Be Merry: The Tide Has Turned

Galaxy sky star with trees sillouette

In 1948, C.S. Lewis published a poem called, “The Turn of the Tide.” In it, he imagines the cosmic significance of Christ’s birth.

Rest assured, the tide has turned. It might not feel like it, but feelings lie. Oh sure, we’re still in these long last days and I’m still one of the poor orn’ry people—but about 2020 years ago the tide turned.

Because what happened in Bethlehem did not stay in Bethlehem.

It was never intended to stay there. In fact, it reached the highest heavens. Breathless was the air over Bethlehem. When the Virgin gave birth to a son the galaxies tingled and rocked.

But it also reached the lowest shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that night and it penetrates into our little house in some big Wisconsin woods in these Covid-19 days.

The Turn of the Tide

I read the poem aloud to three teenage boys in that little house this afternoon. At least two out of three at half-listened. I hope you enjoy it at least twice as much as one of three did.

Breathless was the air over Bethlehem. Black and bare
Were the fields; hard as granite the clods;
Hedges stiff with ice; the sedge in the vice
Of the pool, like pointed iron rods.
And the deathly stillness spread from Bethlehem. It was shed
Wider each moment on the land;
Through rampart and wall into camp and into hall
Stole the hush; all tongues were at a stand.
At the Procurator’s feast the jocular freedman ceased
His story, and gaped. All were glum
Travellers at their beer in a tavern turned to hear
The landlord; their oracle was dumb.
But the silence flowed forth to the islands and the North
And smoothed the unquiet river bars
And levelled out the waves from their revelling and paved
The sea with cold reflected stars.

Where the Caesar on Palatine sat at ease to sign,
Without anger, signatures of death,
There stole into his room and on his soul a gloom,
And his pen faltered, and his breath.
Then to Carthage and the Gauls, past Parthia and the Falls
Of Nile and Mount Amara it crept;
The romp and war of beast in swamp and jungle ceased,
The forest grew still as though it slept.
So it ran about the girth of the planet. From the Earth
A signal, a warning, went out
And away behind the air. Her neighbours were aware
Of change. They were troubled with a doubt.

Salamanders in the Sun that brandish as they run
Tails like the Americas in size
Were stunned by it and dazed; wondering, they gazed
Up at Earth, misgiving in their eyes.
In Houses and Signs Ousiarchs* divine
Grew pale and questioned what it meant;
Great Galactal lords stood back to back with swords
Half-drawn, awaiting the event,
And a whisper among them passed, ‘Is this perhaps the last
Of our story and the glories of our crown?
–The entropy worked out?–The central redoubt
Abandoned? The world-spring running down?
Then they could speak no more. Weakness overbore
Even them. They were as flies in a web,
In their lethargy stone-dumb. The death had almost come;
The tide lay motionless at ebb.

Like a stab at that moment, over Crab and Bowman,
Over Maiden and Lion, came the shock
Of returning life, the start and burning pang at heart,
Setting Galaxies to tingle and rock;
And the Lords dared to breathe, and swords were sheathed
And a rustling, a relaxing began,
With a rumour and noise of the resuming of joys,
On the nerves of the universe it ran.
Then pulsing into space with delicate, dulcet pace
Came a music, infinitely small
And clear. But it swelled and drew nearer and held
All worlds in the sharpness of its call.
And now divinely deep, and louder, with the sweep
and quiver of inebriating sound,
The vibrant dithyramb** shook Libra and the Ram,
The brains of Aquarius spun round;
Such a note as neither Throne nor Potentate had known
Since the Word first founded the abyss,
But this time it was changed in a mystery, estranged,
A paradox, an ambiguous bliss.

Heaven danced to it and burned. Such answer was returned
To the hush, the Favete, the fear
That Earth had sent out; revel, mirth and shout
Descended to her, sphere below sphere.
Saturn laughed and lost his latter age’s frost,
His beard, Niagara-like, unfroze;
Monsters in the Sun rejoiced; the Inconstant One,
The unwedded Moon, forgot her woes.
A shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth
went gliding. Her bonds were released.
Into broken light a breeze rippled and woke the seas,
In the forest it startled every beast.
Capripods fell to dance from Taproban to France,
Leprechauns from Down to Labrador,
In his green Asian dell the Phoenix from his shell
Burst forth and was the Phoenix once more.

