A friend I will call Jean came to a summer party at our farm recently. Jean is an animal lover who entertains raccoons, squirrels, ravens and even bears in the woods near her home. When they appear sick, she feeds them with syringes or takes them to the wildlife refuge. All the neighbors know where to drop the stray cats.
But she surprised us the night of the party when she found a monarch butterfly and brought it to show us. Apparently, it was injured and could no longer fly. She held it gently in her palm while we beheld its stained-glass window wings. “So beautiful,” she said. “but I’m going to have to crush it. It’s been injured. It can’t fly anymore. It needs to be put out of its misery.”
Suddenly, before anyone could protest her assessment of the butterfly’s prospects, she placed it on the ground and stomped on it squarely with her foot. Shudders and groans swept through the group surrounding her. The action was so swift, so authoritative, so seemingly heartless, we were all speechless.
I have thought about that action again and again. What kind of impulse drove her to it?
I believe it was love.
Most of us love animals because they entertain and amuse us. We imagine that they exist for our pleasure. But Jean’s action expressed a deeper love, a compassion for the butterfly itself, not for its elegance or the hopeful symbolism it offered her. More important than its resplendent wings was its unseen soul, its anguish, however imperceptible, at being injured and unable to fulfill its truest calling. She put herself in the position of the butterfly and did what she thought was best for it.
To Christians, the demise of a church is a tragedy. We love our churches and all churches. We love what they represent and the good they have done in every corner of our world. When we see them shrinking and closing, we recoil. We want to hold those colored windows in our palms and preserve them forever.
But those who truly love the Church know that it was made to fly by the power of the Holy Spirit. And a dying church can be a place of spiritual injury, a cluster of injured souls straining to survive as a human institution instead of reaching for the sky as a creature of God. The Church should not exist to avoid hurt feelings, to maintain friendships or to preserve historical character in the neighborhood. The Church exists to make disciples, and when the disciples are at the end of their rope, tired and thirsty for spiritual nurture, maybe someone needs to put the institution out of its misery.
Nobody wants to be the one to crush the butterfly. It makes you look heartless and cruel. But there is a kind of love that knows when it’s time to do just that.
The butterfly, remember, is living its second life. It has already experienced resurrection once, so it has no fear for its future beyond the grave. Shouldn’t this also be true of the Church?