A couple weeks ago, I went outside late at night to move the garbage cans out to the curb.
We create too much garbage for a family of four and need to work on that. Probably if we ate less packaged food we’d be healthier and have less garbage. And that would be better.
And, while I’m at it, I need to wake up 15 minutes early every day and practice Spanish verbs. Really do it this time. I want to be that guy who conjugates Spanish verbs in the morning before work.
Those are the kinds of thoughts I have on an unseasonably cold night when I’m in my pajamas and just remembered I need to move the garbage to the curb. There’s something about the discomfort and the mundane nature of the task. It brings out the dreamer in me.
When I got to mid curb, I noticed the biggest star I’ve ever seen. It was huge. Not bright, but soft yellow. Almost orange. And with a hazy kind of look. Not a blue pinprick in the dark firmament, like most stars are. More like a candle light.
I was sure it wasn’t a star. But what, then?
It only took a second to be certain it was too still for a meteor. And just a few more moments without movement confirmed it was also clearly not a satellite.
With the confidence that only an amateur can muster, I decided it was Jupiter, which must orbit close this season.
Maybe Saturn, I suppose.
But, no, after further thought, it was certainly Jupiter. Certainly. Clear as could be.
I stood a few moments in awe at the sight of Jupiter with its yellow glow in the southern sky. I had a chill in my spine, and not just from the cold air. I had a genuine moment of reflection and perspective. My little job that night of moving the garbage cans to the curb was small indeed. Small like all my chores are small. Small like my whole life with all its challenges and triumphs is really—upon reflection—a very small thing.
A few days later, I got curious about my Jupiter moment and thought I should double check my expert identification of the planet. I’m grateful for that skeptical impulse because, of course, it was not Jupiter at all.
It was Arcturus, the fourth brightest star in the sky and the very brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere. This massive “orange giant” is 27 times the diameter of our Sun and 215 times as bright.
It’s called the “bear watcher” because it continuously chases the big bear, Ursa Major (whose tail and hindquarters are also called the Big Dipper) in a circle around the North Star. In fact, it’s very easy to find by using the handle of the Big Dipper and continuing the trajectory if its long handle until you land right on the biggest, yellowest star in the sky.
How had I never seen this huge yellow star chasing the Big Dipper?
In a great irony, Arcturus is roughly 37 light years away from us. The light I saw that night had traveled 37 years to get to me, just as it had taken me just about as long to finally look up and see it. It felt like we were always meant to be friends; it just took us almost four decades to find each other.
Other people have more readily found and appreciated the orange glow of this huge star. Many others, in fact. Arcturus has scores of names and is a key player in at least as many mythologies and astrologies. It’s found its way into the legends of the Japanese, the Arabs, the Inuit, the Polynesians, and the Australian Aborigines. It’s even in the Old Testament. In my favorite of all, the Book of Job.
Job is a glorious poem we seldom read and never much discuss. We’re all familiar with the simple story found in its opening and closing verses. But we somehow skip over the massive middle—40 of its 42 chapters--with all its complex beauty. It’s like we buy a delicious roast beef sandwich at Katz’s Deli and then only eat the bread.
But then, as friends so often do when we are down, they get nasty. They probe and push Job to admit that all of this is really his fault. Can’t he see he’s brought it on himself? Can’t he see his actions, his arrogance, his irreverence have brought this upon him? Why not admit what we all know when we’re on top and others are not: our own actions determine our own fate.
Job will have none of it. He never loses faith and never curses God. But he won’t pretend to have done something wrong with the kind of magnitude that would bring this great suffering upon him. As he’s pushed, he gets more and more frustrated with the insinuations and finally demands a fair trial. In obvious heat, he challenges God to explain the cause of all this misfortune.
Now skip the interlude where some interpolator later added a fourth “friend”, Elihu, who lectures Job incessantly through chapter 37. And then, boom, it happens. Chapter 38. The voice of the Lord answers Job “out of the whirlwind.”
God reminds Job that no mortal can understand the workings of the universe—including why bad stuff happens to good people—any more than my dog can learn geometry. Job gets the fair trial that he demanded, but it is God asking the questions.
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
What follows are 71 verses reminding Job—and all the rest of us—how immense and complex the universe really is. How small we are in it. And how very little we understand about its workings.
Among the many rhetorical questions the Lord asks, a few draw our attention to the same night sky I looked at that chilly night out on my driveway:
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? Or canst though guide Arcturus with his sons?
What a discovery this was for me! I finally found this beautiful yellow star, whose light had traveled my entire life just to find me taking out the garbage in my pajamas. Its light and the self-reflection it caused me (even though I was then certain it was Jupiter) tied me eternally to the soul searchers of every corner of the earth through history, including mighty Job.
I remembered the sculpture garden I visited last month in Salt Lake City with my mother. Thomas Child, an eccentric business man and Mormon spent the last decades of his life hauling and carving stone in a backyard sanctuary to create a special place that would “shut out fear and keep one’s mind young and alert to the last, no matter how perilous the times.”
His sculptures, none of them traditional, include things like a miniature sphinx with the face of Joseph Smith.
In the height of his agony, Job testifies of his continued faith. He laments that this faith is being overlooked by his friends and that it will surely be forgotten by history.
If only his words could be preserved in a book! Or, he dares to dream, if only they could be etched permanently in stone, “that they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock forever” (Job 19:23-24).
As it turns out, thousands of years after the words were uttered, this eccentric Mormon stone carver (who read all of Job and savored the delicious meat between its dry bread) complied with Job’s plea. Thomas Child devised a special torch so that he could literally engrave Job’s testimony in stone with lead and iron. It’s likely the first and last time in history that this will happen.
It’s my testimony too. I have my own small problems. I don’t at all understand the universe. I don’t even understand the gospel.
But, like Job,
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God!