The Spiritual Discipline of Sky

How the Heavens Shape a Heart

Sometime soon, consider conducting a little experiment. Grab a jacket, go outside, find a nice patch of grass to sit or lie upon, and then, for fifteen minutes, simply stare at the sky. Having conducted such an experiment myself, perhaps I can give you a sense of what to expect.

Expect, first of all, to feel strange. Unless you find a private patch of grass, you may be the object of spectacle and whispered concern. Thrust such discomfort behind you and stare on.

Expect also a small reacquaintance with natural elements often avoided: some dew upon the back, some aphid upon the wrist. Embrace them. For these fifteen minutes at least, you are an outdoorsman.

Then perhaps, with eyes upward, you may wonder what in the sky could keep you occupied for a full quarter of an hour. Bored, you may feel an urge for your phone; you may look at your watch and find that, no, ten minutes have not yet passed — only four.

But then, at last, you may begin to notice. You discern some variety among the billows above, and words from sixth-grade science class begin to drift beside them. Are those cirrus clouds? you wonder. And that — a cumulonimbus? You allow yourself to see again through a child’s eyes and observe now not clouds but the shapes of seals and bears, dogs and dragons. Between white wisps, you spy a faded half-moon, hastening late to its rest.

And then, maybe, you will begin to feel small, as the few square feet beneath you fit like a tiny photo in a large frame. A question may trail to your lips with new feeling: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4).

Finally, if the Spirit opens your eyes and ears, you may hear a hint of that silent song always sounding: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). You may suddenly feel not alone, but enfolded within the vast and personal presence of God — glorious as the sun, inescapable as the sky, near as the next breath of air. And you may go back to your day different, carrying with you the song of the sky.

The Heavens Declare

The word heaven — usually referring to the sky — appears some seven hundred times in Scripture, from the very first verse (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” Genesis 1:1) to one of the last (“I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,” Revelation 21:2). Saints of old found something worth seeing in the sky. They looked up a lot.

To them, the sky was wonderful. It was a castle for King Sun and Queen Moon (Genesis 1:16). A celestial clock chiming the days and seasons (Genesis 1:14). A spacious tent for the children of man (Isaiah 40:22). A stage for the players of cloud and wind, rain and lightning (Job 37:2–4). A canvas colored daily. A ceiling more beautiful than the Sistine Chapel’s. A friend ever familiar, ever new.

“To our fathers in the faith, the shapes of the clouds always found a way to spell one word: G-L-O-R-Y.”

And yet, the sky was wonderful only because it was something else first: personal. From clouds to constellations, from eastern rise to western set, the sky was God’s work. He names the stars and nightly bids them shine (Psalm 33:6; Isaiah 40:26). He raises the morning sun and scatters midnight shadows (Matthew 5:45). He throws thunderheads across the horizon and aims their every drop (Psalm 29:3–4; 147:15–18). And therefore, to our fathers in the faith, the shapes of the clouds always found a way to spell one word: G-L-O-R-Y (Psalm 19:1; 29:9).

Something deep within us answers back. Days of gray oppress the soul. Smog has a way of clogging not only the atmosphere but our hearts. When, some months ago, the smoke from Canadian wildfires coated Minnesota skies with ash, the loss was palpable. We may feel as dour as Puddleglum by disposition; even still, we can’t bear to live in Underland.

And yet, apparently, on ordinary days of blue and white, we can bear to give the sky barely a passing glance. While our forefathers traced the shape of God’s goodness in the clouds, and heard the shout of his glory from the sun, we often run through the world with heads covered, like men holding umbrellas on clear days. Fifteen minutes, even under a sky of wonders, can feel like a stretch.

Mobile Roofs

Several forces conspire to keep our heads down — some new, some old. We might group them under two main heads: we are disenchanted and distracted.

The biblical writers bear the marks of a holy enchantment with the heavens, an enchantment many find difficult to kindle today. Part of the problem lies in our large electrified cities, where streetlights substitute for stars. God’s word to Abram to count the celestial lights holds less force for urbanites like us, who often can count them quite easily. The moon has lost its army, and we have lost our awe.

