Butterfly Wings

September 8, 2002



Butterfly Wings (9/8/02)

University Congregational Church

Rev. Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas

All over the country the sermon topic for this morning relates in some way to the 9/11 disaster. This coming Wednesday will mark the first anniversary of that horrendous crime, and the men and women in America’s pulpits are faced with the same dilemma as those in the pews: How do we balance our role as American citizens and the obligations of our faith? How do we reconcile our justifiable rage with Christ’s commandment to love our enemies?

If you are not torn apart inside as you struggle with this issue, then I am envious. In my heart there are two convictions that are equally strong, but contradictory. One conviction is that we cannot lie down in the face of evil or evil will triumph. The other conviction is that returning evil for evil is absolutely contrary to everything Jesus taught us about how to live in this world.

I know there are those for whom the world is black and white, and with this dilemma they stand firmly on one side or the other. One side says, America has the military might to impose its will on the world, and we will use every resource at our disposal to rid the world of the forces that would commit such an act. As with all military solutions, innocent people will die; but in this case, our very survival depends on taking an “ends justify the means” approach.

On the other side are pacifists who say it is never right to fight back, and that we cannot be true to our faith if we do anything other than pray for God to change the hearts of those who hate us so vehemently.

If you are like me, your world is not that black and white. For most of us, we wrestle our way through the murky grayness of life, hoping that in the delicate balance between our anger, our reason, our patriotism, and our faith we find some sense of equilibrium that is acceptable in the eyes of God.

As I look back on 9/11 and our ensuing response, it seems to me that it brought out the best and the worst in us. The way we pulled together—the way we pitched in to help alleviate the suffering of those who lost family and loved ones in that senseless terrorist act; the way large parts of the mainline church reached out to the American Islamic community; the uniting behind the ideals on which this nation was originally conceived—that was America at its best. The negatives are well documented: the racism, the religious bigotry; the equating of patriotism with unbridled militarism—these factors will resonate through our nation for decades to come.

We are all confronted with the paradox of a free society. If we allow absolute freedom, then those who hate us can sabotage us from within. But to devise a perfectly secure society requires the loss of all freedom. The end result is a police state.
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And we struggle with how much emphasis to place on our military. With the exception of the radical pacifists, most of us recognize that we need a military to protect ourselves. But we must make certain what does not get lost in all of this is the fact that it is not our military that makes us great. What makes us great are the people and principles our military is created to protect.

I don’t know where the proper balance lies between the demands of the world and Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies. I don’t know where the proper balance lies between a society designed for complete freedom and a society designed to assure complete security. But I do believe that as Christians, we cannot take the stance that might makes right. We cannot sacrifice our principles just because it would be easy to do so.

And it would be easy to sacrifice our principles. We can pretty much get our way in the world. We are the world’s only superpower. Next year we will spend around $400 billion on our military. Russia is second at $60 billion—less than 1/6 of what we spend. In fact, we will spend more than the next twenty nations combined. Now, we can argue all day about whether we actually need to spend all that money on the military, but I hope we can agree that the fact we are in a position to maintain a clear military supremacy in this world is not what makes the United States of America a great nation.

Look at world history. From Attila the Hun to Adolph Hitler, history makes clear that the nation with the greatest military is not necessarily the greatest nation in the world. I do believe we live in the greatest nation in the world. I believe we live in the greatest nation the world has ever known. And I sincerely believe that the only way to keep it that way is to always stand on principle—to always take the high road, and to never ignore the difference between right and wrong just because we have the power to do so. And I’m not saying we have done that. But I hear rumblings all around, from the streets of Wichita, to the radio and television political talk shows, to the corridors of the American government, that indicate that sentiment is growing—the sentiment that says, “Hey, we’re the United States of America, and we’ll do as we darn well please.”

My father-in-law, who passed away a few years ago, served in the Navy in World War Two. Like most people who witnessed the horrors of that era, he was a patriotic American and a strong supporter of our military. But he always refused to equate patriotism with militarism. He told the story of his service in the Pacific Rim toward the end of the war with Japan. The sailors on his ship learned that it looked like the war was about over, because the United States had invented a new weapon. This weapon—this atomic bomb—had been dropped on Japan, and Japan’s surrender was imminent.

There was great celebration on the ship, with jubilant cries about Yankee ingenuity and God’s blessing of the American cause. It was less than a month later that his ship took part in the occupation of Japan. The joyful laughter and long-awaited celebrations were replaced with horrified speechlessness once their eyes fell upon the unholy site of nuclear destruction. I still remember the look in his eyes as he told me this story. Not only did that sight never leave his memory, it was almost as if it was stuck on his eyes. I never knew a more patriotic American. But I also never knew a person who was more fully aware of the horrors of war, and that there is a difference between what we fight for, and our ability to fight.

Well, enough of the big picture. You’ll note in my remarks the absence of answers to our questions in the aftermath of 9/11. But that’s okay, I suppose, because for those of us who acknowledge this world is not black and white but is instead frustrating and confusing shades of gray, we understand that sometimes the answers just aren’t there. And it helps to know that others are feeling the same things we are, and we take some comfort in wrestling with the questions together.

I contend that the way we, as individuals, wrestle with all those difficult questions is more important than we realize. It makes a difference whether we tackle life’s problems with love or with anger; with self-righteousness or with compassion; with judgment or with understanding.

Remember the story about the butterfly in Asia who flaps its wings and by doing so ultimately starts a thunderstorm in North America? It is a story about cause and effect. It’s been told many different ways, but the idea is that the butterfly flaps its wings, and the slight change in the surrounding breeze has a ripple effect across the whole globe. Perhaps it’s easier to envision by saying the butterfly in Asia flaps its wings, causing a dog to bark, which frightens into flight a large flock of birds, which flies along the border of a low pressure zone, shifting the wind currents by the few inches it takes to make that front move south an extra half degree, and through an atmospheric chain reaction, the drought in Kansas comes to an end two weeks later.

