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Tombs and Cocoons: Trusting the Dark

In the 1800s, scientists were racing to invent an electric light bulb. There were several patents filed around the same time, but in 1879 and again in 1880, Thomas Edison famously patented the bulbs he and his team were working on. Electric lights flourished and proliferated as technology continued to improve. And thank goodness! Prior to that, only the wealthy could afford to burn wax candles or oil lamps. Others used smoky tallow candles or ones made from animal fat. They were inefficient in every way. Gas lights became an option in the middle of that century, but it too was smoky, gave off fumes, and created the possibility of an explosion.

But electric lights- they burned cleanly and more brightly than any previous option. By the 1930s, electric lights weren’t uncommon, even among middle class homes. And now, of course, most of us are barely functional if we have a power outage for more than a few hours. (Although our Moore County friends and neighbors could teach us something about how to get by!) Electricity, and electric lights, changed everything. Suddenly, people could afford to work late into the night. Factories began running around the clock- shift work was invented. Leisure hours began to exist in the evening for many.

The growing use of electric lights have changed the earth. Beyond just requiring us to produce electricity, we know that light pollution causes harm to animals. And of course, it keeps us from being able to see the sky- the swirling Milky Way above us- largely vanished from our sight. Experts also believe that lights have changed our sleep patterns. Before we stayed up late into the night illuminated by our lamps, scientists believe that humans commonly slept in “two roughly four-hour periods of sleep separated by an hour or two of calm wakefulness. According to hundreds of historical references, people used this calm time to pray, read, write…or quietly socialize” according to reporting from Arwen Curry.[1] That historically common sleep pattern would strike many of us as odd now, but participants in a 1992 study reverted to that ancient rhythm when they lived only with natural light. And of course, now we know that the blue light emitted from our phones, computers, tablets, and TVs are further interrupting our sleep.

Our modern lives are structured around being in the light. Many of us find ourselves in the darkness only in the few moments before we drift off to sleep (and even then, there is likely some light around!). Before electric lights existed, the dark cloaked danger- getting lost, unseen threats, chaos. But I wonder, are we now more afraid of the dark or less? Does having a flashlight or a nightlight comfort us, or are they reminders of all that we fear? Are we like sea turtles who accidentally seek the artificial lights along the beach rather than making our way back into the dark waters that will give us life? While we may feel that the darkness (both literal and metaphorical) is frightening or intimidating, there is something deeply important about the dark that we miss. The preacher and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us of perhaps the truest thing about the dark, saying " life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”[2]

Imagine the fetus growing in Mary’s belly. Cells forming a heart, eyes, hands. This raw potential growing and becoming. We generally skip from the angel’s visit to Mary and her visit to Elizabeth straight through to Bethlehem, but new life was forming in and through her every moment until Jesus’ birth. Cells separate, replicate, and differentiate and even with our modern-day doctor’s visits, scans, and ultrasounds, all we can do is wait, watch, hope, and trust that whatever is happening there in the darkness of the womb is going to be okay. New life emerges in the dark.

And in the same way, we jump into the joyful beauty of Jesus’ resurrection here at Easter, but we forget about the deep darkness of the tomb. We can’t say with any kind of certainty what was happening in those dark hours that Jesus’ body lay still in the dark tomb. We could certainly use our imaginations, but here’s the one thing we know- Jesus’ resurrection began in the dark. New life emerges in the dark. So maybe, rather than always seeking to escape the darkness, to hurry it along, or to find our way to artificial light, maybe we could trust the dark. Maybe we could let the dark do its work- the work of transformation.

Throughout Eastertide, we’re going to be learning about what new life, what resurrection life means for us. And throughout the season we’ll be using the image of the metamorphosis of a butterfly to help guide us. So, I’ve been on quite the entomological journey this week. I don’t know that I knew much about what is actually happening for caterpillars as they become butterflies, but I know more now. And I should note for our very scientifically-minded folks, that I’m making generalizations here. The process can be different for different species. But by Pentecost we may all be amateur entomologists if we play our cards right.

An absolutely necessary component for the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly is what scientists call “imaginal discs.” Imaginal discs or cells are single-cell organisms that contain the blueprint for what will become the butterfly. And at first, they operate all on their own. The author Norie Huddle helpfully tells the story of imaginal discs in common terms for us amateur entomologists. She writes:

The caterpillar’s new cells are called ‘imaginal cells.’ They are so totally different from the caterpillar cells that his immune system thinks they are enemies… and gobbles them up.

But these new imaginal cells continue to appear. More and more of them! Pretty soon, the caterpillar’s immune system cannot destroy them fast enough. More and more of the imaginal cells survive. And then an amazing thing happens!

