There is a scene in the second Harry Potter movie where Harry and Ron Weasley receive the cryptic message, “follow the spiders.” “Follow the spiders?” says Ron, a renowned arachnophobe. “Follow the spiders? Why couldn’t it be follow the butterflies?”
Well, from the time I left on my sabbatical, I have been following the butterflies. They’ve showed up in person, fluttering around me as I walk or camp or just sit. They’ve showed up on pillows and posters and necklaces and even in songs. Everywhere I turn, there are butterflies. And, of course, butterflies, in the archetypal sense, invite a person into transformation.
Now, I am here to tell you, some days, I would rather follow spiders. Transformation is hard work. The things we have to ‘eat’- to process and digest- can be incredibly heavy and hard. Trauma, loss, grief, mistakes, failures, that sort of thing.
And then we tend to gloss over what happens in the chrysalis. Before that stuffed full, tired-jawed caterpillar can become a beautiful butterfly, it literally dissolves into mush. Personally, I find that mushy part of transformation terribly uncomfortable.
Yet there’s something that lures me on. My way of being human involves remaining committed to a process of continual learning, growth, and, yes, transformation. At any given moments, there are caterpillar parts of me, working on taking in the lessons life offers up. There are butterfly parts of me, light and transformed and free. And…there are mushy parts, totally messy and in process and uncertain.
Today, we will lift up all those parts as worthy of love and consideration. And we’ll play, together, with this metaphor of struggle, growth, transformation and freedom.
Meditation “Desert Butterly” by E. H. Stevens
You wouldn’t think it
But the desert is full of butterflies
In early March.
They flutter through sunbeams
Perch on chaparral
And decorate the windshield
In saffron schmears.
Then there is this one
Somehow inside the car
Exploring this strange terrain
Landing on the dashboard
To look me in the eye
“Let go of your need for structure.
Let yourself liquefy.
This is the only way
To lose your landlubber legs
And learn to fly.”
From “How Does a Caterpillar Turn into a Butterfly?” in Scientific American, August 10, 2012
As children, many of us learn about the wondrous process by which a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. The story usually begins with a very hungry caterpillar hatching from an egg. The caterpillar, or what is more scientifically termed a larva, stuffs itself with leaves, growing plumper and longer through a series of molts in which it sheds its skin. One day, the caterpillar stops eating, hangs upside down from a twig or leaf and spins itself a silky cocoon or molts into a shiny chrysalis. Within its protective casing, the caterpillar radically transforms its body, eventually emerging as a butterfly or moth.
But what does that radical transformation entail? How does a caterpillar rearrange itself into a butterfly? What happens inside a chrysalis or cocoon?
First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. But the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess. Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on…
Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth. The imaginal disc for a fruit fly’s wing, for example, might begin with only 50 cells and increase to more than 50,000 cells by the end of metamorphosis. Depending on the species, certain caterpillar muscles and sections of the nervous system are largely preserved in the adult butterfly. One study even suggests that moths remember what they learned in later stages of their lives as caterpillars.
Getting a look at this metamorphosis as it happens is difficult; disturbing a caterpillar inside its cocoon or chrysalis risks botching the transformation. But Michael Cook, who maintains a fantastic website about silkworms, has some incredible photos of a Tussah silkmoth..that failed to spin a cocoon. You can see the delicate, translucent jade wings, antennae and legs of a pupa that has not yet matured into an adult moth—a glimpse of what usually remains concealed.
“The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz Click here
In Creating True Peace, Thich Naht Hanh proposes we think about the information we take in as something we are consuming. He urges us to choose the media, entertainment, and information we let into our minds and hearts with as much care as we choose the food we put into our bodies.
Yet unlike the hungry caterpillar in our story, the world doesn’t present us with a variety of colorful, nourishing options, and clear instincts as to what we need. Rather, one of the great challenges of being human in these times is that we are constantly fighting a sense of overwhelm. So many choices, so much input, so many demands, and so little time to digest. Am I right?
