I fell in love with milkweeds in Kansas City. About a dozen species can be found in the fields and ditches. The bright orange of the butterfly-weed flashed like a neon light in a sea of prairie, but my delight was always the seedpods of the common milkweed. In the fall the big grey pods crack and release white, gossamer-winged seeds into the wind. A few lines from a Richard Wilbur poem helped me connect the milkweed seeds to my faith:
Anonymous as cherubs
Over the crib of God
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind,
I shall possess the field.
That plain and broken pods can release such beauty to the wind encourages me.
Recently, however, it has been the roots and rhizomes of the milkweed that have taught me. Several years ago I ordered some showy milkweed seeds. Milkweed plants are the sole food of the monarch butterfly caterpillar—one of North America’s largest and most beautiful butterflies. Their black and crisp orange wings fly high and far. Monarchs are amazing because of their north/south migration. They winter in Mexico and southern California, but their migration depends on milkweed for nectar and for reproduction, so I planted some milkweed in one of our flower beds.
In the beginning the milkweed did not impress. The first year the plants struggled and grew only seven or eight inches, so I moved them into the elevated growing beds that get full sun. There they grew a couple feet high but did not bloom. The third year they grew almost four-feet high and were loaded with blossoms and seeds. I have harvested the seeds and sown some around Myrtle Point.
Then came the rhizomes. This spring sprouts of milkweed came up throughout the growing bed even eight feet away from where the milkweed was last year. I have done my best to dig up and transplant the roots and long white rhizomes. To my dismay, I discovered the rhizomes going two to three feet deep into dirt. I could not dig deep enough to get it all out of my raised bed.
The good news, at least for monarchs, is that I now have about thirty milkweed plants growing along the back fence. The bad news is that every morning I must pull out new shoots of milkweed that are coming up in our beans and carrots. I have been persecuting the milkweed daily for weeks. The rhizomes are unstoppable.
Despite the bother, I admire these muscular rhizomes that push horizontally through the dirt and send up new plants in unexpected places. God has challenged me to have a more rhizomatic faith that pushes through the hard stuff, waits patiently for the rain, and produces new life in surprising places. More of my faith needs to be in the hidden places of deep repentance, gritty faithfulness, and earnest prayer.
Just as we can’t see the growth of the rhizomes, we can’t measure our own spiritual growth during hard times. It is the growth of the kingdom that comes from praying and believing when all we see is dirt. It is the ground-breaking faith of perseverance and endurance in the face of persecution. It is unstoppable. I don’t know if monarch caterpillars will ever find a home on my milkweed. It’s been several years since I saw a monarch fluttering across Maple Street. It is a long-shot—an act of faith. But monarchs are known as the wandering butterfly, so there is a chance. Like the rhizomes of the milkweed, they can surprise us with their beauty and hope.