To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
The leaves of the milkweed plant apparently taste delicious.
But few marauding insects and grazing livestock ever get the chance to enjoy a milkweed meal. That’s because this common herb has not one or two but three major lines of defense to keep hungry visitors at bay.
First, the plant’s leaves and stems are covered by a forest of tiny white hairs – a physical barrier that makes it hard for leaf-munching insects to access the tender tissues.
Second, the milkweed is aptly named. A thick, white, milky sap runs through its “veins.” This sticky goo is under pressure. It gushes out of any cuts or wounds on a leaf’s surface, inundating hungry bugs in a matter of seconds and trapping them forever.
Third, and most dramatically, milkweeds use chemical warfare. Their milky latex includes a cocktail of toxic substances, including cardenolides, which can wreak havoc on the nervous systems of large animals. More than a few farmers have discovered sheep and cattle staggering as if drunk, struggling to stay on their feet, after their livestock got into a patch of milkweeds.
Only a few species of insects have the capacity to bypass all three defenses.
The most famous is the monarch butterfly. By summer’s end, midwestern milkweed plants will be covered by voracious monarch caterpillars. How do they manage to enjoy this feast that is calculated to incapacitate or kill all their rivals?
Young caterpillars first prepare a place to eat. They cut down all the fine white hairs in a large area, almost like clearing a patch of forest before doing agriculture. Then they create a circle trench, chomping their way into the leaf tissues, leaving behind a large white milky circle. That lowers the “water pressure,” so to speak, of the sap. The caterpillar positions itself inside the remaining circle of leaf tissue, where it can eat in peace – using the circle of sap as a kind of moat to protect itself from ants and other predators.
But what about those toxic chemicals?
Scientists have discovered a single mutation in the monarch genetic code that prevents them from being poisoned. But there’s more. Having ingested mass quantities of cardenolides, monarchs can now use them as their own chemical weapons. People love gazing upon the strikingly beautiful black and orange colors of adult monarch butterflies. But those colors are actually warnings – the natural world equivalent of a skull-and-crossbones. “I do not taste good, and you don’t want to come anywhere near me.” Thus monarchs have few natural enemies.
From the perspective of the butterflies, their association with milkweeds seems like a dream come true.
But as Rice University entomologist Scott Solomon points out, the price for such a cozy relationship is exceedingly high.
Monarch caterpillars are perfectly engineered to eat milkweed leaves – and nothing else. If that food source begins to disappear, it’s not as if the caterpillars will happily turn their attention to rose bushes or honeysuckle stems or hibiscus leaves. It’s milkweeds or bust.
And unfortunately, it appears that acres and acres of milkweeds in North America are going bust.
An increasing number of farmers and property owners are selling their real estate for development. Strong herbicides, intended to eliminate the weeds that compete with corn and soybeans, are also eradicating milkweeds. As a consequence, butterfly populations are crashing.
National programs like Milkweeds for Monarchs are urging farmers to preserve the corners of their fields as natural “safe spaces” for milkweed plants – and thus for the caterpillars that dramatically grow into one of the world’s most spectacular butterflies.
Their survival now hangs by a thread, all because of the fragility of having one and only one food source.
Interestingly, something like this can happen in our life with God. We can become so dependent on a single way to connect with God that if anything should happen to it, we may suddenly feel that all is lost.
At the dawn of the European Enlightenment, myriads of people felt comfortably secure in the conviction that our planet sits at the center of the universe. That’s the only way God could have crafted the cosmos, right? Then Copernicus put all of us, quite literally, in our place. The Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. Shock waves rocked the church. Believers suddenly felt adrift.
We don’t want to build our faith on a combination of bad science and bad Bible study, making us vulnerable to future discoveries that might topple one or both.
Likewise, it’s always a mistake to build our faith around our admiration for a particular leader.
Leaders can capture our hearts and fire our imaginations. They can seem to be living proof that God really does work through human hearts. Then, just possibly, comes the sad moment when you discover this “man of God” or “woman after God’s own heart” has been cultivating a hidden life. Now they are living proof of spiritual fraud. If your loyalty to God is bound up in loyalty to one of God’s flawed representatives (and they all are), then you may suddenly find yourself deeply disillusioned.
Nor do we want the survival of our trust in God to hang by the single thread of a dramatic personal experience.
You may have experienced a miracle. Or you may have had a dream in which God spoke to you so clearly that you cannot deny it was really him. But then time begins to go by. Life brings, as it does for everyone, a series of disappointments. The vivid details of your amazing experience gradually fade, and now you’re beginning to wonder if that dream was just your digestion.
We must not weave our spiritual lives around a single filament that we hope will hold everything together.
Scientific perspectives change. Imperfect leaders inevitably fail. Our own experiences can become jaded.
But the evidence that there is an infinite-personal God who is really there is everywhere. We just need eyes to see.
Consider the discoveries of archaeology. And answered prayers. And the “just right” parameters of our planet to support life. Look at the evidence for redeemed lives. And the way Scripture addresses the timeless questions of philosophy. Notice the realities of love, hope, and joy, even in the midst of chaos. And humanity’s unquenchable thirst for meaning. And its search for justice. And beauty. Consider the stunning case for signs and wonders. And the fact that even though the Church can seem endlessly frustrating and even embarrassing, Jesus somehow always shines through.
British author and theologian C.S. Lewis once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
There isn’t just one thread to hold on to. Everywhere we look, no matter where we turn, we can see the fingerprints of our Creator.
May God remind us of that truth all this summer, as we water the milkweeds at the fringes of our gardens and look for the monarchs that will surely follow.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.