Naming the Stars

No matter how many times we look up at a clear night sky with all of those twinkling lights, the stars are mesmerizing. We could look up for hours just trying to count all of them, to locate constellations, and to wait for a shooting star!

It’s like the little girl who received a very special birthday gift one year. She unwrapped it, and it was a telescope! She had mentioned to her parents just one afternoon how exciting it would be to look up at the stars, and now, she could not wait for the next clear sky.

As she unfolded it and set it up, there was a little bit of a learning curve, looking through that eye hole and getting it focused just right; but when she did, she gazed up for hours. She felt like she was unlocking the mysteries of the universe. It felt like she could reach up and touch the stars, like she could reach up and touch the Divine.

William Brown reminds us that when we look up at the stars through a telescope, it is like a time machine. Since the stars are so far away, even looking through a telescope that brings them closer, the light takes so long to reach us.  It is like looking into the past because the light originated years ago!

We might gaze up at the stars for all of those reasons: to look into the past, to remember where we have come from, to feel like we are touching the Divine—the one who created us—which gives us reassurance, even on our hardest of days.

Back then, a campfire was a primary gathering place, whether it was keeping warm on a day like today or cooking food at night, so I am certain that the psalmist spent countless hours gazing up at the stars. Maybe that is why the psalmist had that revelation: God determines the number of the stars. God gives them their names.

It was the only way the psalmist could describe the steadfast love of God and how immense it is, where it heals the brokenhearted, binds up the wounded, and lifts up the downtrodden.

When scientists peer through those massive telescopes, they tell us that stars are not static. They are different from those lights that we put up on our back porches that twinkle at night. They don’t stand still. Instead, stars are dancing. They are in constant motion!

When we look upon the presence of God, when we yearn for it in our lives, we do not want to make the same mistake that we do with the stars. Because God’s love never stands still. God’s love is in constant motion. God’s love is always at work.

When the people of God were stranded in exile in Babylon, they needed to hear that again, so the prophet Isaiah invited them to look up at the stars to see the past. Have you not known? God is the Creator. God stretched out the heavens like a curtain across the sky. Have you not heard? Lift up your eyes to the stars. God numbers them, and God names them. Have you not known? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. Those who wait on the Lord shall run and not grow weary. The one, who names the stars, does not stand still, but heals the brokenhearted, binds up the wounded, and lifts up the downtrodden.

If God can name the stars, God can name our pain as well, even our hidden pain.

Years ago, Frank Warren started a website, which became quite controversial, because you could post a secret online anonymously. All you had to do was fill out a postcard and put it in the mail anonymously, and it would be uploaded to the website.

It was fraught with problems, as you might imagine. Like the Starbucks postcard that was uploaded and simply said, “Sometimes I give decaf to customers who are rude.” But, initially, the site was quite popular, perhaps because it gave voice to what is hidden. One of the saddest posts simply read, “I found these stamps as a child. I have always wanted to have someone to send them to. I have never had someone.” We can carry around hidden pain.

Out of this pain, we can name our questions about it. Like if God Loves us, and this world, why is there so much pain? It is a hard question to answer. It escapes explanation. But if this world was created out of love, God cannot coerce or control this world, because love never does that to another. There is a freedom woven into Creation, which entails a fragility, because there is always risk in love.

But, as Austin Farrer, an English theologian, says, “Cruel things do not reveal a cruel God. Instead, they hide from us the God of love.” If we are willing to name our pain, we discover that God’s heart breaks alongside ours. We are never left alone in our pain.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as many of you know, suffered under the terrors of the Nazi regime. On the wall of his prison cell in the concentration camp, he wrote, “Only a suffering God can help.”  Because a suffering God does not, will not, and cannot leave us alone in our pain. Instead, God enters into it with us.

It is as the poet Anne Weems wrote, “Jesus wept. It was as simple, and as complicated as that.”

Along with naming our pain, we need to name our community—the people and the places that we turn to in the midst of our pain. We might only name our pain to one trusted person, but we can turn to our community to help absorb some of that pain from us, as they cry with us, pray with us, and share with us.

In her memoir about her experience with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, a degenerative progressive illness. Ulla-Carin Linquist remembers the day when she realized something was not right. She was out in a boat in a beautiful lake. As they were bringing the boat back in, they got to a very shallow place in the lake where they had to turn off the motor and lift it up out of the water because it would drag the ground. Over that stretch of the lake, they had to row the boat across it. She remembers gripping the oars and leaning back with all of her weight and trying to pull on the oars, but they felt as heavy as lead pipes. She didn’t have any strength in her muscles.

A year from that day, she had to rely on others to help her walk, eat, and bathe, still anticipating some of the worst of the disease. She asked all of the hard questions. But cruel things do not reveal a cruel God. They hide from us the God of love.

She cried hidden tears, not wanting to be a burden on her family. But she eventually learned to rely on others, as she goes on to write, “Others can be my oars and row for me.”  We find the steadfast love of God in those who row for us.

Maybe the prophet Isaiah said it too strongly, “We will run and not grow weary.”  Well, there are days when even if we feel the nearer presence of God, we will still feel weary.  We will not be able to imagine running.

But Isaiah also said, perhaps we can walk and not faint. There are days when that is closer to the truth because God’s love never stands still. God names the stars, and God knows our names as well.

Amen.