Butterfly graphic by DepositPhoto

Small Changes, Big Differences

By Paul Graves

Our church family celebrated Easter via Zoom last month. Our pastor led worship from her living room. Behind her left shoulder, I saw a paper butterfly in full flap. The butterfly has become a fashionable Easter symbol for many people, pointing to the dramatic body change from caterpillar to flying beauty.

But recently, I’ve seen how the “butterfly effect” impacts us both spiritually and scientifically. I’d known something of the meteorological reference to the “butterfly effect” for years. It was most famously mentioned in 1972 by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in a presentation to a science convention.

He asked this question: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”  Scientists are still seeking the answer. 

Chaos Theory

Lorenz sought scientific certainty, but discovered scientific unpredictability. His research underlies what became Chaos Theory in quantum physics.         His inquiry began as he was working on a computer calculation for a weather prediction. The tiny number he first used was 0.506127. Then he recalculated by rounding that number to 0.506. And he got a very different weather prediction!  Suddenly the reality of “randomness” became real.

What if our scientific calculations are not as determined as we want them to be?  What if unpredictability and randomness are bigger players in the cosmic, scientific scheme of things? 

And here is our transition, informed by science but experienced in the spiritual dimension of our lives: What if we cannot predict, let alone control, the spirit of God any more than meteorology can control the weather on, say, Easter Sunday? Perish the thought!

The Implications

The implications are not only cosmic, friends. They filter down to the very ways we “do church”, the way we order our lives. Whether we use certain religious language and structures, or whether we free-wheel our approach to living, there are simply many things we don’t/can’t control!

That doesn’t mean there is no order, no predictability, or no ultimate control in daily living. Even in the midst of the viral pandemic that we’re all impacted by, there may be order, predictability and control we can’t begin to comprehend. Yet we do our best to control it — sometimes smartly, sometimes foolishly.       

Have you considered how infinitesimal the actual coronavirus actually is?  But what a huge difference it has made in lives around the world!  As you consider that abstract thought, also consider this concrete question: 

What small gesture(s) have you made recently that brought a sliver of hope, maybe gratitude, to another person?  What small gesture did you receive that brought that hope or gratitude to you?  Small gestures can lead to big differences! Yet we may never see those consequences.

Jesus’ Matthew 25:40 affirmation, “If you do it to the least of these, you’ve done it to me,” is a pointed reminder that Jesus knew small changes can lead to big differences — sometimes for the receiver, sometimes for the giver.

Star Thrower

Since it was published in 1969, anthropologist Loren Eiseley’s “Star Thrower” has taken on a tender and powerful life of its own. It tells of a man who sees a boy on the seashore, throwing starfish back into the ocean. 

The man asks the boy why he’s doing such an impossible job. What difference does it make?  The boy simply answers, “It makes a difference to this starfish.” Indeed. 

On a scientific level or on a personal level of spiritual awareness, the butterfly effect creates unpredictable, mysterious magic. Your small change can make a big difference elsewhere. You may never see it. Do it anyway!

About Paul Graves

Paul Graves is a retired and re-focused United Methodist pastor and a long-time resident of Sandpoint, Idaho, where he formerly served on city council and mayor. His second career is in geriatric social work, and since 2005 he's been the Lead Geezer-in-Training of Elder Advocates, a consulting and teaching ministry on aging issues. Since 1992, Graves has been a volunteer chaplain for Bonner Community Hospice. His columns regularly appear in the Spokesman-Review's Faith and Values section and he also writes the Dear Geezer column for the Bonner County Daily Bee and is the host of the bi-weekly Geezer Forum on aging issues in Sandpoint.

View All Posts

Check Also

To Challenge or Not to Challenge?

During dinner we had a conversation that many of you probably have had, too. When you see someone flouting public health rules and recommendations, do you say something, do you confront?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *