caterpillars, butterflies & sex


A few weeks ago a little girl I see in counseling found a stuffed green caterpillar among the toys in my office. She was mesmerized as we lined up pretend food for the caterpillar to eat, just like in the Eric Carle book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Playing with the caterpillar and watching her excitement reminded me of some other special kids in my history.

When I was in graduate school I worked as a Christian education director at a church, and one of my responsibilities was giving the children’s sermon on Sunday mornings. One week the topic was transformation in Christ, and I used the caterpillar for an object lesson. Although the caterpillar-to-butterfly analogy felt familiar and a bit overused to me, I will never forget the responses of the kids that day.

Object Lessons That Last
Once the children had made their way to the front of the sanctuary, I pulled out my stuffed caterpillar and asked the kids if they knew what I was holding. The older kids immediately yelled out the correct answer, but I also got a few outliers, like the little boy who insisted it was a worm, or the three year-old girl who confidently identified it as a frog. As the adults and I smiled at each other at their collective cuteness, I asked the kids to tell me about the caterpillar’s appearance.

“It’s green!” one little girl told us.

“It has antennas!” another boy yelled.

Not only did they get to look at the caterpillar, but as we talked I passed the caterpillar around so the kids were able to touch the green corduroy fabric and the black felt feelers. “This caterpillar is so pretty just like she is, but one day she will change, won’t she?” I told them in my best children’s pastor voice. “She will become something far more beautiful. Do you know what this caterpillar will become?” I asked.

“A butterfly!” the kids called out proudly.

“Yes!” I affirmed, as I turned my stuffed caterpillar inside out, revealing previously hidden butterfly wings. I then passed around the transformed animal and the kids were able to look it over and see for themselves that there was no longer any hint of green corduroy or black feelers; now all they could see were brightly colored yellow, black and orange butterfly wings.

See It, Hear It, Feel It
The kids in my church loved this object lesson, and I loved it too. I loved it because no one was wandering into the choir loft or waving to mommy or laying down on the steps for a quick nap. All eyes were on me (or rather, on my caterpillar-butterfly). The kids may not have remembered that the lesson was about “transformation,” but they knew it was about a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. They knew it because they saw it and heard it, and best of all, they got to touch it.

Sex is kind of like that caterpillar-butterfly. If God is trying to teach us lessons in this life, then I can think of many times when I have felt like the kids in my church – distracted by the choir loft, or by my own attempts to get someone to notice me, or by my desire to just check out, numb out, take a nap.

What Lessons Does Sexuality Teach?
But sex makes us pay attention, doesn’t it? We can see it, hear it, and we can feel it. Perhaps that is not by accident. If God created us and created sex, maybe we are meant to learn some lessons from it. And maybe those lessons are different than the ones that we are saturated with in our popular culture – a culture that is pretty raunchy.

If I believe what I see on TV or in the movies, then life is all about sex – getting it. And sex is all about me – my own pleasure.  What matters is looking hot, being sexy, and having as much sex as I can.

But maybe our culture gets it wrong.

Maybe sexuality is actually about so much more than just what we do with our bodies.

Sexuality as Story
If we understand sexuality as something both created by God and a reflection of God’s relational identity, then sexuality is part of a story God is telling. In God’s redemptive story sexuality becomes sacramental rather than raunchy, holy instead of nasty.

Our sex drive isn’t just about friction or release. Pleasure is a God-given gift, but it isn’t the climax of the story. Rather, pleasure becomes a foreshadowing of things to come. Our sex drive hints at deeper longings for connection, intimacy and oneness with another human being.

Our sexuality also whispers to us of an intimacy and union that is yet to come. As much as sex is a here-and-now experience, it also points to a future union of pure ecstasy that Christians believe awaits us in heaven. The physical connection with another human being here on earth tells a story about a reunion that is coming with Christ one day.

More Than Just Sex
Our culture’s depiction of sexuality is focused on hotness and having sex. If we rely only upon that interpretation, we miss the myriad surprising ways that God uses our sexuality to draw us toward intimacy and connection with others.

Sometimes it is about romance. Sexuality is what drew me to the 6’7” guy with curly blonde hair, green eyes, and gentle hands my first day of graduate school. But it’s also the feeling of joy I get meeting a girlfriend for coffee when she speaks words that reflect my unnamed experience; my heart wells up with warmth and says, “Yes, you understand. I am not alone.”

If we believe the canvas our popular culture paints about sexuality, then it’s only and always about genital release. But it’s about so much more.

We miss the tender painting of my retired and disabled in-laws having yearly block parties to get to know their neighbors, and the countless moms wiping kids’ bottoms and noses and scraped knees day in and day out.

We judge people for what they say on Facebook or Twitter, instead of seeing those disclosures as a reflection of their longing to feel heard and understood.

We ignore the beauty of the somewhat hidden sexuality of my 45 year-old stay-at-home mom client who longs for her husband to talk to her and see her at the end of the day, instead of just wanting to have sex with her at night.

We mistakenly assume that single friends can only express their sexuality if and when they ever get married, instead of seeing the undercurrent of sexuality beating within intimate friendships and fruitful work.

Just like the green corduroy caterpillar in my office, sexuality can feel good, but it is about so much more than sensory pleasure. And if God is teaching lessons with sexuality, then I don’t know about you, but I want to sit up and pay attention.


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