The Wonder of the Monarch

_MG_1548For the past several weeks I have had a sharp eye out for glimpses of monarch butterflies. It’s one of my September rituals born when I was a special education classroom teacher. A news segment from our local TV station put me on high alert after showing thousands of them hanging in trees on the southern shore of Lake Erie. Each of the last several days, I have spotted several in the air and looked at them once again in amazement.

Another teacher with a biology background educated me about these particular butterflies. I learned where they reproduced in the late summer, what they ate, and the long impressive flight each makes from Canada, throughout the upper Midwest, northeastern U.S., and even extending along the east coast into Florida until they reach Mexican mountainsides.

As a result of what I learned from my colleague, each September I searched along the roadside areas for a patch of milkweed plants. It was there I hoped to find at least one plant where I discovered the female monarch had laid her eggs, which would result in the emergence of the striking striped caterpillar. For a number of years, I was able to locate both the distinctive striped caterpillar and a pupa and brought them into a terrarium in my classroom. The caterpillar would then eat away at milkweed leaves and stems that I asked my students to bring.

The excitement would build as the developed caterpillar stopped eating and located a perch where it would spin a stunning light turquoise pupa with small touches of gold accenting a ridge near the top. Day-by-day the students were mesmerized as they watched for two weeks until the pupa began to become translucent and then transparent showing the colors of the monarch. Slowly, cracks began to appear in the pupa and the butterfly began to emerge pumping body fluid into its limp wings. Very gently, I would place my finger next to the butterfly and it would step onto my finger. Then carefully I would transfer the butterfly to the finger of a student.   IMG_1253

The student would move slowly down the hall past open doors of curious onlookers until our whole class reached the playground where we watched and waited for our monarch to take flight. What a moment for my students and also for me!

Several other things I shared with my students that increased their wonder included how the released butterfly would fly to Mexico even though it had never been there before and would face many dangers along the way. There the many butterflies would hang in the trees of Mexico in a semi-dormant state until early summer when they would return to their homes in the north and the cycle would repeat.

Every detail of this creature is unique. The milkweed plant it uses for food is poisonous to any other creature that eats it; but once the butterfly is created in its lovely teal pupa and emerges to fly, it will only live on the sweet nectar of flowers. The poisonous substance of the milkweed it used, as nourishment will serve as part of its protection as a butterfly since anything that seeks to eat or attack it will die from the poisonous residue

What impacts me is how much detail our Creator puts into this one butterfly species!

Should we also remember He has shown us that much care in our creation? Before we knew Him for who He is, we too have eaten of many poisonous things, but when He transforms us as His own child He invites us to taste and see how good He is and sends us into the world (even as He sends the monarch) so we might glorify Him. Like the butterfly, He will show us the path if we will listen and He will also use those things sent to destroy us to give testimony to His goodness and greatness.

Monarch butterflies. What a wonder! What a gift! What a Creator!


Character and Clay Pots – III

PICT0207If you have been reading the first two parts of this series, you have heard me talking about clay pots and how they are used to illustrate powerful truths in the Bible. I have also talked about how the skill of the potter results in the exact amount of pressure and heat needed to produce the vessel he has designed. I shared about the significant care that is needed to slowly remove the heat and cool the clay pot so it is not damaged.

As I read about the process and skill needed by potters to create the mug for my coffee, I am deeply grateful that we have a Potter with infinite skills and wisdom as He works to create our character so we will neither be too soft and fail to be of use or too hard and brittle so that our hearts cannot respond to Him.

What seems more startling still is that clay pots, earthen vessels, are the Lord’s choice given how precious the item it will be used for. Paul tells us in the II Corinthians passage there is treasure in this clay pot. One might think something grander than clay might be chosen if it is to contain treasure, but the story of a Rabbi I heard illustrates how crucial the material the vessel is made of can be.

In this story, an emperor’s daughter observes his mean demeanor and taunts the Rabbi. He replies by reminding her that her father keeps his fine wines in common earthen vessels, clay pots. The emperor’s daughter responds by asking the Rabbi to put the wines in silver vessels instead. He obeys, but the wines then turn sour so the Rabbi discerns that the humblest of vessels contain the highest wisdom.

The story illustrates how common vessels of clay provide the most excellent and perfect choice for the use intended. That encourages my heart when I reflect on my own vessel. The passage Paul writes uses the word treasure in some translations to describe the light of Christ. In The Message, the translation tells us the vessel looks very ordinary so that anyone looking at it might miss the brightness within it and He has specifically chosen us as ordinary clay pots so that His light, His life, and His message gleams more brightly and prevents anyone from thinking what they see comes from the clay itself.

Think of it! He has chosen me! He has chosen you! And He knew what He was getting from the beginning, the pluses and the minuses, the strengths and the weaknesses, the successes and the failures, the confidence and the doubt. He knew. He always knew what He could do with clay pots and exactly what would be needed with each one to create a character fit for His purposes.

In The Message, we can see the results as Paul writes, “We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t been broken.”

He knows just how to make me. He knows just how to make you. He knows the shape needed, the temperature required, and only He can cool this vessel at the precise speed to produce His character in us to withstand whatever this world throws at us.

Character and Clay Pots – Part II

PICT0207The correlation of the forging of our character and clay pots may not bring a rousing cheer from our lips when we feel burdened, battered, broken, and bruised. I know when I have felt that way I certainly wanted a better option. I also know that my vision, patience, and tolerance are often very limited. In the midst of life’s challenges, I am usually looking for a way out or a solution rather than how my character develops.

Each of us is unique. Before we knew about DNA and all it reveals, we would say we were unique without proof of the many intricate pieces of DNA, which confirm the statement. That uniqueness means that the Lord’s methods for shaping us so that our character reflects more of Him are also varied, but this is where the correlation with clay pots becomes more intriguing.

There are also different types of clay used to create clay pots. Different clays mature at different temperatures and it’s crucial the temperature the clay is fired at fits the type of clay pot. One type of clay pot fired at one temperature might be soft and porous, while the same clay pot fired at a different temperature may be hard and impervious. But one more important step remains. The kiln, which has been heated to very high temperatures, must be cooled very slowly or the pots will develop cracks and the work will be destroyed.

What makes all the difference creating the quality and survival of the clay pot? The potter. Only the skilled potter knows the clay and what precise things are needed to produce the clay pot he has designed and purposed to make.

We, too, have a potter. He is intimately acquainted with each of us. He knows what we are made of and what is needed and when it is needed to bring about within us the character that reflects Him. His love for us means He doesn’t plan to provide trials and difficulties in order for our character to develop. As the potter who knows the environment within which we live, He is well aware trials and difficulties of all sorts will come to each of us in different seasons. He uses them to bring about good in us, to draw us closer to His heart, to grow our trust and our faith, and to mature us in all ways. Growth is something we know is good and we desire, but it doesn’t come without pressure and oftentimes pain.

In both Old and New Testament, we see illustrations related to clay pots or vessels. One example in the Old Testament is found in Judges related to Gideon, but the New Testament gives us a glimpse of what I hope you will see about the correlation of character and clay pots. Paul writes about it in II Corinthians 4:7 where he refers to us in one translation as earthen vessels and in another as clay pots. The illustration in the passage adds one thing I have not talked about yet, the treasure within the clay pots.

Come back Wednesday for one last look into Clay Pots – III

Character and Clay Pots – Part 1

PICT0207As I listened to a conversation spoken too loudly in a coffee shop, I felt pangs of sadness at what I heard. The women speaking could not seem to find one shred of good in their lives, one area to buoy hope, or one possibility to stir them to take a risk or action to move them forward. Whatever had happened in each of their lives to this point resulted in a sense of resignation that anything could positively change or be different for them.

For these two, the hurts and disappointments of their lives, the daily headlines, their economic status, and a much longer list of experiences had so impacted them that the shape of their thoughts, feelings, and very character was altered.

I understand the temptation. I get the realities we face and the hardships we can be called to endure. The results of broken hearts and disheartened spirits appear everywhere. The consequences of choices made by us or for us chase us through the night when we should be sleeping. Faith gets tested at every turn and it is far easier than we admit to be like the children of Israel who gave up on Moses when his time on the mountain seemed to take too long.

