Many of us have GPS systems in our cars or on our phones. They allow us to pinpoint our locations on a map, letting us know exactly where we are.
But in the days before modern technology, how did people navigate? If they needed to cross an ocean, what told them where they were?
The North Star did.
More formally known as Polaris, the North Star is the brightest star in the Ursa Minor constellation. Because it’s almost in a direct line above the Earth’s north celestial pole, the North Star appears to stand motionless in the sky, with the other stars seeming to rotate around it.
This made it a perfect fixed point by which to draw measurements for celestial navigation. In fact, the Old English word for the North Star meant “ship-star,” reflecting its use in helping to chart a course when sailing.
We still need a north star today.
Not to get from point A to point B in our vehicles, but to navigate the seas of our lives. When our whole world has turned topsy-turvy, we need a fixed point to focus on to keep us on a stable course.
When you look up at the stars in the night sky, what do you feel?
Many people say the vastness of the universe and the countless stars make them feel puny and insignificant.
In a way, that’s understandable.
The star that Earth orbits around is just one of many in the Milky Way, the galaxy in which we live. In fact, there are perhaps 100 billion stars in our cosmic “neighbourhood.”
And the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies. Estimates vary as to how many galaxies exist in the observable universe: some experts suggest a couple hundred billion, and others postulate as many as 10 trillion.
It’s impossible for us to know how many stars there are in the observable universe, but here’s the largest guess I came across: Multiplying the higher number of estimated galaxies by the Milky Way’s estimated 100 billion stars gives a possibility of 1 septillion stars in the universe (1 quadrillion in the European system). That’s a “1” with 24 zeroes after it!
The Milky Way is so enormous that, even travelling at light speed, it would take 100,000 years to travel across it. The observable universe is incredibly more vast: according to current thinking, it’s about 93 billion light years in diameter.
No wonder people feel small when they contemplate the unimaginable expanse of the universe!
But for me, this knowledge doesn’t make me feel insignificant.
We seem to have difficulty being still these days, don’t we?
For many of us, life happens at warp speed. We’re always on the go, and have little downtime to pause and reflect on things.
But with all our constant motion, are we missing out on something?
Recently, I visited a park with a pond large enough to almost be a small lake. A slight breeze left ripples on the water, disturbing the reflection of the trees in the distance. The image on the water’s surface was wavy and impressionistic, not a true representation of the landscape nearby.
I then walked to a different part of the park where a river flowed lazily into the pond. The water was running slowly, and because it was sheltered from the breeze in this area, it was very still. The trees here were perfectly reflected in the water, giving a mirror image of their true forms.
I guess that to get the best reflection in water, stillness is the key.
Perhaps the spiritual lesson here is that if our lives are too frantic, it’s hard for us to reflect Christ.
A chickadee may have a bird-brain, but it can actually be pretty smart.
Especially if it lives in a harsh climate.
What does climate have to do with bird intelligence? As it turns out, more than you’d expect.
Biologists have discovered that chickadees living in the mountains or in northern latitudes, where the weather is more severe, were smarter than their peers living more comfortably down below.
Chickadees from harsher habitats had superior spatial memories and problem-solving abilities than those living in gentler climes. They were better at finding stored caches of food and at figuring out how to access a worm treat that scientists had cleverly tucked into a glass tube.
The harsh environment makes their brains work a bit harder.
Is there a lesson for humans in the example of the chickadees?
Yes, but it isn’t to move to a more wintry climate (take it from a Canadian who’s done her share of shovelling snow—it hasn’t made me smarter!).
The takeaway here is that there can be unseen benefits to the challenges we face.
One of the greatest natural events on Earth is now underway: the migration of the monarch butterfly.
Each fall, millions of these colourful insects set off from their summer breeding grounds in the northeastern U.S. and Canada for a gruelling journey. They travel thousands of miles across North America all the way to Mexico, where they’ll spend the winter.
Many people believe that the monarch butterflies which leave in the fall are the same ones which arrive back in the spring, but this isn’t so. Individual butterflies don’t make the entire round-trip journey. The ones which migrate from the northeastern part of North America in fall will never return.
Rather, their great-great-grandchildren are the ones who will arrive the following spring, as successive generations keep making their way north. The entire annual migration cycle of the monarch takes about four generations.
Perhaps I’m being fanciful, but I can imagine monarch butterflies telling their children of the awesome journey they’ll be undertaking. They may say that they’ll only be able to go part of the way with them, but to keep the faith and keep going.
