On Looking Up

You only see shooting stars if you’re looking up.

The first time I saw one, I was in high school. My dad and I were going up to the NC mountains one Saturday for a brick-laying job, and we’d gathered with a bunch of others in a parking lot to drive up together. It was early morning, clear, still dark but the sky in the east was getting lighter. We stood around outside our trucks, chatting and looking around like men used to do before we all got phones to shove our noses into. Somebody said “Wow!” and pointed overhead. I happened to turn and look up fast enough to see the meteor still streaking across the sky before it blinked out. I don’t remember much about that brick-laying job, but 2 decades later I still recall the feeling of exhilaration at seeing something rare and beautiful because somebody had been paying attention.

Paying attention has always been a holy act, though it’s now a lost art. Maybe it always has been. Turning our attention and focus outward removes ourselves from the center of our world, often a necessary condition for encountering God. We need reminding that our desires, grievances, obstacles, worries, and pleasures are not as important as they usually feel. Looking up, paying attention to something else, helps me understand that the world is wide and most of it is not me. And when we don’t look up, we miss the opportunities afforded us by a larger perspective.

Moses paid attention. He heard God’s call in the wilderness and boldly confronted Pharaoh. He led the Israelites out of slavery and through the Red Sea, taking them to meet God on the mountain and eventually shepherding them to the Promised Land. But it’s easy to miss that Moses’ first act was simply paying attention.

He looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” (Exodus 3:2-4)

Moses’ first step was to notice, to “turn aside and look.” He saw something out of place, asked a question about it, and went in for closer inspection. Only when God saw that Moses turned aside to see did God call to him with the commission that would change Moses’ life.

I wonder if other shepherds passed by the burning bush without turning aside to see because they were too busy accounting for their herd. Perhaps Moses himself had walked past the site a few days in a row without really noticing the bush that burned but was never consumed. Or maybe not. Maybe Moses was in the habit of paying attention, looking at the mountain every day, so he knew right away when something on it was out of the ordinary. Whether it was momentary or habitual, Moses’ act of paying attention, turning his focus outward and upward, was the act that opened the way for God to speak. It brought to him an opportunity to deliver his people and take his place in God’s story of salvation.

You only see shooting stars if you’re looking up.

Looking up is something I’ve been trying to do more of lately. It’s a habit I’m striving to cultivate, and it’s been deeply rewarding. My wife bought me a pair of binoculars for Christmas, and I’ve enjoyed using them to see the night sky in more detail. Ever since, I have found myself venturing outside every time the sky is clear at night. I’ve even gotten into the habit of going onto the deck in the early morning, before everyone else is awake, to stargaze a bit before my daily prayer and Scripture reading.

The practice has nurtured my wonder at the universe, my appreciation for just how mind-bogglingly vast and intricate our creation is. But all that was to be expected. What I didn’t expect was how much I’d start to notice just because I was looking up more frequently.

I began to understand how the night sky changes in predictable ways over the course of an evening and in other predictable ways over the course of several months. I noticed that Orion was lower in the sky if I went out earlier, and higher if I went out later. I saw how Orion and Taurus moved gradually from east to west as the months progressed. I saw how the Big Dipper rotates around the northern sky but remains visible both in the evening and in the morning. I saw the Moon on one side of Jupiter one morning, and then on the other side of Jupiter the next morning. Using the binoculars, I’ve even seen some of Jupiter’s moons and noticed how they have moved from one morning to the next, but still say near Jupiter. I’ve watched Sagittarius recently become visible in the southern sky in the pre-dawn hour, and I know that it will gradually rise earlier and earlier.

None of this is new information, of course. Astronomers have watched and charted these movements in the sky for thousands of years. The slow movement of the stars has always been there to be noticed by those who look up, pay attention, and seek to understand. What’s changed has been my own attentiveness, my consistency in looking up and a more robust framework for understanding what I see.

Doing so has broadened my perspective. It’s easier to remember that the ground beneath us spins through 360 degrees of rotation once a day when you see the stars gradually change positions as the hour gets later. It’s easier to recall that our planet hurdles through space at 67,000 miles per hour when you see evidence of it in the night sky as the months pass. The world’s problems, my problems, suddenly become smaller when I consider them within this cosmic perspective. And at the same time, my impression of God becomes far larger when I realize that even these vast distances and speeds are as nothing to the Creator.

Paying attention also shifts my experience of time, attuning it a bit more with nature’s rhythms rather than measuring it solely by my watch and alarm clock. I know that soon I’ll no longer be able to see Orion at night, and the next time it becomes visible I’ll be thinking about Christmas. I know that the next time Sagittarius sits low in the southern sky at 5:00 am, I’ll have seen 12 more full moons and I’ll be a year older. Paying attention sets my problems and my joys in perspective, and helps me see how precious time is on this earth. It’s important to look up.

Do you find, like I do, that you wish you looked up more? What do you need to turn your attention away from? How can paying attention to your surroundings, whether it’s the night sky or the changing seasons or the people around you, give you a better perspective on your life? What opportunities might there be for you if you take the time to look upward and outward?

One morning a few weeks ago, I stood on my back deck with my binoculars. I was looking up through the bare branches of the trees beside my house, trying to find the North Star. But before it came into view, I saw a streak of light through my binocular lens. It flashed for a moment right through my field of vision, and then it was gone. It was too fast to have been an airplane, and too small to have been an animal up in the tree branches. I knew it was a shooting star, streaking for a brief instant then winking out. I said “Oh wow!” and offered silent prayer of thanks to God for allowing me to see something extraordinary on a routine weekday morning.

I’d gotten very lucky that I happened to have my binoculars on that narrow patch of sky at just the right time, so that I glimpsed the meteor when it passed. Then again, morning stargazing has become a habit of mine.

You only see shooting stars if you’re looking up.

 

2 thoughts on “On Looking Up

  1. Wonderful piece, Brian!! The comment about trying to grasp that as wide as this universe is, it’s dwarfed by God’s infinity leads me to think the universe is controlled by Him as well. Thank you for this eloquent reminder to look up, with expectancy!

    Like

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