One afternoon last week, I had a surprise encounter I want to tell you about. I got out of my car and walked toward our back door. I stopped short when my eye caught movement in the bush to my right. There in the bright afternoon sunlight, I saw a gorgeous Tiger Swallowtail butterfly sitting on a cluster of purple bougainvillea flowers, where he was calmly sucking on the nectar. I was struck by the beauty and natural harmony of the scene; but something more was going on. I was having a MOMENT.
You see, when I was a kid eleven or twelve years old, I went through a serious butterfly-collecting phase. I walked through fields and woods around town with my homemade butterfly net. I’d spy a fluttering dash of color and stalk him like any hunter would. At just the right moment, I’d take him with my net. Before I could bring my trophy home, I’d euthanize him with a little drop of nail polish remover (Yeah, Mom, I’m the one who “borrowed” it). I’d lay his wings between pages of a magazine so they’d stiffen in the right position.
My first fascination was with the monarch butterflies that spent time in our area after migrating from South America. I learned to tell them from the viceroys, who mimicked their color pattern but had one extra black stripe. Over a couple of years, I caught and preserved a surprising array of butterfly species: mourning cloak, copper, tortoise shell, red admiral, fritillary, pearly-eye, wood nymph, painted lady. A special triumph was the time I caught and preserved my first Tiger Swallowtail, because he was the most awesome specimen in our area. But then, I discovered girls and never picked up my net again.
My MOMENT the other day, when I was standing about ten feet from from the Tiger Swallowtail on the bougainvillea flower, brought a real deja vu feeling to me. This encounter took me back more than sixty years — for me. That was probably sixty generations for the butterfly. As I stood there, my thoughts took me even farther out. My mind went back and back, searching for when our ancestors might have met before. (Doesn’t everybody think like this?)
I realized that my friend was a Western Tiger Swallowtail, a separate species from his Eastern cousins which I had encountered as a boy in New Jersey. The uprising of the Rocky Mountains sixty-million years ago had isolated these two swallowtail populations from one another, and both groups had undergone subtle genetic changes since then. I first crossed the same Rockies in 1958 when I came from New Jersey to Pasadena to attend Fuller Seminary.
That MOMENT, that afternoon encounter in our backyard, was the East Coast Human meeting the West Coast Tiger Swallowtail after millions of years and butterfly generations of being separated. Here we were, eyeball to eyeball. Well, my Tiger Swallowtail friend doesn’t really have an eyeball. His eye is made up of thousands of tiny lenses, every one of them giving a little different perspective on this giant humanoid creature who was staring at him. No wonder he flew away after that first glance.
Yes, there are a lot of differences between my Tiger Swallowtail friend and me. But there are also a lot of similarities: We are both living creatures with bodies made up of thousands of individual cells working together, each cell a little factory, baking food and oxygen together to produce energy. In both of us, all of the cells are controlled by a brain and systems of nerves and muscles. Both of us have hearts that pump blood. Both of us have genes and DNA which we pass from one generation to the next by sexual reproduction. Oh, and one other thing: we have the same God.
Jesus talked about God’s love for all his wonderful creatures:
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12:6-7 )
It’s true the Bible teaches that, as humans, our relationship with God is something special, for we are uniquely made “in his image.” I’m glad that his eye is on me, but Jesus said that “his eye is on the sparrow” too. And the butterfly? And each individual butterfly? Does God have a plan, a destiny in mind for my Tiger Swallowtail friend? Well, I know he’s capable of caring — he’s big enough to embrace all his creatures. And I also know that he’s already invested an awful lot of scientific and artistic creativity in this little critter just to see him squashed to smithereens on some automobile windshield.
Then I realized I was talking about myself! My hope beyond this life is that God did not invest so much in me just to see me smashed to smithereens in my inevitable earthly death.
You can have your picture of heaven and the afterlife as a great eternal city with streets of gold, inlaid with gemstones, if that gives you comfort. I have a different idea of eternal bliss. It makes powerful sense to me that LIFE, as lovingly created, nurtured and sustained by God, is very precious to him. I think that, somehow, he will preserve every spark of LIFE eternally, whether it’s expressed in me or my Tiger Swallowtail friend.
In that MOMENT when our glances met, I felt that my Tiger Swallowtail friend had the same longing and expectation as I did. See you on the other side, Friend!
(Doesn’t everybody think like this?)
— Pastor George Van Alstine