Maybe they encourage their children to tell successive generations to keep believing in the promise of return. Because eventually, their descendants will see the promise fulfilled.
You can get all manner of products printed with this slogan: T-shirts, mugs, posters, and notecards.
But is that always the best advice? Maybe not. There’s something to be said for not staying in the same place for too long.
Your garden will tell you that if you plant the same type of vegetable in the same plot year after year, you’ll notice that the health of the plant and the yield it produces will begin to suffer. The plant will be attacked by more diseases and pests, and the nutrients in the soil will have been depleted by past crops of the same type.
The answer to this problem? Crop rotation.
Don’t plant the same type of vegetable or crop in the same location several years running. Mix it up; plant something new in that spot.
What about in life?
Does God intend us to stay rooted to the same location for much of our lives?
I think that’s true: you put seeds in the ground in spring, hoping most will germinate and grow into a plant. If you’re lucky, you might see hints of growth in a few days, but often it can be weeks before a little green head pokes its way out of the soil.
If planting seeds takes faith, then I think it takes a special kind of faith to plant bulbs in the fall.
In the fall, you know the days are getting shorter and colder. The leaves are dropping from the trees, and tender plants are beginning to die from early frosts. You know that snow will soon blanket the garden to the depth of a couple feet. You’re heading into a barren season.
The precious tulip, daffodil or hyacinth bulbs that you’ve just planted will disappear from your view for many months. You’ll have no indication that they’re all right, let alone any guarantee that they’ll eventually bloom. They may fall prey to rabbits, squirrels or deer. Who knows what will happen to them?
And yet you still go ahead and plant fall bulbs, trusting that they’ll survive the frigid winter and bloom later in spring.
Some things in our lives take special faith to trust for, too, don’t they?
Gardeners may not realize it, but they’re a bit like soldiers in wartime. Their enemies aren’t people, of course, but an even more insidious foe:
Weeds infiltrate our gardens like enemy invaders: dandelions, nettles, thistles, couch grass and garlic mustard, to name a few. They may seem innocent enough when there are only a few of them, but make no mistake: their ultimate aim is to take over and occupy your territory.
One vanguard weed may sneak in and settle, and you think nothing of it. If you’re not vigilant, though, that lone plant will soon multiply into an overwhelming host.
Or you pull up a dandelion and think that’s the end of it, but unless you’ve been very thorough, part of the taproot remains deep in the soil. The weed will come up again long after you thought you’ve eradicated it.
The seeds of weeds may stay in the soil of your garden and remain viable for years. They lie in wait like sleeper agents, waiting patiently for the right opportunity to spring up and attack.
The mission of weeds is simple but deadly: to compete with other plants for light, water and nutrients and crowd them out so they die. They’re dastardly adversaries, often needing less sunlight and water than other plants to survive.
And the worst part of it is that they’re very hard to kill.
Usually, the first signs of fall are visual: the leaves on trees start to redden, the fall asters begin blooming, and the sun is at a noticeably lower angle.
But sometimes you can hear the onset of fall.
Today at The Faith Cafe we could hear the sound of Canada geese honking at each other as they flew overhead, preparing to fly south for the winter. They’ll fly to warmer climes in their iconic V-formation, honking the whole trip.
But why do they honk at one another as they undertake their momentous journey, and why fly in a V-shape at all?
The lessons geese can teach us have long been used in leadership seminars, but I think they apply to our Christian walk as well.
Flowers speak. Not just through their fragrance or their beauty, but with secret codes, too.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the “language of flowers” popular during Victorian times? This enchanting symbolic language enabled suitors to send coded messages to their paramours, ones that couldn’t be spoken aloud. The message depended on the particular flowers and colours chosen for the bouquet. An entire conversation could be carried out solely through flowers, with no words employed at all.
We all know that red roses symbolize true love, and we’d rightly guess that the forget-me-not begs that the giver be remembered. But did you know the following flower meanings?
Red carnation: My heart aches for you Hyacinth: Your loveliness charms me Canterbury bell: Your letter received Yellow rose: Jealousy Butterfly weed: Let me go Weeping willow: Sadness
The Victorian language of flowers is a cryptic tongue. Most people only see the surface of the flower and not the symbolic meaning hidden within it.
God has His own “language of flowers,” but it actually encompasses all of creation. God is continually speaking to us through nature:
“For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.” (Romans 1:20 NLT)
“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship.” (Psalm 19:1 NLT)
If we listened in to what nature was saying about its Creator, what messages would be revealed?