Do we give up, give in, or stand in the middle of all that swirls around us? It is not such an easy choice many times. On a Sunday morning in worship with a hearty “amen” to the message, our confidence grows; but too often it fades in the challenges of any given week. Perhaps we forget because we come into the service empty or half-full and leave filled up again only to get empty again as life keeps happening around us and swirling within us.

I don’t need to feel shame that the challenges of life weigh me down. Our original design to live in Eden didn’t work out as planned. We have been trying to overcome the challenges of the fall ever since then with a need for a heavy reliance on mercy and grace.

After all, clay pots can be easily cracked or broken. Life is hard and messy. Clay pots can be fragile. We see that in the lives of our modern heroes and we see it in the pages of the Lord’s story from Genesis to Revelation. We also see that often the Lord chooses some of the least likely clay pots for His purposes.

Once more it is an issue of our character that determines what we will do when life is messy and broken. The problem we forget is that our character is forged in the midst of the challenges, the failures, the choices (ours and those of others), the stumbles, and weaknesses. If our character is good, it is not in spite of these things that have occurred but because of them. Clay pots go into the heat of the kiln where a metamorphosis takes place.

It’s there in the heat that clay pots go from being a soft, totally fragile substance to one that is hardened, impervious to water, wind, and time in order to be useful, to endure, and to accomplish their purposes. The clay pots look and feel dry when they are placed in the kiln, but there is still water trapped within the spaces of the clay particles that make up the pot.

Check back on Monday to read about Part 2 of Clay Pots.

Looking for God Winks

PPP 002When I was in college studying to become a teacher, a children’s literature class was a requirement. The class demanded a lot as I recall, but what fun to read so many stories and poems that I could put in my toolbox when I started teaching.

One project involved making a poetry collection that needed to be typed up (Yes, no computers back then!), categorized into sections, and collated into a notebook. My dad got involved by suggesting he make a notebook that would be sturdy for use in a classroom. The wooden laminate covered project has stood the test of time and sets on a bookshelf in my home today.

I still recall many of the poems it contains. One of these is by Charles Kingsley who was an English poet from the 1800’s. The short lines made an impact on me that I still periodically recall. The words are these:

        “If you want to be miserable think of yourself, about

         what you want, what you like, what respect people

         ought to pay you and what people think of you.”

 I recalled it again today and reflected on what powerful truth it contains. When my focus is solely on myself, I cannot see anyone else accurately nor can I see the Lord. Focusing on myself to the extent implied by Kingsley can lead to depression, self-pity, victimization, blaming, resentment, bitterness, and so much more.

I was often tempted to move to the opposite extreme of never thinking of myself or counting myself worthy of attention or love as I was growing up and the result was still the same because it still focused on what I didn’t have or didn’t get. It still was out of balance with the focus on “I”.

Thankfully, the Lord brought people into my life that helped me see there was a better way, a balance, which could only come when I allowed the Lord to adjust my perspective and my line of sight. I began to recognize how many other people around me dealt with similar feelings no matter what their age or how much bravado appeared to be present when I interacted with them. When I had a better lens to see others more clearly, I listened carefully to what was said as well as what I did not hear. It helped me to stop comparing myself to others and showed me that we all struggle with some level of self-doubt and uncertainty. We all lose people or things we love. None of us experience the fulfillment of all our hopes and dreams. We don’t live in Eden before the fall.

I began to realize that I had spent too long wanting what was taken instead of looking at what was given. That truth opened my heart to overflowing gratitude so that even on my worst days I could discover things granted to me, how much had blessed me. It also freed me to love others better because I had gotten out of the way so it was the Lord’s love that shone versus my own selfish version. I could better give others what I wished for myself without expecting to receive it in return.

Today as I sat with my cup of tea I saw so many evidences of the Lord’s love, grace, and mercy despite the discouraging news all around me. It reminded me of a favorite phrase a precious young woman used to describe them. She called them “God winks”, little reminders of His goodness. These are the antidotes to the problem Kingsley describes.

Look for “God winks” in your day today! 

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