So death lay in arrest. But at Bethlehem the bless’d
Nothing greater could be heard
Than a dry wind in the thorn, the cry of the One new-born,
And cattle in stall as they stirred.

C.S. Lewis, Poems, edited by Walter Hooper, 1992, pp. 49-51.

The After Effects

I’ve never imagined how it would feel to be a galaxy—Bowman or Crab, Libra or Ram— or even a planet of moon. But I’m glad Lewis did.

Because there must have been a ripple effect—a pulsing sound into space and even into forest and seas—when One babe was born. Maybe a shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth.

It’s easier for me to imagine that- the after effects on earth. Because a shiver sounds a lot like a thrill of hope and a weary world rejoicing though, doesn’t it?

And because every single day I feel the after-effects of the Babe born, the Son given. I live and love, I confess and forgive, and whenever I joyfully press on, it’s because of the coming of the One. It’s all because of the birth that arrested death.

Oh, yes. All these pulses and ripples and shivers and thrills and all this joyful music must mean the tide has turned.

The Tide Has Turned

A few years later, another famous Inkling, was also writing about the turn of the tide.  

‘Gandalf,’ the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word. ‘Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.’ He stepped down from the rock, and picking up his grey cloak wrapped it about him: it seemed as if the sun had been shining, but now was hid in a cloud again. ‘Yes, you may still call me Gandalf,’ he said, and the voice was the voice of their old friend and guide. ‘Get up, my good Gimli! No blame to you, and no harm done to me. Indeed my friends, none of you have any weapon that could hurt me. Be merry! We meet again. At the turn of the tide. The great storm is coming, but the tide has turned.’

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, 1956

The Child was born and the Son was given—unto us. The tide turned when the majestic glory of the King of the Universe was revealed in a Babe laying in a manger in Bethlehem.

And I’d be surprised if the galaxies didn’t dance.

So feel free. Be merry!

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.

Isaiah 9:6-7

We await our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ

Titus 2:13

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
    and turns deep darkness into the morning
    and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
    and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name…

Amos 5:8

 *metaphysical ruler

**a wild choral hymn of ancient Greece

Condescending: Seriously Bad & Gloriously Good

Baby feet in cloth

Ooh. That sounded condescending, I confessed seconds after using the phrase, “So cute.” The topic? Christmas decor.

What does condescending mean? asked the 13 year-old son.

Like you’re God’s gift to the people you’re with. I paused, As if they’re beneath you and you’re so great to get on their level and give them the time of day.

Oh, he said.

I didn’t tell him the Latin part.  

Condescending Is Seriously Bad

I can be condescending. The bad way—the smug, snooty, Seriously?! way. The, How could you not know that? way. I don’t say it. But sometimes I think it. And thinking it even once is too often for a child of God.

But I begin to think how good it is of me to “go low” and help someone “up.” Even with “so cute” Christmas decor. That thought betrays my pride. For humility is not thinking less of yourself, Lewis said, it’s thinking of yourself less. Jesus said, Don’t let your left hand know.

Bad condescending is bad not only because it’s proud, but because it lacks sympathy. I condescend the bad way when I feel like the people I’m “gracing” with my insight or presence should know better or know more or fear less and trust more.

I’m not alone in that mire. Even the great preacher C.H. Spurgeon confided,

There are distresses to which God’s people are subject with which their fellow Christians can have but little sympathy. Some Christians whom I have tried at times to comfort, have had fears so silly that I have felt more inclined to laugh at them than to console them.

I must have more sympathy to condescend the good way. Because there is a good way.

Aunt Merriam says to condescend means 1: to assume an air of superiority, 2: to descend to a less formal or dignified level; to waive the privileges of rank. Number one is bad. Number two is the good.

Now here’s that Latin part. Condescendere comes from the Latin words con- which means ‘with’ or ‘together’ + descendere which means to ‘descend’ or ‘come down.’