It’s a great story. I don’t know how true it is, at least in the way it is literally told. But like most good stories, it contains a truth that is pretty much undeniable. I’ll give you an example by telling a fictional story set in Wichita, Kansas, that never happened, but perhaps rings of the truth. I call this story Claude Waves to Jerome.

Jerome was driving to work one day and almost had an accident. He didn’t look as he merged into traffic on Kellogg, and fortunately for all concerned Claude, who was driving along minding his own business, swerved just in the nick of time. The two men exchanged relieved glances, Claude waved kindly to Jerome, and Jerome went on to work. Jerome was so thankful for his good fortune, he started thinking about life. He’d had a little spat with his wife the previous evening, so he sent her flowers. He called the church and volunteered for the Done-In-A Day Team, and when he got home that night he spent the whole evening playing games with his children.

His secretary was in such a good mood from having spent the day around Jerome, she went home and called her estranged sister, whom she hadn’t talked to in three years. Her sister was so glad to hear from her, the next morning she found herself in the best mood she’d been in for years, and volunteered at the children’s home. On the way to the children’s home she came across an accident, and thanks to the fact she had recently take a CPR class she was able to save the life of the young boy involved in the wreck. That boy, by the way, would one day grow up to discover the cure for cancer. And all because Claude waved nicely to Jerome. The end of story number one.

And now for another version of the story, Claude Waves to Jerome. Jerome was driving to work one day and almost had an accident. He didn’t look as he merged into traffic on Kellogg, and fortunately for all concerned Claude, who was driving along minding his own business, swerved just in the nick of time. The two men exchanged relieved glances, and then Claude, incensed at Jerome’s horrendous job of driving, angrily shouted out the window, questioning Jerome’s parental heritage and waving violently with only a single finger extended.

Jerome went on to work in an incredibly bad mood. He called his wife to remind her that she had been entirely wrong in last evening’s argument, and said he hoped she would have her head screwed on straight by the time he got home. He called the church and left a message for the minister that last week’s sermon was the biggest pile of hooie he’d ever heard in his life. After work he went to the bar and belted down a few drinks, knowing that his concerned wife and children would finally start realizing who the boss was around that place, and start giving him the respect he deserved.

His secretary was in such a foul mood from having spent the day around Jerome, she went home and called her estranged sister, whom she hadn’t talked to in three years, just to remind her what a no-count bum she was. Her sister was so upset to hear from her, the next morning she found herself unable to get out of bed due to her intense depression. Five blocks away, there was an accident in which the boy who was destined to grow up and cure cancer was tragically killed. And all because Claude shouted an obscenity and waved rudely to Jerome. The end of story number two.

Okay, those stories may have been a little exaggerated, but not as much as it might first appear. The fact is, our words and actions really do ripple throughout the world. The things we say and do over the course of a day have effects far beyond what we can even imagine. No matter how much we may wish we were autonomous, self-sufficient beings, that just isn’t true. We are in relationship with the world. And whether we like to admit it or not, every day, each of us changes the world.

Oh, we may not be able to intentionally change the big picture. But we can’t help but have an effect that reaches far beyond what we normally think of as our sphere of influence. There is a saying that goes What we are is God’s gift to us; what we become is our gift to God. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, but it goes even deeper than that. “What we become” is not only our gift to God. It is also our gift to the world. And day by day, the way we live—the way we wrestle with life’s problems—matters. It matters more than we realize.

The daily living of a human life is a powerful thing—much more powerful than the flapping of a butterfly’s wings. Our lives send ripples out through creation. The world changes with the things we say and do. That’s why it makes a difference whether we tackle life’s problems with love or with anger; with self-righteousness or with compassion; with judgment or with understanding. We are bringing those realities into the world.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves every night, How did I change the world today? Like it or not, our presence changes the world every day. Each of our words, every one of our deeds, is like a rock thrown into a pond. Everything we do and say casts a wave out into the world that is perceived far beyond its original impact. What if we became truly aware of this, and asked ourselves each night, As I used the gift of life this day, how did it affect the world? Because I am alive, is there more love in the world, or more apathy? Is there more peace and harmony in the world, or more bitterness and anger?

Of course, just as the world is changed by us, we are changed by the world. We were all changed by 9/11. And just like that tragedy brought out the best and worst of America as a whole, it brought out the best and the worst within each and every one of us. I know I’m not alone when I say there were times in the aftermath of that senseless massacre that I had to wrestle with my lesser nature—the little voice that kept saying, Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out. And I confess there were nights when the world was not a better place for my having lived in it that day. There were days when I gave into the anger and bought into the rage.

Time has given us a clearer perspective. The pain is still there, as is the anger. We all look at the world through different eyes. Like the imprint of Hiroshima on my father-in-law’s eyes, our eyes have been permanently scarred with the haunting image of those airliners crashing into the World Trade Center. We witnessed something that nobody should have to witness: the human cost of unbridled hatred.

And we will never be the same. But beneath the scar that will always remain are hearts once again anchored on love, and hope, and goodness, because it can be no other way. If it were otherwise, then evil would have triumphed. If it were otherwise, we would have been reduced to people whose lives change the world daily with anger, resentment and hatred.

We will ultimately conquer the blind hatred that confronts us in the world, by defeating the blind hatred that attacks us from within. It’s not easy. And sometimes it seems like we should be doing more. Against the stormy fury of violence, our attempt to respond in a Christian manner may seem like little more than the flapping of a butterfly’s wings. But we all know how powerful that can be.