I am sitting in a lawn chair with my head tipped back, having a staring contest with the solar system. I’m not in the suburbs of Texas where I live, but at a state park in Missouri on vacation. Everyone is in bed or quietly existing somewhere else. It’s just me and the Milky Way, at the moment.
I feel small, and it feels good.
I single out a star, one brighter than it’s galactic neighbors. It seems familiar somehow. I wonder if I’ve seen it before.
My mind scrolls back to the summer before my senior year and clicks on a memory.
I’m at church camp and we’re sleeping out under the stars on a night not unlike this one, high from a week of spiritual experiences. There are a couple dozen of us, all already wondering how to live like we love Jesus when we get back home. We’re staring ahead at school and sports and relationships and our future. We’re also staring at the sky and talking about how small we feel and how big God is. I can feel the moment in high school, even sitting here in my chair 18 years later.
I had never felt closer to God, and I’m not sure I have since. With the dew soaking my sleeping bag and a pillow propping up my head, my 17 year old self fell asleep sure of one thing:
That God was the only thing I could be sure of.
Somewhere in the state park a dog barks and I’m jostled free from the summer of 1998. I wonder what all my Rock Garden Christian Camp buddies are doing at that very moment, and I think again about the stars I’m still staring at and how they’ve been there all along. That familiar one…is that the same exact one I saw in high school?
I don’t feel as close to God as I did back then, I admit to myself. At least not as emotionally. But I conclude that I might actually be closer.
I’ve lived too much life not to be.
Like the night in college when I stood on the baseball field screaming at the sky. I don’t remember what was wrong, but everything seemed wrong. I’d never really been away from home. There was friend stuff and girl stuff and a fair amount of college fatigue and wondering if I was becoming what I was supposed to become. Above all, I was lonely and discouraged and I had never felt so far from God.
I stared up at the stars and shook my fist in the general direction of Mars and questioned everything I knew about God’s goodness and my place in His story.
“Where are you?” I remembering whimpering aloud, and then I stared at the stars waiting for a response.
There was no answer, no magic moment, no dramatic conclusion. There was no church camp goose bumps. I just walked back to my dorm and went to bed, persuaded the stars and the God that scattered them in the sky were looking down on me and my immature whining, and I remember feeling embarrassed. But God and the stars were there nonetheless. Looking back now that’s all I needed, I think.
To be heard.
For God to be there.
So here I sit now, with the smoke from the campfire on my clothes and the noise dying down as people surrender to sleep all around me. I’m staring up at the stars and remembering the times I’ve stared up at them before. At church camp in high school when I’d never been closer to God, on the baseball field in college when I’d never felt further from Him, and now sitting at a campsite in Missouri. I have the good sense to be still for a second and realize that it’s not only the same stars that have witnessed the highlights and the bloopers of my life.
The same God saw them all, too.
I’ll not bother to notice His presence an embarrassing amount of times.
I will fail to be still and gaze.
When I do, when I accidentally stumble upon a moment like this one, I’ll remember the permanence of the stars and the God-moments they represent in my story. I’ll remember how in those moments I grew more than I have in some entire calendar years. I’ll feel the dew under my sleeping bag and the loneliness of the ball field and smell the smoke of this fire and realize that even if they aren’t the same stars He is the same God.
The God of the highs and the God of the lows and the God of the stars and, yes, even the God of the gazer. He’s always been there…even when I didn’t stop to notice.
I’m glad I stopped to notice tonight.