A question for us: When we descend to be with another, is it with love and sympathy or pride and superiority?

Condescending Is Gloriously Good

The God way is the good way. Philippians 2, verses 6 and 7 explains the “good” condescension so beautifully,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 

Do you see it? Almighty God condescends to us, not by reminding us of our smallness and neediness, but rather by stooping down to make us great. The All Wise God who does great things beyond our understanding speaks to the creature in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, the Word made flesh. The Holy God in whom there is no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.

Have you ever sung that old hymn “Come, Christians, Join To Sing,” by C.H. Bateman? Here’s the second verse:

Come, lift your hearts on high,
Alleluia! Amen!
let praises fill the sky;
Alleluia! Amen!
he is our Guide and Friend;
to us he’ll condescend;
his love shall never end.
Alleluia! Amen!

Did you see it again? God’s condescending love is worthy of our praise. God’s is gloriously good condescension; his condescension is free from pride and full of sympathy. Spurgeon—and I— know that even when we are unsympathetic and condescend in the bad way, our God in not like us. Thank God he is not like us.

Now our God is so tender and gentle that He even condescends to deal with our silly fears…His gentleness shows itself in His being afflicted in our afflictions and entering into our sorrows, and putting Himself side by side with us in the battle of spiritual life.

C.H. Spurgeon, Divine Gentleness ackknowledged

Condescension like that makes me want to worship Christ the newborn King. Oh yes our God condescends.

And not just to the whole wide world, but to sinful, needy you and sinful, needy me.

God Condescends

Fourteen years ago last month, I made a once in a lifetime announcement. With Jim’s family gathered around to say grace before Thanksgiving dinner, I asked if I could recite a Psalm.

It was Psalm 13, a condescension Psalm.

Who is like the Lord our God,
    the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
    on the heavens and the earth?

He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

he seats them with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
He settles the barren woman in her home
    as a joyful mother of children.


The Lord who is enthroned on high nevertheless stooped to look down upon me. He was mindful of my humble estate. After ten years of barrenness, he remembered me. He came down with me and lifted me from the heap.

The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianiy

But our Lord condescends in everyday ways too. Today he gave me peace in conflict and strength to forgive again. Then he allowed a cancelled session which gave me time to finish a report. In big and small ways, God stoops down.

But He did it biggest at Christmas.

Christmas Is About Condescension

I think C.S. Lewis saw it that way. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body, he wrote. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. (Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 5)

That condescending conversation in the van last night brought this song to mind in the morning. You might like it.

Who but God would send his Son
To condescend and make himself the likes of a mere mortal man

For in the end, condescend is one of the sweetest, most Christmasy words I know. It’s why we stretch Advent out. Because in the incarnation, God did way more than just come down and give us a hand. More than just step out of his castle for an evening of revelry with his serfs at Ye Olde Pub. Oh, no. Infinitely more.

He became one of us. He took on our weakness, sympathized with our weakness and bore our sin. The Creator became a creature. Like us becoming slugs but far more shocking. Who would condescend like this?

All glory be to Christ. Who but God.

Who is like the Lord our God,
    the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
    on the heavens and the earth?

Psalm 113:7

Bad Infection & Good Infection

The infected earth wears a mask.

Something bad happened, Mom. You don’t want to know.

So ended our easy Saturday morning.

do want to know, Gabe, I assured, kneeling before him.

Then my seven year-old showed me two of the most obscene gestures I’d ever seen. The sun went dark.

But ever the prisoner of hope, I thought: Maybe they’re only meaningless motions to him. Innocent-like when he’d use his third digit to point.

Alas: This one means a boy is…And that other one is what a girl does…

Test positive. Gabe was infected.

Exposure

The boy who watches G was exposed to X, or R at least. The son with the sensitive eyes- the son who won’t watch Wallace and Gromit for “weirdness,” and who covers his ears to block the voice of a Talking White Rabbit-this son saw that. He heard that.

My heart crashed into my gut. Then, in the hush I asked,

Gabe, where did you learn that? Who showed you that?

