• Kevin Burrell

Arctic Tern: Chasing Daylight

“There are few things more powerful than a life lived with passionate clarity. Every moment is waiting to be seized by those who are chasing daylight.” - Erwin McManus

The Arctic Tern takes McManus’ daylight-chasing challenge very literally. In fact, no animal on the planet does it better.

Last June large colonies of these birds gathered in trendy summer-vacation hotspots like Barrow, Alaska; Kitsissunnguit, Greenland; and the island archipelago of Svalbard, 500 miles north of northernmost Norway. Your travel agent might not recommend these destinations to you, or be able to pronounce them, but the Arctic Tern is passionate for the polar. In these extreme Northern latitudes, the Arctic summer sun swings a lazy 360-degree panoramic arc without ever dipping fully below the horizon. The terns bask in 24-hour daylight, their own unconventional interpretation of the Beach Boys’ Endless Summer.


The Arctic Tern, elegantly streamlined and effortlessly air-buoyant, is crowned with a striking black cap over the head and eyes — a sort of bird-rendition of the Dread Pirate Roberts. And like a good pirate, it’s seen a fair bit of the world. The earth’s tilted axis assures that perpetual light will eventually become a harsh perpetual darkness. What’s a tern to do when the light starts to fade? As summer break transitions to the off-season, they know another great destination that should be open for business soon…


Antarctica.


And so, as the Arctic closes shop for the season, the terns turn their attention southward, hard-wired for another tour of the longest migration on the planet. Their ambitious trip will commence with somber ceremony on a particular day in mid-to-late October. In an abrupt moment, the noisy rookery of 2500 or more birds will suddenly go eerily silent. Their raucous chatter ceases in a coordinated instant—a phenomenon that scientists have termed a “dread.” The colony collectively holds its breath, silence like a congregational prayer, a supplication for traveling mercies. And then, out of the reverent hush, the entire flock bursts into the air and circles south, leaving their nests and their silence behind.


No single creature on this globe lives more of its life in daylight than the Arctic Tern. That would be true even if the terns made a direct bee-line south. But they don’t. Their pursuit of daylight is also a pursuit of the best that the journey has to offer, and their 90-day trip meanders in an unhurried path that takes some of them across four or even five continents. After crossing the North Atlantic, some track south along the coast of Africa, others the coast of South America. Some do both, deciding halfway to cross the ocean again, just for kicks. And a group of solid overachievers will inexplicably round the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean for a jaunt to Australia. Yes, Australia. That group, let’s face it, is just showing off.



Author Scott Weidensaul quips, “Any seabird biologist will admit, especially after a beer or two, that no one really has a clue what the true limits of tern migration might be.” Recent studies utilizing geolocator tags have more than doubled the prior predictions of scientists. An ambitious tern, it turns out, might actually travel more than 56,000 miles on their annual commute. Over the 20-to-30-year lifespan of the bird, in a tern liturgy of turning and returning, an Arctic Tern will potentially fly one-and-a-half million miles in its pursuit of endless summer.


Put that number in perspective. That’s over 57,000 marathons. That’s 60 trips around the earth. That’s three trips to the moon and back. A friend of mine recently retired from an international-travel-heavy career. He logged over a million miles of frequent flyer points. I wonder if he ever saw a tern from the window of his plane, flying past with a condescending glance at his platinum-club card.


And so, as I write this, right now in the perpetual summer of the Antarctic Circle, the New Year’s resolution of the Arctic Tern might sound something like this: I will do whatever it takes to live as fully in the light as this little globe allows me to.



Now It's Your Tern


1 John 1:5 says: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” And so if God is light, then let me be an Arctic Tern. Let me live so fully in the light that it defines me. Let every wingbeat of my journey be a quest for son-shine.


And yet what does that mean—to live in the light? It’s not as easy a question as first glance would give it, and our answers likely fall into three major categories, each of which might fall short if taken alone.


Pursuing Righteousness


Psalm 97:11 says, “Light shines on the righteous, and joy on the upright in heart.” The pursuit of righteousness is a decided commitment to chasing daylight. It is living before the face of God—Coram Deo—aligning our actions with his radiance, his will with ours. Our daily pursuit of God’s glory bears compound interest over time: “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” (Proverbs 4:18) Do rightly and you will see his light.


And yet my greatest obstacle to a life lived lightward is more formidable than any ocean or polar ice. My greatest obstacle to living in the light is… me.


