Posts Tagged ‘sky’

A Meeting of the Planets

We are told Jupiter and Venus are hundreds of millions of miles apart. I have no reason not to believe that. But all week long they have been hanging out together in the same part of the sky and I like it. Sky Pals. The waning Wolf Moon has been caught hanging out with them as well and this morning he was there right in between them. We call this alignment a conjunction. It doesn’t really matter to me what it is called, I like it. What do they talk about during these morning meetings? I suspect at least one of them mentioned it was cold this morning, very cold.

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I just heard a chorus frog. They are identifiable because they make a sound that may remind you of the noise you hear when you drag your thumb across the teeth of a comb. They are not the only singers I hear tonight. More often I am hearing wood frogs. Their song may remind you of a quack. Behind me are two barred owls creating a ruckus. But by far the dominant songs tonight are from spring peepers. How can such a loud sound come from such a small creature? It is a miracle that anything else can be heard at all.

I am on South Mountain, strangely named since it is the northernmost mountain of the Blue Ridge Mountain range. It is a cool night, I can see my breath. There is a clear sky, the spring stars have a soundtrack. Or these songs come with a light show. Either way, this is quite a concert.

Last week I was traveling. My route took me through and around the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mountains get their name because they look blue from a distance due to the isoprene released in the atmosphere by broadleaf trees. (Look at me using the language of organic chemistry). I followed these mountains north. The weather was warm. The windows were down. The radio was on. And I sang loudly. I am sure the mountains could hear me. Sometimes I was Don Henley, sometimes Willie Nelson, sometimes Tom Petty. I was Robert Plant, Dave Grohl, and Charlie Daniels. I am pretty sure I was Taylor Swift a couple of times and at least once I was Debby Harry. That’s right. Call me… Anytime.

The Blue Ridge Mountains begin in Georgia, peak in North Carolina, and travel north into Pennsylvania. And tonight on their northernmost ridge, the mountains sing to me. Perhaps to repay the favor. Perhaps to show me how it is really done. But I am glad to be on the receiving end of this song.

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Next weekend we have the opportunity to witness a perigee moon, this is when the moon is closest to earth. It has become popular to call this a Supermoon. You and I may not notice anything different on account of that, but the ocean tides undoubtedly will. It is interesting that this is also the night of the full Harvest Moon. This is the name of the full moon that occurs closest to the autumnal equinox.

It is our good fortune that this full moon will also bring with it a total lunar eclipse. Of course, this is when earth’s shadow is cast upon the moon. When this occurs the moon turns a reddish, coppery, rusty color. It has become popular to call this a blood moon. Since this is the fourth blood moon in the past eighteen months, some will try to convince us that it has extra cosmic significance. Perhaps quadruple the significance.

Some love what is fascinating just for the sake of fascination. Some wish we were living in a science fiction novel. Some would like to sell us a science fiction novel. Some would like to convince us they have cracked God’s code – and behold it is a lunar eclipse.

The fact is, a Super-Harvest-Blood Moon is a sign. It is a sign that the Creator has an incredibly wild imagination and enjoys a celestial show. In our part of the world it will sit high in the sky. And we will have a front row seat. Pray for clear skies.

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Next week we will witness a lunar eclipse.  According to some, this one is different than others that we have seen before.  If they are correct, then strike up the band and let us to break out into a chorus of “Bad Moon Rising.”

This eclipse will be the first of four “blood moons” in the next eighteen months.  It is of interest that all four of these “blood moons” occur during Jewish holidays.  Since these four lunar eclipses occur on the holidays and so close together; it has been speculated that they have special, religious significance.  Noteworthy religious texts include Joel 2.31 “the sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” and Revelation 6.12 “and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood.”  Some project that verses such as these suggest that the blood moons are harbingers of doom.  This is not the first time that we have witnessed others who are tripping over prophetic and apocalyptic furniture.

I tend to get excited about the sky.  I also tend to get excited easily about the biblical text.  So, when sky and text get together in the same conversation it grabs my attention.  Studying the sun, moon, and sky fascinates me.  Yet, the idea of looking at them for prophetic revelation strikes me as a little odd.  Have we started to consider astrology as a Christian discipline?  Does this sound like a Dan Brown novel to anyone else?

It troubles me that preachers participate in this message.  At least pop scientists and writers of suspense thrillers are honest about their craft.  It isn’t the first (nor is it the last) time that marketers have caused a stir like this.  This is the sort of thing that we are tempted to become fascinated with when simple obedience becomes too boring.  Remember when the world last ended in December 2012?

Something we can be certain of is that lunar eclipse is another wonder in a remarkable cosmos that will stir your soul.  Another exhibit from a Creator who happens to possess a wildly creative imagination.  Perhaps a fitting religious text for a moment like this comes from Psalm 19.1 “the heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.”  Go ahead and pull out a lawn chair, and marvel at the sky.

