Having lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, less than a hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, I have a lot of respect for outdoor creatures that can survive intense cold. One January morning I went outside to check the temperature and the little bulb at the bottom of the mercury column on the thermometer wasn’t quite full. The radio said it was officially -70°.
Emperor penguins live in the Antarctic and survive that kind of temperature, even though it may be driven by 100 mph winds. You probably know how they do it – they huddle tightly together. The word snuggle comes to mind.
Some great theology in that.
Dr Francois Blanchette, an applied mathematics prof at the University of California, Merced, discovered that while the cold environment is spread quite evenly over the group, the temperature at the center of the flock can reach near 70°. Another phenomenon he and his students discovered is that the pack keeps cycling the birds in the outer rings inward toward the middle. Those on the edges are moved intentionally toward a warmer, safer place.
I like that. It reminds me of a healthy church. The group survives best when it hangs together, and those who begin to falter from the unfriendly circumstances on the outside are rescued from certain disaster by the protective warmth of the flock. There’s something really churchy about that.
The Antarctic is not a user-friendly place to raise a family. The male and female penguins bond, often for life, and after the single egg is laid, mom waddles off for as far as 50 miles to find food while dad stays home and babysits – or actually, egg sits. He stands there for two months, his body heat keeping the egg warm in his “brood pouch” till mom gets back, then they trade jobs.
And there’s another parallel with the human situation: only about a third of the chicks survive childhood. There are sufficient natural predators that it demands constant vigilance from mom and dad – and the rest of the flock – to protect them. When an enemy appears the entire flock goes into protect mode. I’m sure you picked up on that parallel right away.
When the church was born, the world was a cold and inhospitable scene. The story is recorded: “On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place.” (Acts 2:1 NLT) That’s the template whenever the church has been healthy. Huddling together to draw warmth and courage from each other. Protecting the fragile. Making provision for those on the edge. Arms around the young. Among penguins it’s called a rookery. For the rest of us, it’s called church.
By Don Jacobsen