You don’t need a proof-text to know this is true of you. Just recount the last time someone confronted you with an aspect of your character that was too true to deny but too accurate to own. Faithful are the wounds of a friend. And yet, rather than embrace the blade, it’s more likely that the shame of the moment transports us back to a tarnished Garden, a place where the cool-of-the-day radiance of God triggered a compulsive desire to hide. “I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Genesis 3:10) Light creates shame. Shame creates fear. Fear creates hiding. When faced with an aspect of ourselves that we know simply can’t abide the light, we grab the fig leaves. We scurry like insects back under the rotten log of our secretive safety. The darkness feels safe, yes, but it is death to us.


The pursuit of holiness is a pursuit of light. And yet by itself, this pursuit will only leave us discouraged in our failures or smug in our successes. It’s sobering to remember that the über-righteous Pharisee Nicodemus—a man committed to a lifetime of light-purity—came to Jesus under cover of darkness, asking his questions in shadow, face shrouded in candlelight, hiding for fear that his Messianic interests would sacrifice his religious reputation. Jesus told him, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19) His words beckon Nicodemus, and us, to pursue a light that is more than simple moral purity.


Pursuing Honesty


So there must be an additional aspect to our pursuit. Living in the light must also mean living honestly with respect to our darkness. This means an honest-to-God conception of our rebellion and resistance, but also an honest-to-others authenticity. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another…” (I John 1:7). That’s a surprising turn in the middle of John’s train of thought; pursuing light empowers fellowship with each other. Darkness enables façade. Light enables relationship.


Dane Ortland, in his recent book Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners, describes the outcomes of this authenticity:

“In the darkness, your sins fester and grow in strength. In the light, they wither and die. Walking in the light, in other words, is honesty with God and others… We consign ourselves to plateaued growth in Christ if we yield to pride and fear and hide our sins. We grow as we own up to being real sinners, not theoretical sinners. All of us, as Christians, acknowledge generally that we are sinners. Rarer is the Christian who opens up to another about exactly how he or she is a sinner. But in this honesty, life blossoms.”

Living in the light involves a risky transparency. The shadows may be more flattering—a dim hotel-bathroom light that’s committed to making a guest feel good about their appearance—but they’re not honest. Yes, light shows warts. But light also frees us from the prison of pretending.


And yet this second concept of light-living, like the first, falls short by itself. Without one additional step, a commitment to honesty will only leave us with the platitudes of “Nobody’s perfect” or “This is just who I am, so deal with it.” It enables the sort of accountability group that answers one another’s confessions with some version of “Try harder next week.” Honesty with our failures gives us permission to admit where we’re sick, but doesn’t offer a cure. You may be able to tell the receptionist at the doctor’s office where it hurts, but she’s not the one writing your prescription.


Pursuing Gospel

For the Christian, living in hope necessitates a third sort of light-loving. It’s more than a commitment to righteousness or honesty, as important as those commitments are. It’s a commitment to the person and the work of Jesus himself: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) Light is embodied in Jesus, the one who gifts us with a forgiveness that removes the sting of death and an honesty that removes the barb of shame.


As a pastor, I can think of two separate times when a Sunday morning visiting couple has told me after the service, “We like it here. We’re good people looking for a good church full of good people, and you seem like good people.” Both times I have given the same answer. It begins with an honest laugh and the response, “Wow, we are so going to disappoint you! Because we’re not good people.” A brief awkward silence follows, after which I’ve said, “We’re not good people, but we’re forgiven people, and if you stick around here long enough I think you’ll come to discover the difference.” Both couples stayed, and over time became dear family to us. More than that, both couples did come to discover the difference, declare their need, embrace Jesus, and become beautiful trophies of his grace.


Guaranteed, you will have dark moments in the year ahead, with your sin on full display. You will have a bad moment, a hard day, an unfortunate outburst, or a colossal belly-flop into your own dark capacities. In that moment, you may lament that you’re not living in the light, and tuck those misdeeds away in the shadowy recesses, hoping that others won’t see, or will soon forget. And there may be some repentance in that, at least an admission of guilt, but gospel-light is so much more than that. It is freedom. It’s not just admitting our wrongs but reveling in the forgiveness we have in the light of Christ, claiming the gospel’s realities, and seeing grace change us.


In the year ahead, may you live in the light of obedience, determined to glorify God with your life. May you also live in the light of honesty, free to admit where you regularly fall short of his glory. But most of all, may you live in the light of the gospel, the good news that frees us from shame and to the pursuit of holiness. May yours be a pole-to-pole commitment to the light of the gospel, allowing its radical promises to wow you. Jesus entered the judgment of polar darkness to give you the hope of perpetual light. Keep telling yourself the good news, and let others speak it to you regularly, until the day when Christ becomes so fully our light that no migration will be necessary:

“And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.” (Revelation 22:5)