Finding Venus on the Way Home from Church

Lately, I’ve found myself taking more notice of the night sky. A renewed interest in all things having to do with space has nurtured my sense of wonder and curiosity at the sky above me, and I find myself looking up more than I used to.

One night last week, I couldn’t help it. I was on my way home from a Wednesday night gathering at my church, where I’ve been teaching during Lent. It was a clear evening and I got into my car just after sunset. As I drove and the light faded, I saw a small but very bright point of light in the sky to the west. I smiled. “Hello, Venus,” I said. The bright planet was in front of me for most of my drive home—my own celestial traveling companion.

For all my interest in the stars, I’m woefully under-educated about astronomy. Identifying Venus is absolute amateur stuff. But I only knew it was Venus because I just finished Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book The Space Chronicles (W.W. Norton, 2012). Tyson wrote that Venus is the very bright “star” that’s visible just after sunset, usually the first to appear in the sky as the sun goes down. He quipped that if your wishes on “the first star I see tonight” aren’t coming true, it might be because you’ve mistakenly been wishing upon a planet instead! Thanks to Tyson, I knew at once that I was looking at Venus when I saw the bright thing appear in the sky in front of me on my drive home. It was gratifying to have that immediate understanding about something in the night sky.

This week on the way home from church, I got to share the same experience with my 4-year-old son. Last week he left early with my wife and daughter, but this week he stuck around to play with the other kids at church while I taught my class. I knew we’d be driving home just after sunset, like I had done the week before, and it was another clear night. I eagerly looked toward the west for the bright spot of light. Sure enough, there it was. A bright spot in the sky just where I expected it to be. I told Caleb to look for Venus. He’d been at a planetarium the week before, where a cartoon rocket ship had taken him on a tour of the planets designed to engage and inform small children. It took some explaining to convince him not to look for a large circle or ball like he’d seen in the planetarium. “When you see Venus from here, it looks like a really bright star.” Eventually he saw it, and we kept track of it the whole way home.

As Caleb and I tracked Venus—there the whole time above the Western horizon—my mind turned to the wondrous order and regularity of creation. That morning during my prayers I had read Psalm 104, which marvels at the creation of the world and praises God as the creator. It describes how each creature is given its own place and purpose. What’s clear in that Psalm is that the diverse, interconnected reality of our universe bears witness to a divine Wisdom that creates and sustains it. The same is true in the Genesis 1 creation story: each thing is made in its place and for its purpose. There are patterns in our world; there is structure. After creating each piece of the world in this way, the creation story tells us God “saw that it was good.” When I looked in the evening sky and found Venus right where I expected it to be, I connected in my own small way with that order and regularity. I experienced the goodness of it.

Venus, earth, and the other planets orbit the sun due to the balance of the sun’s gravity, their individual velocities, and the gravity and velocity of every other object in the solar system. Everything affects everything else. It’s complicated, but it’s not random. There is order. There’s enough regularity for astronomers to predict things–with detailed observation and advanced mathematics–down to the wobbles of planets due to the influences of one another’s gravity as they go around the sun. On a much less sophisticated level, there’s enough order for an amateur stargazer like myself to find Venus just because I know where to look. In the Psalms and the first creation story, the Bible recognizes and praises the marvelous order of creation and the One who has made it all. It’s a beautiful way to understand the created world and our place within it.

When Caleb and I got home Wednesday night, he walked in and told my wife about our astronomical adventures right away. “Mommy,” he said before he even got to the top of the stairs leading up from the basement, “Guess what we saw?” “What?” she asked. “Venus!” I smiled again. I’m teaching him and my daughter to stop and look up at the night sky. I hope I’m beginning to instill in them a powerful curiosity about the universe. And I hope they will see that this is deeply faithful to the Bible, and that it will lead them into a closer relationship with God.

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