We pulled up to the camping site trying to figure out where in the world we would put our two tents. We looked around doubtfully, surveying our only two options: a small, sloping grassy area at the end of the paved parking area (did I mention sloping?), and a narrow rectangular plot on the right edge of it (did I mention narrow?).
We knew that site B-11 was our only chance, after hours of preparation on the part of both families, to make this first camping trip happen. It was Labor Day weekend, and we’d been told that this was the last spot left. I glanced at the thick border of weeds that surrounded the plot and wondered how many of its resident creepy crawlies would find their way into our tent. However, on the plus side (or so I thought), the bathrooms were right behind us.
After much discussion and admittedly some consternation, the largest tent was pitched on the slope, and the smaller dome tent was pitched alongside the driveway. This was going to be a great camping experience!
We settled in and enjoyed fellowship and grilled burger/potato packets with our family and friends around the picnic table. An uncharacteristic chill began to set in, and I added a few layers, trying to keep warm.
That night as we tried to sleep, owls hooted and dogs howled; inside the tents sleeping bags rolled down the slope, and fellow campers from neighboring campsites decided to have flashlight wars while cutting across our site and between our tents to get to the bathrooms. Air mattresses deflated, the cold penetrated deeply, and stories of black bear sightings kept me alert to any rustlings in the bushes that surrounded us.
In short, it was a miserable first night that poked many holes in any romantic notions about camping I had previously held.
It wasn’t until after we had finished cleaning up from breakfast the next day, while having my devotional time, that I noticed the butterflies. They were monarchs: bright-orange in color, with a glorious wingspan, darting and diving, gliding and soaring through and onto the purple thistles, the stems of which were covered with the most highly concentrated number of thorns I had ever seen.
What is it about this weed that attracts the butterflies? I wondered.
Perhaps the flowers themselves are soft, I thought. Surely they had to be in order for the monarchs to want to land on them. I walked over and touched one of the flowers. It was prickly, just like the thorns. No, that wasn’t it.
Later that morning my friend showed our children how to open the large, green pods of the milkweed (the other main resident of our beautiful weed garden) and pull out the silk. I was amazed at the amount and beauty of what was inside the pod of this seemingly ugly, useless plant.
Soon thereafter breathless reports began pouring in from the kids about goldfinch and cocoon sightings. Hope was abounding, joy was spreading, and the children’s excitement was contagious. Maybe this trip was worth it after all.
Later we learned that milkweed is the very plant utilized by monarch caterpillars to spin their cocoons and turn into beautiful butterflies. And the nectar of the thistle’s flower is highly prized by the monarch. These two weeds, placed side by side, were the predominant occupants in our weed hedge.
As it turned out, we slept much better the second night. My husband, Colin, hung a laundry line in front of the suspected path of midnight bandits, and obstructed the path of early-morning campsite penetration with our SUV. I still rolled down the slope while I slept, but I was too tired to worry about black bears or other unwelcome wildlife infringements on our first camping experience.
The last morning of our trip, as I again watched the butterflies in the thistles and the milkweed, I contemplated the deeper lessons I could apply to my Christian walk and the unwanted thorns of life.
Most of us don’t like difficult circumstances. We want our lives to be aesthetically pleasing to each of our five senses, and to be without slopes or hard-to-maneuver paths.
But the secret the butterflies know is that sometimes the best nectar, those treasures, those nuggets of life, can be found only in the midst of the prickliest flowers.
The very worst of times can turn out to be the very best of times. As we persevere through our trials, whether it be an aging or distant parent, being betrayed by a trusted friend, chronic pain or disease, the loss of a loved one, or financial struggles, if we choose to open the unsightly pods in search of the silk of hidden lessons, while avoiding bitterness, our character reflects more of the love and glory of God.
We learn to be people who not only do good things, but who are compassionate, empathetic members of the body of Christ who build up our brothers and sisters instead of tearing them down with discouraging words birthed from thoughts of judgment.
And there is priceless nectar in the hope that comes from learning to trust God; from learning that although we might not understand why He allows these heartaches in our lives, no matter what we go through, God will always be with us, helping us along.
More important, through the crown of thorns Jesus willingly wore for us, through His sufferings and death on the cross, we have the biggest hope of all—eternal life.
As we press into the one who understands pain and suffering as no other, searching wholeheartedly for Him in the midst of the prickly thistles, we will not only experience the presence of God as we have always yearned to, but also learn that true freedom comes from being dependent on Him. n
Kris Smith is happily married to a military chaplain, with whom she has two children. She feels called to writing as a ministry of encouragement.