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Perhaps, like me, you heard the NPR story this week about “puffling season”: the practice of pitching puffins off of precipices. Alliterative fun aside, this work—which on its face sounds destructive and capricious—is, in fact, life-saving and absolutely necessary. 

You see, baby puffins (or pufflings) are born on cliffs overlooking the ocean, and before they are ready to mate, they have to leave the nest and fly out to sea to spend a number of years. How do they get to sea? They are supposed to be guided in this passage by the moon. 

Except human beings have produced artificial lights, treacherous on both land and sea, and the baby birds get discombobulated and fly towards whatever seems like the moon. Then, they are lost and can’t figure out their way. Worse, once lost, they rather naturally get anxious about being preyed upon and try to evade discovery by hiding. This only gets them more lost. 

Rescue comes after dark in the form of humans with small flashlights and good eyes. A small bit of light attracts the pufflings so they can be gathered up and carried back to the cliffs, where they are released back by often being tossed towards the nocturnal glow of the moon. 

Now isn’t that just about a perfect little spiritual allegory? 

Can’t we relate to being pufflings ourselves, distracted by the brighter, false lights that attract us: possessions, pride, position, passion? I’m put in mind a bit of the prodigal son off to the bright lights of the big city. 

But these aren’t lights that can give us guidance to where we are meant to go, so we’re left lost and frightened, defensive and bereft. And we certainly can’t rescue ourselves. 

And yet, here is the wonder of the God who seeks us out—no matter what has temporarily blinded our eyes, no matter how lost and covered up we are. For that God, it doesn’t even take that much light to find us again—and gently redirect us back towards the Light that leads to life. This is a God from whom nothing can separate us, even our own confused skitterings away. 

This week, I’m teaching one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in one of my classes. Hopkins has a pretty decent bird poem or two, and I’ll be teaching the one that features a kingfisher and ends with the assertion that when we do God’s work (“the just man justices,” says Hopkins playing on words), we are “Christ play[ing] in ten thousand places.” If that’s true and we do embody the God we serve, where might our own small, insufficient lights be needed this week?

Which of our fellow pufflings need carriage back to the flightpaths of illumination?

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.


  • Nancy Ryan says:

    Wow! What a great allegory for our faith life journey! Thank you! Just might make that part of this weeks sermon from Habakkuk.

  • Sharon says:

    This phrase was really meaningful …(where might our own small, insufficient lights be needed this week?”
    Thank you

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    Excellent, Jennifer! What a marvelous gift we have in a God who gently redirects us and leads us back to Himself.

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