Flapping our wings

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Especially this week, Christians remember the execution of an innocent Galilean peasant that was ordered by brutal rulers some 2,000 years ago. I think of the spiritual, “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord).” It is an invitation to imagine yourself there in person. We care more deeply if we have a vivid connection.

So, I force myself to look at the horrifying pictures and graphic coverage of the war in Ukraine, including the torture and slaughter of civilians by the Russian army. I read the stories of victims and refugees.

But what can I do about it? It is a war on the other side of the world.

Recently, writer Anne Lamott reflected on what Americans might do for Ukrainians in light of the butterfly effect. This is the theory that everything is connected: a monarch’s wings can change the weather on the other side of the world. Lamott wrote, “Maybe noticing beauty — flapping our wings with amazement — changes things in ways we cannot begin to imagine.”

I force myself to imagine what it is like in Ukraine, then gaze out my front window. The redbud tree in my little yard is in full bloom. The flowers look like frozen fireworks exploding in color. I’m not at all suggesting that this image compensates for the violence abroad, whether in Ukraine, Afghanistan, or anywhere else.

But as Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Yes, a blooming tree is a small thing. If a butterfly’s wings make a difference, paying attention to the yellow- and black-striped butterfly on the redbud also matters.

Small acts of kindness also matter in beautiful ways. Last week, I pulled out of the church parking lot and happened to see a man walking along the side of the road. With a claw at the end of a stick, he was picking up trash that had been chucked in the weeds and collecting it in a black plastic bag. That’s nice, I thought, and continued on my errand.

Half an hour later, I returned by the same way. Another man had parked his vehicle along the shoulder of the road. He used his bare hands to deposit garbage in the first man’s trash bag. That was beautiful to me. Later that evening, I picked up Coke bottles and potato chip wrappers that had been tossed in the woods around my neighborhood.

I don’t tell this story to toot my own horn but rather to give an example of an idea that Lamott termed “goodness is quantum,” meaning a teeny-tiny act that has a ripple or butterfly effect. A driver pays for the meal of the car behind him in the drive-thru; a shopper carries someone else’s groceries to her car; two strangers exchange smiles while passing on a sidewalk. Imagine the great good that can result from these small, beautiful acts …

For everything is connected. A butterfly changes the weather half a world away. On the night he was betrayed, the crucified one gave the commandment to love one another (John 13:34). Let’s “flap our wings with amazement” and see what kindness we can spread. You just never know.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”


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