It’s true for me, at least. And I’ve been trained, when I get to that place of overwhelm, to take a deep breath (breath with me, now) and turn toward curiosity and growth. What is there for me to learn in this situation? I don’t always do this with a lot of grace and enthusiasm, hence my favorite acronym: AFOG. Another effing opportunity for growth. I have a new one, too, a gift from my friend and colleague, Wendy Williams: WTF. Wasn’t that fascinating?
But it’s a lot. So I wasn’t surprised, on sabbatical, that I needed to dig deep into layers of my life, re-examining and metabolizing experiences, stories, trauma, lessons, losses, and more. What I was surprised by, however, is that to do that work, I couldn’t move through the layers as an archeologist, examining them from the outside, digging and sifting and sorting. Rather, I needed to liquify, and seep on down, fill all the nooks and crannies like water.
I needed to let go of almost everything that gave structure and safety to my life: my job, my home, my marriage, my identity as a minister and a mom. Because the pieces I needed to absorb and digest were the pieces that these roles and structures couldn’t hold, pieces I had buried because I didn’t know how to look at them and still be safe. (This is really difficult to talk about. Am I making any sense at all?)
William Bridges has spent his career focusing on how people move through transitions. He writes:
Change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation or self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work, because it doesn’t ‘take’.
For Bridges, each transition consists of an ending, the neutral zone, which is characterized by restlessness, uncertainty, and discomfort, and the new beginning. The neutral zone is what Bridges calls cocoon time, time when we are in the middle of transforming from one stage to the next.
I don’t like the mushiness of the neutral zone. I never have. But I have learned the hard way that there is value in letting go, in tolerating the discomfort of the in-between time. The seeping down, the liquification process helped me find and reconnect with the center of who I am…the “principle of being that abides,” the imaginal discs, if you will. In that itchy place of not-knowing, I cooked in a rich life-soup, and came back together in ways that feel important and good.
I hinted at one of these transformation when I spoke last week about staying connected to my own spirit, holding the questions, “Can I be as compassionate toward myself as I am toward everyone else?” and “Can I name and advocate for my own needs as fiercely as I do for the needs of others?”
Are you familiar at all with the Enneagram? It is to spirituality what the Meyers-Briggs types are to psychology. Which is to say, it offers general categories into which one self-selects in an attempt to promote self-understanding and understanding of others who have very different ways of being human. Each type has gifts and challenges, and a recommended growth path.
I am a “nine”, or a “mediator.” The great gift of we 9’s is that we are very good at creating harmony and balance in relationships and communities. We are excellent at managing conflict, even as we are uncomfortable with it.
The big challenge, or sin, is self-forgetting. We morph. We become what the system needs us to be in order to be stable and harmonious.
The recommended growth path is to become ever more centered in ourselves, in touch with our intuition. As we age and mature, we learn to maintain our integrity, even in the midst of conflict. Hopefully, some of this sounds true to your experience of me?
Well it turns out that when you take my nine-ish self out of the places where there are other people and relationships and communities to bring into harmony, there’s a period of time that feels extraordinarily mushy and confusing. And then the imaginal discs begin to grow, and a truer shape emerges.
I rediscovered who I am, and learned to hold my ground, rather than morphing into what the situation requires. When asked to do something, there’s a pause, a checking in. I may say ‘no’ more often than I used to. Because I believe ultimately I’ll be more effective if I am wholly and firmly myself. I can’t be all things to all people, but I can be strong and clear and honest and healthy.
I’ve long been a fan of boundaries. I understand them as a way to be in relationship in a healthy way, not as barriers to relationship. However, many people experience the setting of clear boundaries as an act of aggression, hostility, or even rejection.
In the past, I spent a lot of time and energy attempting to coax people who reacted to the setting of boundaries in this manner back into relationship. I think the new Elizabeth is less willing to do that. This means facing pain caused by a loss of relationship if someone, for example, leaves the church community in anger rather than agreeing to abide by a behavioral covenant. We can’t be all things to all people. We can be strong and clear about who we are and honest with one another. Good boundaries will make us healthier as a community.
Another transformation: I wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet before sabbatical when it came to social justice. But I wasn’t as brave as I am now.
