The Purpose of a Penguin
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I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free form its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Romans 8:18-25
Have you ever tried to tell a story from the middle?
Not just any old story, but a story of something that has happened to you, of an experience you have had, or of a trial that you have gone through. Have you ever tried to describe it, while you are still within it, before you have gotten to the other side of it? While you are still in the midst of it?
I have found that it is actually rather difficult.
There is something about knowing the end that helps make sense of the middle. There is something about knowing how things work out that gives a sense of perspective, and gives meaning to the middle.
This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately, as I have found myself smack dab in the middle. For me this middle is a time of waiting for a call to ministry. I have taken all the steps, finished the degree, passed all the exams…
But I am still unemployed. I have only really actually been looking for about a year now, and even in that year only been serious about it for the past six or seven months. But that is a long time to wait. It is a long time to figure out how to answer when people say, “So, you went to seminary, what are you doing now?”
It is hard to tell a story from the middle.
I have visions of someday being able to tell it from the end…, or at least the end of this chapter. “Let me tell you about the time I was waiting for a call to ministry…”
It is not effort that I lack. I have traveled close to 25,000 miles interviewing! It is not credentials that I lack—I went to the right schools, gained the proper experiences and have quite a nice list of references to go along with it. It is not even a sense of call that I lack—I feel as though I am where God has called me, and I am following in the path in which I am meant to travel.
What I lack is a way out of this place in the middle. Waiting is fine, as long as you know how long it will last. But how do you wait for something when you have no idea how long?
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.
I have a question for you. I know it will seem odd, but have you ever wondered about the purpose of a penguin? Neither had I, until my neighbor Linda posed the question to me last week.
She had just been to see the documentary film, The March of the Penguins. In the film they follow a group of emperor penguins, thousands of them, and document the process of their breeding ritual in a remote section of Antarctica.
Linda proceeded to describe how these penguins would leave the sea, their home, and travel together 70 miles inland to mate and raise their young. I thought she was mistaken at first—70 miles? Have you ever seen a Penguin walk?! Not only do they walk 70 miles inland (they need to get to a place where the ice is thick enough, apparently) but after the egg is hatched the parents take turns walking back to the sea, 70 miles, to get food, and then another 70 miles back to the breeding ground to feed the newly hatched baby. The way I calculate it for each baby there is at least 420 miles of penguin walking!
So when Linda posed the question, what is the point of a penguin, it did not seem all that crazy. They are isolated. They have very few predators and a narrow range of prey. They go through this elaborate breeding ritual, which is fraught with risk and the potential of death—the egg can freeze and crack open if it is left exposed to the elements for too long as it is passed from mother to father, the mother can be eaten while she returns to the sea for food, if the mother does not return from this food run within a day or two of the baby hatching (the father is the one who cares for the egg after it has been laid until it hatches) the baby will die, either the mother or the father might not make the long journey back and forth…What is the point of a penguin?
And isn’t that the very same question we ask, when we are in the middle?
What is the point?
How do I make sense of it all?
Because in the middle it may seem as though all we are doing is walking on and on, endlessly, and for what?
I wonder if this is not the same question that Paul is trying to answer…
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free form its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
I think we in the church might get so used to reading the Bible as the Word of God, which it is, that we forget that at the same time Paul was a real person trying to make sense of things, from in the middle. He didn’t have two thousand years of church history to tell him how it would all play out. He was writing as someone whose life had been literally turned upside down because of his encounter with the risen Jesus.
In the book Finding God in the World author Avery Brooke tells about her own experience of this turning.
One day I fell to thinking about being an atheist. I remember that I was shaking a mop out the back door when I suddenly realized that atheist was not exactly the right word to describe my beliefs. An atheist, I said to myself, is sure that God doesn’t exist. But I’m not sure, so I must be an agnostic.
I was utterly surprised. Why hadn’t I ever stopped to realize this before? I gave the mop a final shake and stood in the kitchen thinking. I didn’t like the idea of being an agnostic. To say I don’t know about something as basic as whether God exists or not was unsettling. How could one base one’s life on an uncertainty?
She set about to read ten books on religion to come to an answer. This reading only continued to confirm for her that God was an intellectual idea surrounded by strange stories and improbably events.
At least that was the impression the books gave me. They seemed flat, dull, strange, and not in the least connected with my life.
I had read about seven books and was dutifully still reading even though I had inwardly given up, when I thought of another plan. Somewhere, in the Bible or another book, I had read, The Kingdom of God is Within You.
Do you suppose, I reflected, that they mean it literally? I decided to find out.
When the house was quiet I went to our bedroom, closed the door, and sat down in a comfortable chair. I remember that I felt as if I were clearing a space in the room of my mind and throwing out extraneous clutter.
When my mind seemed reasonably empty I paused. It was very still. There’s nothing here, I thought.
And then I realized that I was wrong. God was there. And I knew somehow that God had been there all along if I had only bothered to look.
I know now that every lasting conversion is a turning. You are going in one direction, and then you turn and start going in another.
All I knew then was the desire to respond.
Paul had been a zealous persecutor of the church and then one day, out of the blue, on the road to Damascus, his life was literally turned around because of his encounter with Christ.
So when Paul writes these words, he does not write them as someone who has it all figured out, but someone who is still in the middle, trying to make sense of it all.
That is comforting to me, in the middle. And my being in the middle is actually rather tame.
There are those who are suffering, struggling, and that suffering is real.
Paul is not denying that. In fact, he is giving voice to that—and yet he is not leaving us in the middle.
Yes, we are suffering—all of creation is, in fact. Look around…it seems futile, doesn’t it? The created world itself is groaning under the weight of it all. We are too. And look at these penguins waddling around for hundreds of miles!
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Yes, the pain is real, yes, the labor pains are real…but they are not the last word!
I have a friend who was telling me about a sermon she heard recently, about hope. I know I should have hope, I just can’t seem to make myself, she said. I don’t feel very hopeful. I know I should, but I just don’t feel like it.
This is not what Paul is saying! It is not about us mustering up enough hope.
I believe what Paul is doing is trying to give us perspective, trying to give us a way to tell the story while we are still in the middle, and in doing so he gives us a way through it.
In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, the Message, Paul says it this way:
All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.
The pain is not the last word. Our sterile and barren bodies year for full deliverance. Yes, we may be in the middle of the story. Yes, it may be difficult to wait. Yes, we may not know how long we will be there.
But the waiting does not diminish us. We are enlarged in the waiting. The waiting is actually part of the process. The waiting allows that new life to take shape, to grow, to reach maturity…the waiting is not an accident.
How does Paul know this? How can Paul say this, from in the middle?
Because Paul had his life turned upside down by the risen Jesus. It is that encounter with the living God that gives him perspective, even while he is in the middle.
It is Avery Brooke’s conversion as turning…you are going in one direction and then you turn and start going in another, and all you know is a desire to respond to the God who has been there all along.
And it is the penguins walking 70 miles inland, listening to that within them which guides them, knowing when they have arrived by their ability to sense the thickness of the ice, guided by something that is within them, not as an exercise in futility…but to bring forth new life.
There is something about knowing the end that helps make sense of the middle. For it is in hope that we are saved.