Starry skies call those who long for silence: leave the party, the mall, the jingle bell rock, the trivial TV. Step outside. Look up.
Robert Frost’s 1943 poem “Choose Something Like a Star” speaks to our position beneath the glittering skyscape. Alone beneath the stars the poet addresses “the fairest one in sight.” He admires its loftiness and obscurity, saying, “dark is what brings out your light.”
Not content to rest in his awe, he then begins interrogating the star in scientific terms (“Talk Farenheit! Talk Centigrade!). The poet begs the star to say something. It only says, “I burn.”
Yet Frost maintains that the star possesses a silent speech; it does “ask from us a certain height.”
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
Robert Frost lived for many years in Amherst, Massachusetts. When the town prepared for its 1959 bicentennial, they commissioned composer Randall Thompson to create a tribute to their beloved poet-citizen. Thompson chose seven of Frost’s poems for a song-suite known as Frostiana. Among them is “Choose Something Like a Star.” Thompson’s work takes the poem to even greater heights, soaring and then returning to the firm but hopeful position of the “staid.” It is a stunning piece.
I love “Choose Something Like a Star” and the choral work it inspired. The poem seems to summarize well the response of many contemporary souls facing the question of the existence of God. We’re awed by the mystery of creation and the longings of our own soul for contact with the divine. At the same time, we’re frustrated when the Almighty doesn’t produce the data we desire to verify his existence. He doesn’t speak in Centigrade. Nevertheless, we sense the invitation to choose, and in the choosing, we may find ourselves grounded amidst the vicissitudes of life, “staid.”
Beautiful as Frost’s contemplation is, that ragamuffin songwriter Rich Mullins, whose untimely death in 1997 gave the longings of his heart a wider audience than they might otherwise have had, takes me even higher. “Sometimes I think of Abraham,” he confesses in simple faith,”how one star he saw had been lit for me.”
Mullins places himself within the revelation of the personal, triune God by taking us back to an ancient time when people chose their own gods in an attempt to find happiness and peace. Under a starry sky, a childless old Mesopotamian walked in faith before a loving God who called him by name. To human sensibilities, Abraham was “as good as dead.” But he was also open to God, whose revelation, though not scientifically quantifiable, is observable in other ways. That night God made Abraham two promises. He would make of him a great nation through whom all nations of the world would be blessed. And he would give him descendants, as many as the stars of the sky.
The fulfillment of that promise was a long time coming. But faith waits with a “conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11). Centuries later, God sharpened his promise to bless all people by revealing he would do so through the line of David, the shepherd-king. Gazing into a starry night, with an overflowing heart, David would commune with the God who made them. “When I see the heavens, the work of your fingers,” he marveled, “the moon and the stars that you set in place, what is man, that you are mindful of him?”
Mindfulness beyond mindfulness, the mysterious love of God.
Many more centuries later in another dark time, Herod, the king in Judea, reconstructed the Jerusalem temple on the site where David’s son Solomon had originally built it. A convert to Judaism (though not devout), Herod considered himself to be king of the Jews. But in Persia, a thousand miles away, magi known for their wisdom considered the stars.
One star convinced them that the King of the Jews was about to be born. They traveled to Jerusalem to worship him. “We have seen his star,” they told the unhappy king.
Through this star-signaled child, born in Bethlehem, “the city of David,” all nations would indeed be blessed. People from all nations who choose him are blessed with adoption as God’s own children, as God had told Abraham on that ancient, starry night. The mystery expands to us.
And the stars still call souls who long for silence: leave the party, the mall, the jingle bell rock, the trivial TV. We possess more scientific data about these blazing wonders than ever before, but data aside, stars still “ask of us a certain height.” Not to choose something like a star, but to choose Jesus Christ, whose birth was signaled by a star. Indeed, stars light up the darkness because they are “something like” the one who made them, the one who speaks through their silent beauty.
And “when at times the mob is swayed/To carry praise or blame too far,” as Frost wrote, the mystery of the stars silently invites us to choose their maker, signaled by a star, the true light of the world.
And, in the choosing, we will “be staid.”