Beloveds, I spoke last week about the need to take care of myself, to engage practices of creativity, rest, time in nature…but the reason for all of that is so that I can answer the call to action with integrity, strength and skill. We are in for a bumpy road in this hurting nation, this hurting world.
I feel a call to activism around gun violence. We are in the midst of an epidemic not just of mass shootings, but of mass shootings motivated by white extremism. A hundred years after Red Summer, we are again seeing a wave of terrorist acts targeting people of color. This is not a political issue. It is a faith issue, and the world needs us to get out there, as people of faith, and say that.
(The strategic action, right now, is to ask our US Senators to encourage discussion of HR-8, which mandates universal background checks and allocates funding for research on the epidemic of mass shootings, and also to ask our US Representatives to hold hearings in the House on this upsurge in white extremist violence. There are materials to support you in writing letters or making calls in the basement. We need to flood our legislators with messages that insist they face this issue rather than yielding their power to the NRA. Which used to be an organization that promoted responsible gun ownership rather than a lobbying behemoth working on behalf of the gun industry. But I digress. There will be a whole sermon on this sometimes soon.)
I feel a call to respond to the demonization of refugees and the flagrant disregard of human rights in this administrations immigration policy. This, too, is a faith issue and not a political one. Our Christian roots teach us that the proper response to one who is hungry is to feed them, the proper response to one who is naked is to provide clothes. The proper response to people who are fleeing danger is to offer hospitality. Meanwhile, our current UU principles affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people, refugees and border guards alike. How do we hold that? I don’t know. But I know I can’t stand by and do nothing.
I feel a call to continue working to address the needs of our actual neighbors, here on the Palouse, who are struggling with issues related to poverty, and those who are struggling with addiction, and those who are struggling with mental illness and yes, those who are struggling with all three. I feel a call to do the work of dismantling white supremacy, in my own heart, in the communities I serve, and in the world. And over it all looms the specter of global climate change. Our planet needs us to act, too.
That’s a lot of issues calling. Loudly. Their demands are complex.
As I reflect on how to answer, I circle back once again to how important it is to do the work of justice in community. What I can do pales in comparison to what we can do together.
But I know: caterpillars fed a steady diet of outrage do not become beautiful fiery social justice butterflies. Is it enough to be mindful about what we take in, what narratives we listen to, what facts we research, what sources we trust?
I think about common responses to overwhelm. One is withdrawal. We turn off the news, we stop paying attention. Another is despair. We sink into how big and complicated the problem is, and our sense of helplessness becomes our refuge. Though it doesn’t feel this way, giving in to despair is taking the easy way out. Yet another is distraction, which in excess becomes addiction. We can become addicted to alcohol or drugs, but also things like exercise, reading, social media and online engagement, even hobbies. What tips something over from a healthy activity to an unhealthy distraction is when we notice ourselves using it to run away and be less present to what is real.
I envision this church being a place that invites a different response. A place where we are open and willing to be changed. A place where we give ourselves the spaces, the containers, to digest, and even liquefy. A place where we let go of the things that trap us in the illusion of safety, and allow ourselves to be transformed over and over again, in small ways and in big ones.
Our commitment to work to create a world that is worthy of our children? That’s the most important imaginal disc, the core abiding principle, the DNA of this place. I don’t know what that shape it takes in the future, what life looks like on the other side of transformation. That’s kind of the point. You never know ahead of time, you just have to trust the process.
But I do know this, the choice isn’t between transformation and staying the same. It’s between transformation and death. We’re in the midst of the great turning. A huge shift in what it means to be human. And I know who I want to be in it with me, and why.
We’re being asked, as a culture, as a species, to be human in new, more sustainable ways. We’re being invited to let go of control, of habit. We’re being called to discover or uncover new and better ways to become. I don’t know about you…but
I am open and I am willing,
For to be hopeless would seem so strange.
It dishonors those who go before us. So lift me up to the light of change!
May we chew through the tough stuff, but also enjoy enough sweetness to remain healthy and strong. May we be brave enough to enter the mushy discomfort of not-knowing. May we emerge, wiser, more compassionate, transformed.