Flashlights, Headlamps and Stars

Every year during the Wilderness Retreat, we take our 8th grade class for a night hike through the woods. With our flashlights and headlamps we zigzag our way down the side of the mountain, a noisy circus of sound and light, sure to frighten away every wild animal for miles around.

Finally we reach a large open meadow. At the center we lay trash bags on the grass in a large daisy pattern. Lying back with our heads at the center, we turn off our lights and look up. You can hear sounds of amazement from around the circle. This year the sky is so clear we can see the Milky Way stretch from one horizon to the other.

wilderness stars_stock photoAs our eyes adjust, I take a green laser pointer from my pocket and direct everyone’s attention to a distinct pattern of five bright stars directly overhead. It’s the Northern Cross, a star pattern in the constellation Cygnus the Swan. For some it is the image of a long-necked bird flying south. But for others, it is an image of the cross. As I look at that cross, secretly, I am reminded of the paragraph in Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, when the young atheist astronomer, Ellie Arroway, asks with skepticism, “If God really exists, why doesn’t he just fly a giant cross overhead for all the world to see?” The Northern Cross is always a point of interest for wilderness adventurers. What if you couldn’t see the North Star, didn’t have a compass or GPS, and couldn’t detect moss on the north side of trees? How could you find your way? In the fall months, the Northern Cross, high overhead can point you northward.

A little to one side we see another constellation, Lyre the Harp. I point out its brightest star, Vega. I tell the students that Vega is a special star for me this year because it is just over 25 light years away and this is my 25th year as the administrator at ICS. That means the light we are seeing from that star right now, left Vega the same year I started working at ICS, almost a quarter of a century ago. There is a moment of silence as the students process what this means. Then I add that this starlight started its journey to earth more than a decade before any of them had been born. We are seeing Vega not as it is but as it was many years ago. There is another moment of silence as the students begin to comprehend that looking into the night sky reveals not only light and space, but also time. The really amazing thing is that Vega is one of the closest objects in the night sky. Most of the stars we see are hundreds or thousands of light years away.

Wilderness_andromedaBut there’s a lot more going on in the sky tonight. A classical drama unfolds across the autumn constellations. I quickly point out the proud queen Cassiopeia and her husband Cepheus, King of Ethiopia, who look on in desperation as their beautiful daughter Andromeda, chained to the rocks, awaits her sacrifice to the great sea monster Cetus. But then the hero Perseus, returning with Medusa’s head in a bag, just happens to be flying by on his winged horse Pegasus. Struck by Andromeda’s beauty, it is love at first sight. He quickly assesses the situation, negotiates for Andromeda’s hand, whips out Medusa’s head and turns the sea monster into stone. The king and queen are overjoyed as the happy couple fly off into the sunset.

It is fascinating the stories that people have seen in these stars, the myths they have told down through the centuries to describe their culture and beliefs. But there is another message that has long been seen in the night sky, and it is recorded in a Psalm that many of our 8th graders memorized in 2nd grade. I tell the students to imagine the shepherd boy David, three thousand years ago on a night similar to this, surrounded by sheep huddled together for the night. As David leans back against the grass, he looks up at these very same stars, and these are the words God brought to him. As I begin to recite Psalm 8, I hear several students join in who recognize the opening lines:

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.

But it is verses three and following that get our attention:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor. — Psalm 8:3–5 (NIV84)

There in the stillness we can hear David’s searching question. How could the God who made all of this, the God of such majesty and power, care about me? Who am I in this great cosmic expanse that he should even think about me? And yet he has made me in his own image, and destined me for himself.

This is the powerful distinction that separates biblical faith from every other religion in the world. It is this personal relationship with the Creator of the universe, the one true God who knows me intimately and cares about me constantly. This changes everything. My faith is no longer about trying to earn his favor or appease his anger. It is about the pure joy of being his child and experiencing his loving care.

For several minutes we lay there in complete silence, looking into that brilliant canopy of stars. There are no more words, no more talking, just quietness, stillness, trying to take it in. After a while I finally ask, “Is anyone ready to head back?” But the answer is silence. And so we stay for another minute or two. The ground is cold; the grass is wet, yet there is a strange reluctance to leave. Then I stand, turn on my headlamp and slowly we assemble ourselves again into that noisy caravan of light and sound, zigzagging our way back to camp.

.Wilderness 2014_Akers,_Mix,_Neville         Wilderness 2014_Houttekier

This post was written by our Head of School, Stephen Danish, whose pleasure it is to lead our 8th Grade Wilderness retreat twice each school year.