The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. (Psalm 19:1)
The first time I remember seeing the Milky Way was the summer of 1974. In May I moved from my parents’ house in suburban Maryland to fifty acres of abandoned farmland in rural Maine. There were no structures on the land save a dilapidated chicken coop, which I briefly contemplated occupying on a temporary basis. But rotten floorboards, low ceiling, and general lack of hygiene from the previous tenants soon convinced me to abandon the idea. And so, I opted to sleep in a tent for the summer months while building a cabin for the coming winter. It was a time of living close to the land and the elements – other than sleeping and an occasional drive into town I was out-of-doors all of the time.
Occasionally I would head out of an evening and walk a little more than a mile down two dirt roads to the home of a retired seaman, known simply by his naval title, Chief. Chief was of Scandinavian descent, and true to his heritage had built a free-standing, wood-fired sauna just off to one side of the old farmhouse where he lived. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons Chief would build a fire inside the sauna to superheat a cache of river stones. Later on, some of the locals would gather and swap tales underneath a large maple tree in the front yard while waiting a turn in the sauna. When one group emerged others of us would enter and perch on cedar benches from where an occasional cupful of water would be tossed on the stones to generate a plume of steam to intensify the heat. After sweating out what seemed to be a week’s worth of dirt and rinsing with cold water from a nearby stream, the body felt clean like never before. It was almost like the skin itself was breathing – a tingling sort of respiration that somehow made the walk back home all the more wonderfully sensuous.
It was on one of these nights, when the moon was dark and the air refreshingly cool and clear as it often is in Maine on summer nights, that the stars shown more brightly than I ever remembered. Looking up, I saw what appeared to be a silky veil stretched across the heavens from horizon to horizon. I presumed this to be a thin cloud floating overhead. But this was no cloud, as I would later discover. Rather, it is the galaxy of stars known as the Milky Way – billions upon billions of stars shining in the night sky. Just so many faint points of stellar radiance merging on a clear night into a delicate curtain of starlight. Those fortunate enough to view it receive a glimpse into the universe like no other.
It’s strange to think I lived nearly a quarter of a century without seeing the Milky Way. In part, this was due to my general disinterest of celestial matters – not really caring much about the heavens. But significantly, it was also due to so-called “light pollution” – a phenomena caused by outdoor lights, particularly near cities. The light from these outdoor sources shines upwards in the night and is partially reflected back to the earth by our atmosphere. The reflected light is just bright enough to obscure fainter objects in the night sky such as the Milky Way. Having lived most of my life near Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington D.C, I had been surrounded by lighted nights. But this was not the case in the remote hill country in the central part of Maine where I had moved, which was one of the last areas east of the Mississippi not affected by light pollution.
But even as my physical eyes were slowly being opened to the created universe, my spiritual eyes were still in the dark. In part, this was due to my general indifference to religion and the supernatural. But equally, I was living in the midst of a sort of spiritual light pollution. This took the form of much of what I had been taught in school from naturalism in biology, to relativity in physics, to “all religions are the same” in philosophy. There was also much in the culture that reflected a secular rather than religious worldview. I don’t recall a lot of overt teaching against the existence of God, but among many people I knew there was a general disinterest if not disdain regarding matters of faith. It was all just enough to make me feel comfortable in a life centered around me – a life that did not have to question where I was going or who I was becoming.
Unlike the failure of my physical eyes to see the Milky Way, the blindness of my spiritual eyes had real life consequences. For during my years homesteading in Maine, the self-centeredness that is a natural outflow of the secularism I followed resulted in my estrangement from three good friends and damaged relationships with several others. It was all too easy to dismiss a Creator God and his law as a guide for my life, but it remained to be seen how I could ever live a basically good and decent human existence otherwise. The life I was living – with me at the center – treated people as objects to achieving my goals, controlled others through anger, and was generally unforgiving and unloving. No amount of time in a sauna could ever clean up the mess in my innermost being.
But as I stared at the night sky that summer, God was at work on my soul. For thoughts about creation and whether there was a Creator began to stir. When I looked to the heavens I began to wonder about how they were created, and even deeper, “Why should anything exist at all? “Why isn’t there nothing?” Unanswerable I thought, yet these questions were the birthing sounds of a spiritual journey. Others I am sure have had similar encounters with the night sky. For those with “eyes to see,” it is a glimpse of eternity and a signpost to a Power beyond the natural world in which we live. But more than just a signpost, Paul taught that the created universe is clear evidence of God, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) For me, it would be many years before I connected the beauty of the created order with a personal God, and much longer before I understood that this personal God has an equally beautiful design for the human experience – a design that is embodied in his revealed law. That night was the first small step in a spiritual journey.
Years later when I eventually came to know Jesus as Savior, I found that he correctly diagnosed my condition,“For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” (Matthew 12:34-35) The reason my relationships were a mess was because of the mess inside of me. As long as my primary focus was on me, conflict was sure to follow. Jesus also had the solution to my condition, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) In other words, the solution to my spiritual problem was to hold to Jesus’ teaching, which is the will of the Father – the law of God.
Unbeknownst to me, even as God opened my physical eyes in 1974 to the beauty of the night sky, one day he would also open my spiritual eyes to behold the beauty of his Kingdom. Somewhat surprisingly, this did not occur when I placed my faith in Jesus in 2000. Instead, it would be another decade before I began to understand that faith in Jesus means to hear his word and obey. In other words, to “seek first the kingdom [of God], and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus makes it clear that obedience to the law of God, which he fleshed out in much of his teaching, is the only way into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 7:21)
I have known life without God and it came at a very dear price indeed. Jesus tells us that anyone we follow, other than him, is a thief and that, “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10a) The life I was living in 1974, centered around me, killed and destroyed many relationships, and stole my joy. In contrast, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10b) This is a life centered around God – life in his kingdom, which is a matter of “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17) I have found that kingdom life has a beauty that surpasses even that of the night sky. Paul speaks about the fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) These are not abstract concepts but real life qualities that seem to increase as I pursue the virtuous life commanded by God.
Psalm 19, which CS Lewis called “the greatest poem in the Psalter,” praises with equal voice the beauty of the heavens and the beauty of God’s law. The beauty of the heavens reflected in a clear night sky and the beauty of God’s law reflected in a life of virtue.
The beauty of the heavens:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.” (Psalm 19:1-6)
The beauty of God’s law:
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:7-14)
When I viewed the Milky Way in 1974, I was seeing starlight that had been emitted over 20,000 years earlier. When I read God’s word, I was hearing his law that had been spoken over 2,000 years earlier. Ancient sights and ancient words – the beauty of a night sky and the beauty of God’s law – beacons of light to a dark soul.