Wide blue eyes to mine. Earnest, sober voice to me:

It was Evan, Mom, on the bus. I shouldn’t be his friend anymore. And a big boy-he showed Evan. He told me what it meant. But I don’t know his name. He doesn’t go to my school. 

That’s how Gabe got infected and his tender mind was tainted. It’s how his innocence was lost.

Bad Infection

Actually, Gabe’s innocence wasn’t lost by the vile words and vulgar gestures of a big boy on the bus. It actually happened way before that.

Because neither Gabe, nor any of us, has ever been truly been innocent. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, Israel’s sweet, sin-stained, Psalmist wrote. Babies aren’t blank slates and children aren’t cherubs.

Apostle Paul knew and in our heart of hearts, we it too: we’re all infected with sin’s dread disease. Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12).

We’re all carriers and one day we’ll all die of it. Sin is a bad infection.

But there is another kind.

Good Infection

In Mere Christianity (Book IV, Chapter 4) C.S. Lewis wrote about infections. Not all infections, he asserts, are bad.

Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them…

Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ…We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has–by what I call ‘good infection’.  Every Christian infected is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else. 

This is the good infection- that we may share the life of Christ. That we may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:10).

And we ‘little Christs’ can spread this good infection, this loving life of Christ, to those infected with the bad.

Prayers For Carriers

That exposure came 5 years ago. A couple years later there was that online scare with the 12 year-old. And just this morning there were texts too ugly to show my husband. Contamination, exposure, infection. So we pray.

We pray that, though both sons were exposed and, like their parents carry the bad infection, God will keep keep them largely symptom-free. We pray they won’t infect others with this brand of the sin disease, and that they’ll be able to be sensitive to the Spirit and to resolve each day not to set of before their eyes any worthless thing (Psalm 101:3); that they will be wise to what is good and innocent to evil (Romans 16:19-20). We pray that this disease won’t keep spreading, that it’ll stay in remission.

And today when I jogged by Evan’s house I prayed for him too. For Evan and the big boy on the bus who infected him all those years ago. I prayed that they will know Jesus so that they too can be healed.

Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who infect us with theirs. Please use us to spread your “good infection,” too. Help us to live in love like you. Amen.

For in Adam all die, so also in Christ will all be made alive.

1 Corinthians 15:22

5 (Fruitful) Truths For (Imperfect) Friends

Friends sitting at table
Friends Who Fit Me

Even though no zig-zagged, half-heart BFF charm has ever graced my neck, I really love my friends. I’ve been given some great ones. Lately, I’ve been thinking how much my friends fit me.

I mean how they shape, form, fit and transform me. I’m learning. 

Truth #1: No one likes jealous, clingy friends. Enjoy a bunch of (imperfect) friends.

My jealous bone came out in 6th grade when my friend Jill spent the night at Teresa’s without me. I pouted. Then Mom’s sage advice clicked: being clingy will drive friends away.

If you think of yourself as a needy, leaky love tank waiting to be filled, you’ll probably stay that way. You won’t have many friends. Mom’s advice made sense and I stopped pouting and soon Jill – and Teresa- were both my friends.

But I still try to take mom’s advice to heart. I get it about how if you love someone, set them free and if they come back they’re yours and if they don’t they never were. That.

But I’m not too proud to say I need friends. A bunch of friends. Because no one soul can bear the load of me, and no one friend can meet all my needs. Friendships flourish when we don’t expect all from one. 

Paul knew this too. He had a big bunch of imperfect friends. 

Truth #2: No one outgrows the need for (imperfect) friends. Not even saints.

For the last month, I’ve been studying the last half of the last chapter of the last epistle that Saint Paul wrote. Paul who wrote the magnificent theology of Romans 8 and set the doctrinal record straight.

But do you know what was on Paul’s mind at the end of his life? His friends. His fickle, deserting, imperfect friends.

Paul ends his second letter to Timothy with mention of no fewer than 17 friends (18 if you count Timothy and 20+ if you count “the brothers”). Verses earlier, Paul wrote those triumphant words, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. He spoke about the crown of life  that the Lord would award him. You’d think that would be the end.

But it wasn’t.

