My first urban nature piece was about an encounter with an opossum in my backyard with my toddler. We peered at one another for a long time through the window of our patio door. No one really knew what to make of the other. The encounter was suppose to tell a story about the about the opossum as a resurrection animal.
When an opossum faces danger, they play dead, wait out the threat, and seem to rise from the dead. Aren’t they THE resurrection animal? Turns out, no. That wasn’t the lesson from our opossum messanger. (The original piece is in this collection about city creatures.)
Then, this weekend, on the way to Easter church with my kiddos, we find a dead opossum on the road. Eyes open. Motionless. Roadkill.
We talked about how the opossum wasn’t playing dead and the difference between playing dead and becoming new and what happens to bodies after they die. We passed by and on a joyous Easter morning, we offered a solemn prayer: “God Bless the Opossum.”
Again, the opossum resists my attempt to tell an easy story about resurrection.
Yet, it seems right that the opossum gets a place alongside others. He holds space for the less-than-glorious sides of change. At Easter, we get bunnies and lambs and chicks, maybe an opossum is a necessary addition to our resurrection bestiary.
Monarch butterflies get a lot of air time as the resurrection animal – and for good reason. They are a beautiful vision of transformation. Less roadkill. More taking flight.
But, the way we tell the story tends toward the Very Hungry Caterpillar view of change: Eat snacks, chill in a cocoon, and presto, beautiful butterfly.
It’s a shame that cocoons aren’t transparent so we could see and share in the struggle to emerge as a changed creature. It is not like a butterfly is simply a caterpillar that grows legs and wings. It’s a much messier, goo-ier affair. Cue up the Radiolab episode “Goo and You” for an up-close look.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar view gets two things wrong. Change isn’t just relaxing in a cocoon, and the changed creature is not completely changed. Paul Hahm at Urban Village Church uses this goo-ier version to give the butterfly metaphor an update. When scientists looked into the chrysalis life stage, what they found was enzyme-digested caterpillar. Goo. As Hahm writes:
“Inside the liquid goo are little embryonic cells that will eventually turn into the wings, legs, antennae, and organs of an adult butterfly. So the caterpillar doesn’t simply grow wings, the old caterpillar is deconstructed then using that material, it is reconstructed into something new. When we talk about a new life in Christ, I think there’s an expectation that we must become completely different people or that the pain and struggles of our previous lives must somehow magically disappear in order for the transformation to be authentic. I don’t think it works that way.” (For the full piece, here.)
I don’t think it works that way either. There is a deconstruction phase, and it’s messy. We come out the other side as new, but still as us. A butterfly whose body remembers being a caterpillar.
In the Very Hungry Caterpillar – and sometimes in resurrection stories – this is where the story ends. Out pops a beautiful butterfly. The end.
But, for the monarch, the story is just getting started. Monarchs migrate. Change is the first part in a story that has thousands and thousands of miles yet to go. (You can follow them on their journey.)
The threat of becoming roadkill is real; the process of change is messy – gooey, even. All that work isn’t just about getting the wings. The point of having wings is to fly. Now, isn’t it time to take off?