In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters … And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night … He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. Genesis 1:1-2, 14, 16-18. After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision…”He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them. Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Genesis 15:1-2, 4-5.
I am thirteen years old, crammed into a burgundy suburban with my three siblings and parents. We are somewhere in the middle of Nevada.
It’s the middle of the night. Vast desert surrounds us – flat and monotonous. Before the darkness fell, my eyes became heavy. All I saw was brown dotted with sagebrush. I was hypnotized by the hum of the wheels and the changeless landscape. So, I closed my eyes and fell into a doze.
Now, it is dark. The a.m. radio buzzes, intermittently picking up a loud male voice. My head rests uncomfortably on the glass of the door, pillow having slipped halfway into my lap.
The suburban rolls to a stop.
The radio clicks off.
The silence buzzes.
Dad turns off the headlights, steps outside.
I wake and open my door, too. Summer outside, but the air feels cold against my cheeks.
Close the door. The dome light clicks off.
No city lights.
My eye goes up. The sky is full of the most stars I have ever seen. So many. I look for the Big Dipper. I cannot identify this familiar constellation because of the number of new stars I see.
In the pit of my stomach, I feel a gnawing. As if I am falling into dark emptiness. A small girl consumed by the very big.
“Isn’t it great?” Dad speaks, startling me. “No people, no lights?”
I dart back to the car. I disagree.
A sibling begins to cry. I prefer this. Familiar cramped space. Loud sibling. Unpleasant, but known.
Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth. – Genesis 11:4
I am now in my late 30’s. Montana, the Big Sky state. We turn our clocks back one hour and then we are driving home from work in the dark. On cloudy days, the kids walk to school in the dark.
It is night. I am miles up the road from the new Ford dealership. They built it in the middle of … farmland? Gravel pit? Open space, anyway. The backdrop driving to and from home when I lived with my parents. Today, it is the Ford dealership.
I am miles up the road. Still, there is a man-made quality to the “dark” here. A blueish-white, cloud-like, not-dark taints the night.
I drive by the dealership now. It is bright, fake-day here at Ford.
I cannot see the stars.
My husband reads the newspaper. It is months after my daughter and I camped in Glacier National Park where we listened to a ranger’s talk.
My husband remarks, “Did you know that Montana is one of the few places in the country you can still see so many of the stars?”
His remark jogs my memory about the ranger’s lecture.
The article — and the ranger — they both call it “light pollution.”
We humans have hung too many lights. We have made ourselves so big that it is literally hard to see the stars.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3.
Now that I have twenty-odd years between myself and that vast, deep Nevada sky, I appreciate the strange effect it has on me. Don’t get me wrong, I am still disoriented by it. But that seems important, too.
Sometimes I feel very big. Important things ride on my shoulders. Arrogance, anxiety and shame accompanying them.
My bigness crushes me.
I have begun to build towers in my heart.
Here in America our literal obscuring of the stars is the material reality of the spiritual truth. Literal lights hung high and bright on tall edifices mimic our internal lights and towers…internet platforms, religion, politics. They cast a tall blueish-white, cloud-like, not-dark, fake-day over our hearts.
We have tried to climb up to God, in the process, making ourselves so big that we literally can’t even know how small we actually are.
Perhaps we can stumble in our folly. Wind back the light pollution. Ironically, if we try hard ourselves, that too becomes a tall tower with fake lights.
I remember Jesus’ story:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself to God, ‘I thank you that I’m not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home Justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
The way to big is small. The way to God is poor in spirit.
This is disorienting. But, we long for it.