Paul eagerly- desperately?-wanted to see his friends. Do your best to come to me soon…Luke alone is with me (4:9,11). Paul was a spiritual guy. He’d already been caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). He knew what it was to set his mind on things above and not on earthly things (Col. 3:2). 

And Paul really wanted to see his friends: Jesus- soon, Timothy- now.

Truth #3: You can love Jesus and (imperfect) friends. It makes both loves sweeter. 

John Stott explains how these two desires, to be with Jesus and to be with our friends, are not incompatible.

One sometimes meets super-spiritual people who claim that they never eel lonely and have no need for friends, for the companionship of Christ satisfies all their needs. But human friendship is the loving provision of God for mankind. (John Stott, Message, 120)

In other words, if you say you’re beyond the need for human friends- maybe because you’ve been burned by friends- you’re beyond the Bible. Paul had been burned. Paul was deserted by his friends at his first defense in Rome, but said, “May it not be counted against them!” (2 Tim. 4:16) 

(Have I mentioned yet that our friends won’t be perfect? That they will fail us even as we fail them. They will hurt us and we will hurt them. Count on it. There will be the giving and taking of wounds. But that needn’t end our friendships. It’s par for the course. In fact Jesus made Peter- as in Peter denied the Lord and cried Peter- his Rock to build his church.)

Commenting on Paul’s words at the end of 2 Timothy, John Piper clinches the point:

Don’t feel you must choose between the supreme love and delight you have in Jesus and the pleasures of Christian friends… The joy of a Christ-centered friendship is meant to magnify the worth of Christ as the common treasure of the friendship and this deepens the sweetness of the friendship.

Because maybe behind our choices, it’s God who chooses our friends. And because He does use (imperfect) friends who fail us to shape us into Christ’s faithful friends.

Truth #4: God shapes us through our (imperfect) friends. Welcome the rub. 

We are the friends we keep: the faithful and the unfaithful, the timid and the bold, the new and the old. We need them all. Failing friends, failing kids, failing wives can still be our friends- our  sweet friends, John Piper says. God brings them into our lives and they all play a part in the people we become.

God works in us through the friends he gives us.

A few weeks ago a friend told me how she’d asked another friend if there were any “blind spots” in her. That question is not for the faint of heart. But, if she could do it, I could too, and an hour later I asked her the same of me. What she said is another post and I’m not recommending you do the same. But I am suggesting that you have you’re close enough to others to feel loves frets and rubs– divine sandpaper on our rough spots, if you will.

Sometimes that hurts, but it need not be painful. Being with a soft-spoken friend helps me to speak more gently. Time with a big-hearted friend makes me want to be more generous. Being with a self-controlled friend makes it easier to skip bedtime snacks. Sanding me smooth. 

But most spiritual growth is slow. Sometimes we don’t recognize the tools. We might even ask, God, how are you actually working in me?

In Chapter 7 of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis gives this memorable answer. 

…[It] is rather like the woman in the first war who said that if there were a bread shortage it would not bother her house because they always ate toast. If there is no bread there will be no toast. If there were no help from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings. He works on us in all sorts of ways...He works through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences…

Now here’s the kicker:

But above all, He works on us through each other… Men are mirrors, or ‘carriers’ of Christ to other men… That is why the Church, the whole body of Christians showing Him to one another, is so important.

We need friends because they are one of God’s choice tools to transform us to be like Jesus.

Truth #5: (Imperfect) Friends fit us for heaven. And we are fit with them. 

As I write, we’re deep into the Advent season.  And the Advent is about preparing Him room. It’s about making space for the Savior.

But this year, as I shop and bake and wrap and read it’s dawning on me that Someone else is doing the lion’s share of preparing. For all the thoughtful stocking stuffing and gift wrapping he does, I don’t mean Jim.

All this while, Christ is preparing us, fitting us. He is rebuilding our ramshackle houses, transforming our stinky stables, and sanding our rough trim to make a fit throne room for the King.

The last line in Away in a Manger nails it: And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.

It strikes me that He might just be doing that through (imperfect) friends. 

In Him the whole building is fitted together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Ephesians 2:21-22