In 2009, I visited Cambodia as part of a mission to teach methods of biblical storytelling. As part of our trip, we visited the “Killing Fields,” where the Khmer Rouge buried thousands of bodies (some dead, some still alive) as part of their reign of terror in the late 1970s.
At first, I was overwhelmed by the sense of death everywhere, the 50 foot high stupa filled with skulls, the clothes of the victims carelessly discarded near the foot of a tree, bones breaking free from the earth and crying out for justice. As I walked those dusty paths past the undulating pits of sorrow where the mass graves had been dug out, all I could do was to whisper over and over again, “Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy upon us all.”
After a reverent prayer walk thorough the valley where the shadow of death still lingered, I returned to the stupa at the center of the memorial grounds. As I passed through the graves, I looked again and saw something I had not seen before. There was a shimmering movement hovering and moving through the pits. I knelt to take a closer look and was startled to see there in the midst of the graves, hundreds and thousands of butterflies flitting to and fro.
“And the Lord said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ and I replied, ‘O Lord, only you know'” (Ezekiel 37:3).
As a United Methodist pastor, I am accustomed to signs of death, walking with people through hospice, caring for families at funerals, nurturing people through grief; supporting them in crisis.
I am also accustomed to signs of death in the church, grand spires reaching heavenward over increasingly vacant sanctuaries, empty pits where once vital ministries lived, traditions carelessly discarded in a never-ending quest to be more “relevant” to the death-dealing culture around us. I walk around silently pleading with God, “Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy upon us all.”
And yet, even as I gaze into the pit of death, I am astonished by the life that springs forth there. It is so easy to be consumed with signs of death that we miss the signs of new life and resurrection that point beyond what is to what God has promised.
I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will act (Ezekiel 37:14).
I am chasing butterflies because I refuse to be consumed with death. I look for life, I chase butterflies because that is where God is doing a new thing; and that is where I want to be.