Many also feel too enlightened, too scientific, to be much impressed with blue-sky magic and starry spells. The ancients may have heard the sky-clock chime; we have cracked it open and seen the gears. And so, we have heard many intelligent people say something along the lines of Stephen Hawking’s quip: “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.” Such words corrode wonder.

Perhaps most of us, however, face a larger foe: distraction. We are, in the main, a hurrying and scurrying people, a buying and selling people, a screened and headphoned people, and we have neither time nor interest to consider the sky. We may catch a billow of cloud reflected on the screen, but such heavenly reminders rarely raise us in self-forgetful, still-thumbed worship. I, for one, often spend more time looking at the weather app than the weather.

“I, for one, often spend more time looking at the weather app than the weather.”

But even if we were untethered from our pocket portals, who has the time to walk at the pace of clouds? As children, we could spare a few moments to lie upon the grass and spot animals above, but no longer. Now we have places to go, people to see. Now we run through our days, and you can run faster with your head down.

Punching Skylights

In a world like ours, and with roofs like ours, we need to find a way of getting out and looking up. We need to punch some skylights through this plaster. And not simply because a little wonder does wonders for the soul, but also because, for those who know Scripture, the sky reinforces lessons we can hardly live without. What might happen, then, if we made a habit of staring at the blue with Bible in hand?

We might feel, first, a deeper sense of God’s greatness. The biblical writers didn’t need a telescope to know the heavens were huge, nor did they need knowledge of galaxies to feel themselves small — too small for significance, even (Psalm 8:4). The sky, to them, was enormous.

Still, vast as it may be, it was only the finger-work of God (Psalm 8:3), a house far too small to hold him (1 Kings 8:27). The heavens have always been God’s giant throne (Isaiah 66:1); modern astronomy, in telling us the throne is even larger than we thought, simply underlines the greatness of the one who sits upon it. He is “Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24), outstripping the skies by infinity.

Yet as we start to feel small beneath such greatness, we might also feel a fresh sense of God’s goodness. If he “determines the number of the stars” and “gives to all of them their names,” then no broken heart lies hidden from his sight (Psalm 147:3–4). If the sky rises to unthinkable heights, then God’s steadfast love in Christ must outstretch our small assumptions (Psalm 103:11). And if God upholds the “fixed order” of the heavens without fail, then his faithfulness to his loved ones will never cease, no matter how dark the night or late the dawn (Jeremiah 31:35–36).

For those in Christ, the sky everywhere proclaims that curious mixture of our smallness and our significance. And small but significant people have a wonderful way of walking through this world: humble and happy, self-forgetful and satisfied, lowly and yet, remarkably, loved by the Lord of heaven.

Light of Lights

Most of all, however, the sky offers a big, ever-present reminder of a big, ever-present truth: we are made for God. The sky’s bigness is a sign that we are not the center; its song is a soundtrack of a story not our own. Like small planets to the sun, we orbit God, not he us. And our joy and glory lie in living before him as pervasively as we live beneath the sky.

For one day, this celestial parable will give way to the Person; the sky will not simply sing his glory, but show the Glorious One. The sky, so steady and familiar, will “roll up like a scroll” (Isaiah 34:4), and the lyrics of love written there will give way to the Lord of love.

God sowed this tapestry to be torn. He built this firmament to be broken. He laid the beams of the heavens so that one day they might become the stage for his Son’s return.

One day our Lord will split the sky,
The joy or dread of every eye.
The sun will fall before his face,
The moon will hurry to its place,
And every star will see the sight
Of heaven’s Glory burning bright.
The Morning Star will take his throne
And, Light of lights, will shine alone.

Look up, then, as one in darkness aching for dawn. Wait at this window like a wife who hears that the war is ended, her husband comes. Befriend this path on which our Lord will soon return. Consider it worthwhile, even every now and then, to stop and hear again the song of the sky.