There was an open air market last weekend in a slim little street about two minutes walk from my hall. White tents were wedged between old stone walls, with rickety tables perched shakily on the cobbles beneath, all piled with a wealth of local culinary and artistic wonders. The sky was awash in that high, pale sapphire of autumn with a rush of sunlight pouring cool and quick and fresh through the streets and crimsoned leaves. I tromped through it all on my morning walk and felt my inmost self wake, stretch, and quicken with the color and scent and fleet-foot wind.
An hour’s stroll midst the tents (combined with a crazy hunt for a cash machine) left me laden with fresh, seeded bread, a week’s worth of the best feta I have yet tasted, olives galore, and some baklava for tea. But I also cradled two jolly little mugs. Crafted by a local potter, one a rich, sea green and the other a smoky blue, they caught my eye the moment I spotted them waiting for me in their small, hobbitish way, with their delicate handles and sea-toned hues. For a month, I had been searching for just such a pair of mugs and the crown of that dappled day was to wrap them up and take them home.
I got them back to my fourth floor room, tucked the food away, and almost solemnly placed those two small mugs on the tea shelf I had waiting. I stood back. Glanced about my tiny space with its spare furniture and yellow-toned walls and crooked tiles by the tiny sink. A month ago this room had seemed to me spare and a little barren. Let’s be honest, student rooms often are. In my various adventures, I have encountered quite a few spaces like this one; walls battered with years of student occupation, the desk with a weary sag, the paint a bit faded, the furniture worn
There’s always a moment on the first day when this overwhelms me. Exhaustion kicks in, and the older I get, with my high ideals for life and beauty, the harder these moments become, when the absence – not just of family – but of order and art and color and cheer, sets a hollow, worried ache in my throat. It’s easy to let it simmer and grow into a hot mess of homesick desire or doubt of myself and my crazy life choices. It’s harder, but one of the best skills I’ve learned, to let that ache drive me to make home afresh in the unformed, unfilled spaces of a new life. In the beginning…. God created. And at every new juncture I find that in his grace, I too can call life from whatever void I find. In every new room, I can create a small world that reflects the beauty I know in his love.
That is, after all, what humans were meant to do in the first place. For most of my life, I’ve known the ringing words of the creation mandate in Genesis: “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” And for most of my life, I’ve understood that mandate as a broad, general command regarding agriculture and civilization and child bearing and big, human ideals that well, maybe one day I’ll embody more or less.
But as I have moved and explored and struggled to live God’s kingdom amidst unsettled days in a broken world, I’ve found that creation mandate to be something much more “down to earth.” The more I mull it, the more I encounter it as a challenge that invades the most ordinary of days.
The truth is that every day here on earth is a space waiting to be ordered. Every friendship is unformed ground waiting to be sown with love. Every child is a heart to be nourished, a mind to be formed. Every new room or house or moment is an empty space waiting for God to be made incarnate within it. The days we are given within this fallen world, the people we love, the work we do, are the tiny voids into which we speak creative life in the image of God. So I came to this little room four weeks ago, and knew it as my given space, my own corner of earth to nurture and nourish and order and rule, expressing in every particular the goodness of my God.
I rearranged every single piece of furniture so the room now cradles the light from the single window. I hunted down a Pre-Raphaelite poster, unrolled “The Song of the Lark” that I brought from home, and found a book of William Morris pattern postcards to line my walls. I stalked the charity shops until I found the one with numerous baskets on the cheap; I got a few old books, found a few old pots for flowers, and set out the teacup and tray and pictures I brought from home. I tweaked and sang and played classical music as I worked, and the only thing missing until last weekend was two mugs for tea, two cups representing the fact that whatever beauty I make here I deeply desire to share.
My sea-toned mugs were a crown and completion to my work because they enable me now to offer this small world in love.
In the end, my work in this tiny world of a room is my tribute to the Love that makes his home in me and so makes me at home in every place I sojourn. I work in the creative power of a new kingdom come, the one in which God himself takes up the trust we broke. The more I study the life of Christ, the more I see how Jesus took that ancient mandate on himself, completing and renewing the work we humans were crafted to accomplish. He comes among his people with healing in his hands, with laughter on his tongue, with life in his fingers. He orders, he fills, he brings that flourishing we long have desired. Where Jesus is, there is joy. There is new wine, and stories, and tales of wedding feasts. Life is quickened, feasts are laid, and old bones healed when Christ is present. For the quicksilver rumor of “the kingdom come” is the invitation not merely to salvation but to everything we always hoped the world would be.
Oh, I know its not here yet, but every act of ordering, creation, and love gestures to the world to come. Every table set and door opened and room turned from barrenness to beauty is an affirmation of all we believe to be true about the one day happy ending of the world. And you know, if there’s one thing I’ve seen in all these years of wandering, it’s this: where there is beauty, the life of Christ is plain. In countries where communism decimated the art and culture of a people, beauty speaks of a rich, ordering, newly creative God. Where isolation and autonomy are strong, a home just as strong in food and fellowship incarnates the God whose love is with us. Where distraction, despair, and anxiety are rampant, a space of cultivated quiet becomes a refuge in which people hear, sometimes for the first time, the still small voice of God.
So my room is ordered. My sea green mug and her smoky blue twin await a knock on the door. And here, for a fleeting moment, the world is as it was meant to be and the kingdom comes.
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.