milkweed along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Florida before dying. The butterflies born of those eggs will continue northward, breeding and laying more eggs along the way, and so will their offspring. By August another monarch, four generations or so removed from the monarch that left New York for Mexico the previous summer, will emerge from its chrysalis and do the same thing. It heads south, aiming for a place it has never been, an acre or two of forest on the steep slopes of a particular mountain range.
If you hike into those mountains, you see monarch butterflies so heavy on the branches of pine trees that the branches bend toward the ground. You see more butterflies than you ever dreamed possible, twenty or thirty million at a time. Every available place to roost is taken. There are butterflies on your shoulders and shoes, butterflies in your hair. The clamor of butterfly wings is "as constant and irregular as surf cresting over rocks," says Halpern. It feels like a holy and blessed place.
On this first Sunday of the year, we no doubt wish we had the unerring instincts of a monarch butterfly as it makes the journey home, to a place it has never seen before. We pursue the kingdom of God over the course of many changing seasons. We ride the wind of the Spirit like butterflies riding thermal forces over thousands of miles. We have a mysterious instinct for God, one that moves us toward The True Monarch, generation after generation.
In a sense, we make our way through life on a wing and a prayer.
The apostle Paul discovered just how dangerous this journey can be. His ministry was to the Gentiles, to all that great mass of unclean and unrighteous non-Jews of the world. "Although I am the least of all the saints," he admits to the Ephesians, "this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things" (3:8-9).
The task was not easy, but he had to do it--just as a monarch has to go "south of the border." In EP3:3, Paul speaks of how "the mystery" was made known to him by revelation---the mystery of why God wants to bring all people together in Christ. Although this news sounded scandalous to Jews, Paul insisted that "Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body" (v. 6). This mystery was not made known in former generations, but it has now been revealed by the Spirit of God, and entrusted to Paul by the gifts of God's grace and God's power.
Grace, Power, Revelation, Mystery
Paul was really flying on four wings and a prayer--the wing of God's grace, the wing of Christ's mystery, the wing of the Spirit's revelation, and the wing of God's power.
Grace, power, revelation, and mysterythese are important words.
Grace is often described as God's unmerited favor given without condition, not based on any human endeavor that could be rewarded by God. Notice Paul continually emphasizes that this grace was given "to me" (3:2,7,8). His witness is that when God called him to his own unique ministry, God gave him the grace (charis) to fulfil the "commission" that God has put before him. This is good news for us on the threshold of a new year as we revisit the "commission" that God has laid upon us. What God calls us to do, God gives us the charis to complete.
Or, to put it another way, God empowers us to do his will. Grace and power overlap. Gods grace is Gods power.
In a sense, grace is the spiritual light that God gives to us. God creates his light in us to call us to his will. Thus, Gods grace and light and power reveals something of God to us. In v9, Paul speaks of the revelation, whereby God enables us to "see" the truth of this mystery. The revelation we have from God is never of Godwhich is to say that we do not know God.
God has given us wonderful reasoning powers and mental abilities, and with these abilities, we can discover all about the things of this world. I am constantly amazed by the things that our science discovers. For example, we have discovered that when geese migrate, they tend to start their journey after sunset and fly all night and all the next day. They use the stars to navigate by night and the sun to navigate by day. That is fascinating. We can also think about God and reflect upon God, but here our abilities fall short. Our mental skill can never find God. The Cloud of Unknowing says, God can "be loved, but not thought." God "can be taken and held by love but not by thought" (The Cloud of Unknowing, Paulist Press, 130).
All of Gods actions are shrouded in mystery. We do not understand Gods grace and power. We certainly do not understand Gods love which reaches out not just to a select few, not just those who seem deserving, not just the rich and powerful of the world, but to a whole community of faith, to all those people referred to in v6 as, "fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (3:6).
We do not understand God, but perhaps we do not need to. We have Gods grace, and power and his revelation and above all his love. This is enough to keep us, like Paul, flying high in the spiritual stratosphere that Paul calls the "eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord" (3:11).
Body of Christ
Like monarch butterflies and the apostle Paul, we are guided by the Spirit to a new destination every day, week, month, year and decade of our lives. Like the monarch who completes only half of the journey, we too have no complete knowledge now, neither of God nor even of our place in Gods kingdom. We do not know, for instance, how our witness and example encourages and enables others, nor are we always aware of those to whom we are in debt, those who have enabled us to make the journey.
That is the nature of the church: connectedness, and community.
We have all been warmed by fires we did not kindle,
enjoyed trees we did not plant,
used buildings we did not build.
Now the Apostle Paul calls upon us "not [to] lose heart" (3:13), but to build fires of our own, plant trees of our own, build our own buildings. We are called to be faithful pilgrims of the church on our ultimate journey home, where we, like the golden monarchs clinging to the trees of Mexico, will gather around the throne of God in eternal worship and praise.
For the apostle Paul, experience of God is always in community. He says, in v6, "The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ through the gospel." Thus Paul would have us be more like monarch butterflies, who always migrate in community and depend on each other to achieve the goal of a complete round trip. Not a single monarch makes the complete journey to Mexico and back. It is only as a community that they discover the fullness of God's plan for them.
And so we discover the fulness of Gods plan for us as a community. That means I need to start thinking less in terms of what I want and more in terms of what is best for our church. And I need to look beyond these four walls to those outside who are hurting and wounded and desolate and lonely. Part of the mystery of our faith is that God desires all people to be members of the body of Christ. That is our call, but just how we achieve this unity requires a flight of faith, on four wings and a prayer.
We need each of us to pray for Gods grace, revelation and power that we might be brought together in the mystery of God as the people of God. Amen.
Source:Halpern, Sue. Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly. Pantheon Books, 2001.
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Last modified, 2/27/02