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Vincent Van Gogh sat near Montmajour Hill near Arles, France on July 4, 1888 and painted Sun Setting at Arles and suddenly it is news today.  The timeline for this painting is interesting.  The painting was in the care of Vincent’s brother Theo until it was sold to a French art dealer in 1901.  It was purchased by a Norwegian Industrialist in 1908.  He was told it was a fake and stored the painting in his attic until it was purchased by a collector in 1970.  It was brought to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam in 2011.  This week it has been pronounced to be authentic.

Of the painting he wrote “at sunset I was on a stony heath where very small, twisted oaks grow, in the background a ruin on the hill and wheat fields in the valley.”  He added “the sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and on the ground, absolutely a shower of gold.”  With this painting, Van Gogh wanted to present himself as a poet among landscape painters.  He was apparently disappointed with his effort.  He often thought his paintings to be failures.  Regardless of what he thought at the time, most of us are in awe of his ability to help us to see or imagine things differently.

We may not have Van Gogh’s skills with a paint brush but we understand the lure of a sunset.  A summer sunset has the ability to pull your neighbors outside to watch.  It can make your daughter run downstairs to point it out or lean out the car window with a camera to try and get a picture of it.  It can make an artist pull out his brush.  One evening I sit and watch as the sun drops out of sight.  The horizon becomes bright and the clouds look like decorations outlined with gold trim.  Then the blues return, along with pinks, and the clouds look like cotton candy.  Then oranges and reds splash across the sky.  The sky is intense.  It is on fire.  The horizon is an ever-changing canvas where we view one of a kind works of art every night.

Should we get out our paints and pallets?  Should that Norwegian gentleman have been charging admission into his attic for all those years?  Should we reserve seats for tonight – facing west of course.  Every day, the trailing edge of the sun disappears below the horizon.  Should we applaud?  Stand and pray for an encore?  Or will we just wait again until the next day?  Sunset brings with it a kaleidoscope of color.  Every day, the sun pulls this disappearing act.  And I never grow tired of it.

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There is a road that runs adjacent to the Conodoguinet Creek that I travel often. Some mornings, I have found a Red Fox in the field between, a predator, hunting for food.  Other mornings, in the same field, I have seen a Great Blue Heron in its predatory stance, equally hungry and also hunting.  For some reason, it seems strange to acknowledge a long-legged wading bird as a predator of mammals.  Yet, the field guides suggest that it is true.  Sometimes creation throws us a curve.

I sit against a tree at night on South Mountain and I listen.  I hear a breeze, the rattle of leaves, and stillness.  The sky is clear, the stars feel close.  The light reflecting off the moon is shining directly on the bottom sphere and it looks like a smile.  I am here with the hopes of hearing the eight accented hoots of the Barred Owl.  It is not so strange to think of the Barred Owl as a predator.  The field guides suggest that they are able to eat mammals as large as a opossum.  Although I have never witnessed it, I have heard that they will enter shallow water to catch an unlucky reptile, amphibian, or fish.  On a lucky night, you can hear them cackle, hoot, and gurgle.  This activity is called caterwauling and I find it amusing.

The clear night sky reminds me of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night.  We are told that he painted it while in an asylum at Saint-Remy in June of 1889.  It is reported that Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime.  Since then, his works have been replicated many times.  One of these copies is hanging in the hall in a building on my old college campus.  The painting makes me think that there is more in the night sky than I tend to notice.

In February, an asteroid named DA14 flew past us.  It is about 150 feet wide and is flying through space at 17,400 miles an hour.  It came as close as 17,000 miles to earth.  As a reference point, the moon is 240,000 miles away.  By astronomical standards, that is a close call.  It reminds me that the sky is not always what I expect it to be.

At least we were expecting it.  Unknown until its arrival, on the very same day, the Chelyabinsk Meteor exploded over Russia while traveling over 41,000 miles per hour.  This stray space missile generated a confusing bright flash, produced numerous fragmentary meteorites and a powerful shock wave.  Its initial energy is estimated to be as much as 30 times more than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  We may be guessing at some of these things but we do know that 15,000 people were injured and 7,200 buildings were damaged in six cities.  We are reminded that we think we are advanced, but still we lack control.  Creation shows up whenever it wants to, even without invitation.

Although these were not visible for most of us, it gives us more reasons to look up in the sky.  I think Van Gogh would have been looking.  He once said “for my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”  What might he have said about an asteroid or a meteor?

Creation is a good place to be.  This is good since we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of it.  And we are reminded of it in nearly any activity we participate in.  When the sun rises and when the moon shows itself in the sky we are reminded that we are part of a story bigger than any one of us.  The same as when the wind blows our hair.  When a raindrop lands on our nose.  When we look for the cat.  Listen to an owl.  Watch a gull float down the river.  Admire the work of an artist.  Honk the horn because the driver ahead hasn’t a clue.  We are not here in creation alone.

