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Pastor Glenn McDonald: One Leg of the Journey


This is that special time of year when monarch butterflies grace our gardens, not to mention the milkweeds growing alongside farmers’ fields.


For a long time, these beautiful, fragile creatures were at the center of one of the great mysteries of science. 


Every fall, people both east and west of the Rocky Mountains have watched the monarchs fly south. Every spring they return. Where do they hang out during the winter? An entomologist named Fred Urquhart devoted most of his life to answering that question.


Urquhart lived before the technological revolution that figured out how to attach tiny GPS tracking devices to butterfly wings. Instead, he and his colleagues had to tag, by hand, tens of thousands of monarchs so they could monitor their movements.


What Urquhart discovered is that monarchs east of the Rockies fly all the way to Mexico for the winter, sometimes traveling more than 3,000 miles.


The butterflies west of the Rockies, on the other hand, fly to wintering sites along the Pacific Ocean. 


Nobody knows how they know how to do this. 


What’s amazing is that scientists have taken butterflies from the West Coast and brought them to the Midwest. They fly right to Mexico. When they capture butterflies in Illinois and release them in Utah, those monarchs fly to the Pacific Ocean. 


So when you switch the butterflies, they automatically switch overwintering sites. No one knows how they do that, either.


In 1975, 38 years into his research, Fred Urquhart finally found what he was looking for: a site in Mexico where millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter clinging to trees. Astonishingly, these “monarch forests” are in mountainous regions two miles above sea level. Today entomologists know of 20 such sites. One of them is featured in the picture above.


The eastern population of North America’s monarchs overwinters in the same 11 to 12 areas in the States of Mexico and Michoacan from October to late March.


Towards the end of winter, the butterflies begin their annual northward return trip. Monarchs, by the way, are the only butterfly species known to do a two-way migration, like birds. These particular butterflies, however, fly only a few hundred miles. Then they lay their eggs and die. Their children continue the trip north.


Then another generation goes a few hundred miles, only to deposit their eggs and die. Finally, a fourth generation completes the epic journey, arriving to sip Midwestern nectar.


Thus, if you see a monarch butterfly this summer, it’s quite likely the great-grandchild of one of the monarchs that was in your garden last summer. 


It takes at least four generations of monarch butterflies to complete the migration back and forth across North America. No wonder this phenomenon has been described as one of the most spectacular events in the natural world – and is presumably why so many butterflies spend so much of their free time browsing


God’s design for our lives – the mission to which he has called us – is a bit like the migratory mission of monarch butterflies. It cannot be completed within our lifetimes. 


By God’s grace, during the span of our few decades of life, we can see signs here and there that God’s kingdom is breaking out and breaking through. But God alone knows the timetable for the ultimate healing of this broken world.


In the words of Father Oscar Romero, a Catholic priest who was martyred in 1980 in El Salvador: “We are workers, not master builders. Ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”


The God who’s in charge of tomorrow knows where all of our efforts – and the efforts of succeeding generations – will ultimately take us. 


Our call, in the meantime, is to play small but crucial parts in a very long story.


In other words, we get to fly one leg of the journey. 


And to do that today with all our body, mind, soul, and strength.

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