Last weekend, our family watched March of the Penguins, the amazing 2005 documentary of Antarctic emperor penguins. Although we’d seen it years ago, it was newly enthralling to our youngest members. And as we watched the majestic penguins bravely survive together in their frigid wilderness, it occurred to me that, at our best, Lutherans are like penguins.
Before you write me off as a meme-inspired ridiculoso, bundle up your skepticism for a few minutes and let me explain.
Emperor penguins faithfully and tenaciously make the best of their given environment for the sake of an unseen future. No one argues that Antarctica is an awesome place to live. In fact, pretty much everybody agrees that it’s one of the most inhospitable places–if not the most inhospitable place–on our planet. But penguins make the best of their home. They don’t act like it’s a tropical paradise instead of a frozen wilderness; they don’t try to dress it up like something it’s not. It’s where they are, and for better or worse, it’s the home that they have.
So the resilient birds swim and fish in cold waters. They mark and avoid predators as best they can. And they walk for up to seventy miles to procreate, gestate, and nurture their young in their best hopes for survival (hence the point of the long march). No one would say this is easy. But this is what they do, because emperor penguins know instinctively that the best way to preserve the future is to go the distance in the world they have.
Emperor penguins know instinctively
that the best way to preserve the future
is to go the distance in the world they have.
At our best, Lutherans do the same thing. We acknowledge that our world is not our true home, but we slavishly cling to what we know we need and what is most important–teaching ourselves and our children about the life Christ has given us and that waits for us long after this world is like a dream. We don’t try to make this world into something it’s not. We don’t care if most of the world thinks we’re crazy, either for living in freezing (or hot, or uncool) places or holding to commandments and confessions most of the world finds laughable. We live in the world, whether snow or secularism are swirling around us, and we keep on keeping on. Not for nothing have Lutherans been called the frozen chosen. It can be a pejorative, yes, referring to those icily unemotional, typically Nordic types that act high and mighty. But it can also be a backhanded compliment, referring to those who, despite slogging through the bitter wastelands of our world, cling to truths that transcend our environment, that are beyond our sight. For “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” What we can’t see is what drives us on.
Emperor penguins act in the best interest of the group because they know that together, they have hope. Alone, they will die. Penguins are not known for their swagger or bravada. While they can certainly act in their own self-interest–mating rituals and fishing come to mind–they are far more noticeable for their ability to congregate, travel, and survive as a group. Happy Feet and its typically individualistic moral notwithstanding, real penguins live within small realms of species-proscribed fulfillment. They eat, swim, play, fight off the cold, and march together. They instinctively act for the benefit of all penguins, and when they don’t, they are disciplined (grieving mothers who have lost their own chicks sometimes try to steal others). Or they die. Ultimately, the reason the penguin herd is a herd is because they know they’re lost when they go their own ways.
Humans don’t have problems seeing penguin life as normal and practical. We can see their circumstances and understand that they must live the way they do out of sheer survival. When people act this way, though, we can be suspicious. Especially in America, we hold soft spots for outliers, black sheep, and straight-up disrupters in all kinds of gatherings. Groupthink (and action) can look rigid and unfair. Sometimes it is.
But sometimes it’s a rejection of individual desire trumping all precisely because one person can only get so far going her own way, and it’s usually not a great place. Deliberate community is often a concerted, and usually herculean, effort to preserve overarching goods and truths far beyond fleeting and subjective individual impulses. Confessional Lutherans are not known for our radical individualism precisely because we understand that on our own, we’re lost, and there’s only one Person who can save us all. And we join together regularly around Christ and His gifts exactly because He calls us all by name and because it is good and necessary for us to be together. Our churches practice discipline by reciting historic creeds and liturgies to remind us that what tickles our individual fancies is not actually what is most important. We are all members of One body, and as such, we do what edifies us all: unite together.
Lutherans join together regularly around Christ and His gifts
exactly because He calls us all by name
and because it is good and necessary for us to be together.
Which brings me to one of the most endearing qualities of both penguins and good Lutherans: ultimately, what they do in their small lives testifies to a deep and abiding love in response to another. Mother and father penguins risk exhaustion, starvation, and freezing to death for the sake of their children. They endure almost unimaginable hardship to themselves to preserve their babies. These are beautiful acts of self-sacrifice that happen regularly in our hostile, freezing world.
Good Lutherans don’t pretend to be inherently loving. We know we are sinners to our cores. But we also know how much we are loved. While we deserve to be lost and alone in the wildernesses of our sin, stubbornly holding to our own direction, God was not content to leave us. Christ sought us out, bringing us back from afar to be rescued by and reconciled to him. It is the greatest love story ever told for a reason: we turned our backs on Him, and despised and rejected Him, and He bore the horrors of torture and death to save us. Our Good Shepherd left safety and comfort to stride unhesitatingly toward death for our sakes.
And precisely because He loved us first, we self-sacrificially then love our neighbors. Such love doesn’t earn us anything, and because it’s not for show, it can be subtle. But that doesn’t make it any less loving. Just as the penguins could care less whether someone in a snowsuit was filming them or not, we–when we love the way Christ intends us to love–don’t care if anyone is watching. We just do it.
Tomorrow marks the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation in which we commemorate Christ’s suffering for us that led to His death and resurrection at Easter. We know that from dust we are formed, and to dust we shall return, but that is not all that God has in store for us. So while we yet walk on this earth, we march as those who have hope, and keep on moving, in faith and love.