I find it amusing that herons stalk prey in the fields while raptors wade the shoreline.  No wonder the moon smiles while asteroids fly close by and meteors surprise us.  Creation reminds us that there is more going on than we could ever imagine.  We are part of a great adventure.  Like Susannah Fincannon we find ourselves saying, “This is so refreshing, All this grandeur, This unexpected gift from God.”  Creation is more than we know.  So much so we might add, “This is so dangerous, All this unknown, These unexpected mysteries from God.”

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In his book The Nature Principle, Richard Louv reports that “Most scientists who study human perception no longer assume that we have five senses… The current number ranges from a conservative ten senses to as many as thirty.”  He puts these senses to work while hiking with his son in bear country.  While on that hike he observes that “the pleasure of being alive is brought into sharper focus when you need to pay attention to staying alive.”  And they move forward “listening, watching, lifting our heads to sense what the wind carries.  Something is coming.  So we ring the bells.  And we sing.”

We have entered the season of Advent and the days continue to become shorter.  Light is arriving later each morning and darkness is coming more quickly each evening.  These changes were thought by some ancients to be a struggle between the god of darkness and the god of light.  No matter how we choose to look at it, this morning’s sunrise at 7:23am and sunset at 4:42pm only gives us less than nine hours and twenty minutes of daylight.

Winter is strengthening its grip.  Nights are longer and colder.  In this extra darkness, we light the candles of Advent.  We live with the hope and expectation that darkness will not win.  Last night was the new moon.  Both stars and candles shine brighter in the extra darkness.  So do meteors.  Last night was the peak of the Geminids.  A meteor shower that appears to launch from the constellation Gemini.  It couldn’t have happened at a better time.  No moonlight, clear night, I lost count as streaks of light crossed the sky.  They are but particles of dust that burn up as they enter our atmosphere.  But these small particles put on quite a light show.

Henry David Thoreau once recorded in his journal “Live each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”  Vincent Van Gogh is reported to have said “the fact is that we are painters in real life, and the important thing is to breathe as hard as ever we can breathe.”  I join author and painter and I breathe and I watch as my breath floats away against the stars.

We have been reading portions from Isaiah the prophet.  Walter Brueggemann tells us that Isaiah “is like a mighty oratorio whereby Israel sings its story of faith.”  He goes on to say that “In this oratorio, a primary theme is the predominant and constant character of Yahweh, who looms over the telling in holy sovereignty and in the faithful gentleness of a comforting nursemaid.”  So we open the book and we sing.  We sing about sovereignty and gentleness.  We sing a story of faith.

I am packing a camera one day when I spot a Wood Duck and attempt to photograph him.  Mallards show up in groups for a family portrait.  They gather like a congregation waiting to hear a good word.  They show off by flapping strong wings against the lake.  The males swim by as if to say “check out the colors, did you get that on film?”  One seems to say “look over here, who is that swimming with two ladies?  That’s right, it’s me.”  Unlike the mallards, the Wood Duck tries to hide.  I stand behind a tree.  He swims out from his cover and I leap out to get the picture.  He returns to hiding.

Another day I step from the car and hear a bell ringing.  The Salvation Army has carved a niche in the Christmas season with its bell ringers and red kettles.  I am reminded that I once served a week as a bell-ringer in Corning, New York.  I hear the bell ringing and it sounds like Christmas to me.

I have an early Christmas memory of eating chocolate covered cherries at grandmother’s house.  I still think of Christmas when I think about them.  It is actually rather amazing that we are able to equate tastes with certain places or events or dates on the calendar.  I am amazed that something as basic as taste reminds us of another time and place.  Lately I been dropping almonds covered with dark chocolate into black cherry flavored Greek yogurt.  I am reminded  that taste is one of the pleasures of being alive.  They taste like Christmas to me.

Last week I was seated in the hospital chapel where I was supposed to be watching power point slides and listening to the presenter.  Instead, my attention is out the window where a nuthatch keeps returning to a visible branch.  He makes multiple trips away from sight then quickly returns.  The bird appears to be using its beak to push seeds into the bark of the tree, perhaps to store them to be eaten later.  The nuthatch gets its name by jamming nuts into the bark of trees and then hammering them with its beak until they crack and the nut “hatches” from the hard shell.  These birds are extremely agile and have the ability to spin sideways or upside down without difficulty.  My seat facing the window is like a front row seat at the ballet.  Perhaps Tchaikovsky should have written music for A Nuthatcher Suite.  I should have stood and applauded.

We move further into Advent knowing that something is coming.  It is not only survival that sharpens the pleasure of being alive.  Our senses are on alert.  We can taste it.  We feel it.  We hear it ringing.  We light the candles.  We lift our heads and look for it in the sky.  We sing a story of faith.  And we breathe.

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