The little tiny lonely imaginal cells start to clump together into friendly little groups. They all resonate together at the same frequency, passing information from one to another. Then, after awhile, another amazing thing happens!

The clumps of imaginal cells start to cluster together! A long string of clumping and clustering imaginal cells, all resonating at the same frequency, all passing information from one to another there inside the chrysalis.

Then at some point, the entire long string of imaginal cells suddenly realizes all together that it is something different from the caterpillar. Something new! Something wonderful! …and in that realization is the shout of the birth of the butterfly!

Since the butterfly now “knows” that it is a butterfly, the little tiny imaginal cells no longer have to do all those things individual cells must do. Now they are part of a multi-celled organism— A FAMILY who can share the work.

Each new butterfly cell can take on a different job— There is something for everyone to do. And everyone is important. And each cell begins to do just that very thing it is most drawn to do. And every other cell encourages it to do just that.

A great way to organize a butterfly!”[3]

Those imaginal discs have all the information needed to form the butterfly, and they hold it steady as the caterpillar’s immune system attacks. The caterpillar’s body knows something new is coming. But the imaginal cells are tireless, relentless. They keep coming until the immune system can no longer fend them off. And then these single-cell organisms bind to one another and begin to work together to form the structure of the butterfly. It’s fascinating, and apt for our present conversation.

You see, it’s there in the torturous darkness of the cocoon where the new life emerges. And in the same way it begins with these individual imaginal cells, it begins here with us as individuals who are using our holy imaginations to begin the new life God is calling us to. And we bind together- we come together to support and stretch, to guide and to help one another in that work. What begins in the hearts and imaginations of one spread and grow until we are all growing, learning, transforming. Together, we hope and we work and we become that which God created us to be. Even in the messy middle of transition, we know what we are becoming- more faithful followers of Christ.

And the middle is really quite messy. Metamorphosis is always strange, but the part that happens when the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis is especially so. Essentially, the old body dies as the new body emerges. The creature loses half its weight due the expense of energy, and meanwhile the waste products accumulate since nothing can exit the cocoon. If you could cut open the outer layer, all you would see is goo. The Scientific American says “caterpillar soup would ooze out” which frankly, sounds quite disgusting.[4] But change is actually always a mess, right? Growth is never easy.

The darkness from which new life emerges can be many things, but simple and clean is probably never the case. It’s hard work, it’s complicated, it’s confusing. For some among us, the darkness was moving to a new home, losing a job, trying to have a baby, getting divorced, getting sober. It could be a million things. But changing, the kind of change that brings about new life, is never easy. It’s not tidy. You may even feel like caterpillar soup along the way.

But even on your gooiest, soupiest days, know this- God has given you everything you need to live the life God is calling you to live. Some species of caterpillars are born with tiny, thin wings under their skin. The actual structure of their future is right there within them before they’re ever ready to begin becoming. The structures of the butterfly exist within the caterpillar. And God has given you what you need for your new life. God has given this church everything we need to be the church God is calling us to be. The structures exist within you, the gifts exist within you, the wisdom exists within you. It’s a beautiful story of grace- God providing more than we could ever ask or imagine.

I wonder what it feels like to be in a cocoon? To survive the soupy goo long enough for the imaginal discs to take over, to create and complete the process of new life? It’s probably pretty safe to say that the caterpillar has no idea what is happening (although there is research that suggests moths have memories of what they learned as caterpillars).[5] But we do know what it is like to be in the process of changing. We know what it is like to fight our way into new life. We know what it is like to have only one viable option- trust. We have to trust the darkness. What’s happening there in the dark- in the womb, the tomb, the cocoon- we have to trust that what happens in the dark is the stirring of new life. We have to trust that when we emerge into the light, we will be more alive to God’s truth then we were before. So many of our faith heroes from the Bible experience growth in the darkness. God called Abraham to look at the stars, Jacob wrestles a divine creature through the night before leaving with a blessing, Joseph goes into the darkness many times, Ruth comes to Boaz in the night, Elijah’s darkness was metaphorical, but as real as anyone else’s, so many angels come with messages in the darkness of dreams, Paul’s conversion happens alongside three days of darkness. So don’t run from the darkness, friends. Don’t rush to switch on the light. Instead, trust that God is working even there, especially there. Trust that your new life can emerge from the darkness.

I learned something else about butterflies this week. Scientists call that final version of the metamorphosis- the part we know of as a mature butterfly, the “imago.”[6] Well, you can’t expect a preacher to hear that and not make another connection. Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created us in the imago dei- the image of God. From the darkness, the imago emerges- a butterfly in its mature form, us transformed into new life. Us, bearing a little more fully the image of God. Enter darkness with trust in your heart. That’s where new life begins. Amen.

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