Cultivating the Kingdom in Our Midst is a column that invites readers to look for “eye-level” signposts of God at work: shots of beauty that accost us during ordinary hours, scenes of “low art” that unexpectedly make us cry, details right in front of our faces that awaken us to the mercy that bears us up day after day. We’ll explore the underlying truths that are often first signaled by our tender silence or our wondering tears, the better to see the evidence of Christ’s present and approaching reign all around us.
There’s nothing like becoming a scholar of something you love to make you doubt that there was anything magical about it in the first place.
In February of 2021, I was preparing to write a book about an ache caused by signposts of joy —those instances of “inconsolable longing”  that seem to give us a glimpse of healed wholeness, of an almost unbearable measure of beauty spilling over the threshold of eternity to our place on the homeward path now. Such moments had stood out to me since I was young, and I looked forward to revisiting the songs, settings, book passages, and events through which they had come.
But even as I thought over these memories, I wondered at times if the signposts had truly been signposts as I walked by them on my journey.
Was it possible they were merely old roadside stumps, glorified only by the hindsight of an overly empathetic soul? Could the inconsolable longing itself simply be a theme that one man had written of, long ago, which I adopted because I wanted the comfort of a tinted lens over life’s starker reality?
Having nowhere else to turn, I asked these questions of the Lord as I began to write.
One afternoon, during a break, I came across a video of an ice dancing routine from the 2018 Olympics. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s “Moulin Rouge” performance married movement and music from their first steps, and I was captivated by the dance—I, who as a little girl had always declared ice dancing to be the boring sport-sibling to the axels and throws of figure skating. The facial expressions, the timing of the major elements, and the multifaceted harmony of the two dancers imparted to me what I can only describe as a sense of rightness, of “decorum” in the old sense of “beauty arising from fitness, or from the absence of the incongruous; comeliness; grace; gracefulness.”  By the end of the song, my perspective refreshed, I felt as though I had looked through a window into an artistry that might be possible for all the restored people of the new creation someday. Here was another signpost.
Afterwards I looked over a document I had begun long ago. At the top was a paragraph from a post by my friend Carrie Givens, who had attended a session by Andrew Peterson and Russell Moore at Hutchmoot. Moore and Peterson had discussed Frederick Buechner’s injunction to “listen to your life”  and suggested—as one possible approach—paying attention to the moments when we cry without knowing why. I’d taken this advice quite seriously, and started a running list.
The items in that document were my mysteries. Though I’d been moved by some works of “high art” in my life—the kind by which one expects to be enthralled or transported—there were other unexpected encounters that left me perplexed. Many of these I termed “low art” to myself, because of the way they met me at eye-level in everyday or motherhood moments. Flashes of joy-ache came through Disney movies, commonplace outings, and children’s books, ambushing me as if it was on a mission to search me out, and not the other way around.
When I consider these encounters now, after delving further into the nature of that joy-steeped yearning, I find I have not lost my awe at receiving them—but I am no longer surprised that they come through low avenues as well as high.
Jesus said plainly that the kingdom of God “is at hand” (Mark 1:15, ESV), that it “has come upon you” to the questioning Pharisees (Matt. 12:28, ESV), and even that it “is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21, ESV). He compared it to seed scattered on the ground (Mark 4:26-29, ESV), which brings to mind an observation that British gardener Monty Don once made: “Gardens that are carefully designed and then enacted by rote have no soul. To come truly alive things have to happen of their own accord, out of synch with the best-laid plans.”  The evidence of God’s present and approaching reign, like the flourishing of mustard seeds, crops up everywhere. The life and the beauty, the wholeness and the unfolding fulfillment of His promises bloom in our time like the earliest rays of a long-awaited sunrise.
I believe it’s worth paying attention to all the dawn-rays and signposts that greet us. I believe, as well, that each one embodies underlying truths about who we have been made and redeemed to be—and about “the immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7b, ESV).
These “eye-level” signposts, then, will be the subject of this column: the shots of beauty that accost us during ordinary hours, the scenes of “low art” that have made me cry, the details right in front of our faces that bear the potential to awaken us to a mercy that bears us up day after day. We will follow less-traveled trails of wondering tears as a means of noticing the kingdom in our midst—which is to say, we will look for the One who still meets His followers where they little expect to see Him.
 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1955), 238.
 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 72.
 The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971), s.v. “decorum.”
 Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation
 Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden: A Story of Despair and Redemption (London: Two Roads, 2018), chap. 1, Apple Books.
The featured image, “Reepicheep,” is courtesy of Jordan Durbin and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Amy Baik Lee writes from a desk looking out on a cottage garden, usually surrounded by children’s drawings, teacups, and stacks of patient books. She is a former scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Virginia, a sometime author of devotional short stories, and a current member artist of the Anselm Society. Ever seeking to “press on to [her] true country and to help others to do the same” (C.S. Lewis), she posts essays and stories about Homeward longing at Amy Baik Lee.
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