by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” — Mother Teresa

October, 2002

Several years ago, a fisherman made an unusual catch off Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. The fisherman “caught” a Humboldt penguin. This was especially unusual since penguins are native to the southern hemisphere, far from Alaska. Specifically, Humboldt penguins are native to Peru and Chile, in western South America. Naturalists, zoologists, and other scientists speculated as to how the penguin might have ended up thousands of miles from home. The prevalent theory was that the bird had somehow “hitched a ride” aboard a ship crossing the Pacific, eating whatever it could find. Although their diet normally consists of fish, these hardy birds will eat just about anything that’s smaller than their heads. There was some speculation that the bird came from a zoo in Japan, although no penguins had been reported missing.

Where did the penguin come from and how did it get to Alaska? No one knows. Some questions simply don’t have satisfactory answers: “How high is up?” “How long is forever?” “Why did the chicken cross the road?” These questions might be fine for philosophers but not for ordinary folks like you and me.

Moses also had a question that had no answer that he would find “satisfactory.” When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush and commanded him to speak to the Israelites, Moses asked God, “What is your name?” (Exod. 3:13). God replied, “‘I AM WHO I AM.’” (Exod. 3:14). God told Moses to tell the Israelites about “‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob . . .’” (Exod. 3:16b NRSV). God doesn’t have a name in human terms, like “Joe” or “Sue” or “Bill.” God simply is.

But there are many other questions that do have answers that are more than satisfactory. Moses may have asked himself how he was “in the right place at the right time” to see the burning bush. But the simple answer is that the burning bush was there for Moses to find because God wanted him to find it.

In the same way, when “an angel of the Lord” told the apostle Philip to go down to the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza, Philip went (Acts 8:26-27). And when he got there, he met a eunuch who was an important official of Candace, queen of Ethiopia (Acts 8:27-28). Philip didn’t ask what he was doing there, or what the eunuch was doing there, or why the other man was reading a scroll containing the words of Isaiah the prophet. When “the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it,’” Philip went (Acts 8:29-30 NRSV). Philip found that the eunuch had many questions about the scripture he was reading, and God had given Philip the answers. And when the eunuch pointed to a pool of water and asked, “‘What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” (Acts 8:36 NRSV), Philip didn't ask where the water came from; he knew God had put it there so the eunuch could be baptized, and that was “satisfactory” for Philip.

Some of us, myself included, sometimes use the expression “Lord only knows.” And it’s true. God does know, even when we don’t. Paul wrote to the Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28 NRSV). Some of us may be hard pressed to figure out how things might “work together for good” at times. I know I certainly have trouble with this. But we need to believe that God is in charge. God has put us where we are for a purpose, and that our purpose is to serve and glorify God. We need to trust that God has the answers we seek. We might not receive an answer we like or want, but we’ll receive the answer we need. The next time you find yourself “in the right place at the right time,” in a position to witness about your faith, to stand against injustice, or to promote peace, remember that you’re right where God wants you to be. And that should be “satisfactory” for any of us.

“But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
“‘This is my name for ever,
and this is my title for all generations.’” (Exod. 3:13-15 NRSV.)

Copyright © 2002 by David Phelps