I recall with clarity a night a few years ago when my wife and I were on vacation in southern California. We’d spent the day hiking in the mountains and, in the afternoon, had descended to explore the mysterious and ancient landscape of Mono Lake—one of the oldest lakes in North America. Pinned to the information board by the parking lot was a sign advertising a talk by a Park Ranger that evening: “Stars over Mono Lake”. And so it was, at 9pm, we found ourselves lying on the ancient sands, looking up a night sky in which a million points of light glowed with an intensity I’d never seen before. The air was cold and clear, the hauntingly beautiful desert silence broken only by the occasional howl of a lonely coyote, cry of an insomniac gull, or scream for help of a distant and woefully lost tourist.
But it was the sky that really struck me. I’d never seen it so beautiful before: in Toronto, light pollution drowns out the splendour of the heavens and the lights that do punctuate the night tend to be of the red-amber-green-red variety. But what I was seeing, lying on those freezing sands at Mono Lake, was the spectacular sight of the night sky in all its glory—God’s handiwork writ large as a myriad stars twinkled above me. I was awestruck and listened with fascination as a Park Ranger talked us through the various constellations that slowly wheeled above: the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Orion, Aquarius.
And as I looked up, I was reminded of Philippians 2:12-16, which reads:
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life—in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour for nothing.
That passage got me thinking, in particular about this question: what does it mean to “shine like stars”? What does it mean to burn brightly against the inky blackness? As I pondered this, it occurred to me that there are different types of star. For instance, there are shooting stars. Stars that burn brightly, roaring across the night sky leaving a trail of fiery dust behind them; burning brightly, lighting the way, but then falling to earth as no more than glowing embers. There are Christians like this: who want to go it alone, blaze their own trail, draw attention to themselves.
Then there are supernovae, stars that have exploded. One almighty bang, a flash of intense brightness that lights up the night sky, and then they’re gone, fading into obscurity. Again, there are Christians like this: who burn themselves out, who make a brief impact and then they’re forgotten.
And then we have constellations. Stars which, on their own, would be but one small, glowing dot in the darkness, but together form a bigger picture—together, they tell a more powerful story. On their own, they’re much less; together, they’re something very special. Nobody has heard of the star “Merak”, for instance; everybody’s heard of the constellation it forms part of—the “Big Dipper” or the “Plough”, one of the most famous formations in the heavens.
On that same trip to southern California, we also visited the Griffiths Observatory, set on the slopes of Mount Hollywood. Attached to the observatory is a planetarium and we sat in this incredible building and watched amazing images of planets, galaxies and stars projected onto the giant dome. The show’s narrator explained how human beings are designed to think in stories: modern science is one attempt to tell a story about reality, but so too did the ancients tell stories, as they looked at the heavens and named the stars. And thus each of the major constellations bear names—usually from myth and legend or history.
Stars burning together in constellations whose names tell a story. And that’s part of what Christians are called to do: to stand together, to form a constellation, and to tell a story—a story whose significance is also painted in the beauty of the night sky, the wonder of the atom, the fire of the equations that animate it all, and the depths of the human heart.
But there’s one last another aspect to stars and to constellations I learnt that night at Mono Beach. Constellations don’t stand still. They move. In particular they rotate, slowly wheeling around a singular fixed point in the night sky—the “North” or “Pole” Star. And that, too, is our task and calling and challenge as we aim to “shine like stars”—our axis needs to be God himself—the very centre of our purpose, our calling, our universe, our beings. He is our fixed point, our north star, our pole star, he who determines how we move and turn. The temptation is always to make ourselves the axis and have God spin about our personalities, aims and ambitions—but that way lies idolatry. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands.
Long before the invention of GPS, sailors and navigators far out in the oceans or the deserts were reliant upon the pole star, the north star—the fixed point. By orientating yourself to it, you could find your way home through the wildest of seas or the remotest of trackless deserts. But in a sky filled with a billion points of light, how do you find the pole star? Well, the easiest way is to take a look at the most well-known constellation—the “Big Dipper” or “Plough”—for this constellation actually points directly at the Pole Star. And as we shine like stars, in a constellation, not alone but standing together, telling our story, His story, this is what we’re ultimately about. Shining brightly amidst the darkness, we point at Him around which everything turns—Christ Jesus himself, heaven’s bright sun, whose radiance glows brighter than the brightest star, so much so that the new heavens and the new earth need neither sun nor moon. May he and he alone be your fixed point and led you home.
 Cited in Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010) 137.