Before Cultivating became a website or a blog, it was first an idea that became a way of life.
The real beginning of Cultivating happened a long time ago when my life conditions were very different than what they are now. At that time I was a very young mother, an addict and alcoholic, and we had just reached the place I most feared. We were homeless.
Purely by the grace of God, we landed at a social service agency offering temporary shelter to families recently displaced. We had nothing much more with us than the clothes we were wearing and a change of clothes for the children and I had my Bible. Many of the details of that time are lost now from memory but a few things remain clear. The beds were clean. The people were kind. There was a stove and refrigerator. We were allowed to stay for the weekend. The place I had most feared ending up turned out to be a place of extraordinary grace.
The most extraordinary thing though about that time and place was not the shelter itself or the circumstances that brought us there. It was a box of food left for us anonymously. That box of food changed the trajectory of my life. It had food and diapers, soap and toothpaste and toothbrushes. It was mercy made tangible. But most astonishing part of it was the note that came with it. It was written on an 8 ½ by 11 sheet of plain white paper folded in thirds on top with our family name on the outside. I opened it up and all it said on the inside is this:
“I know the plans I have for you”, says the Lord; “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” ~ Jeremiah 29.11
Those Words spoke into me in ways even to this day I cannot fully explain. I understood in them the pure and true Word of God – full of power, agency, truth, and certainty – was delivered personally and permanently to me. They were given to me. A lost girl. They were more than comforting or consoling. They were the beginning point of restoration. They were a promise given by Someone Who never broke a promise. They were light on the horizon in the dark, dark night. Those words broke an evil spell over me – a spell of disease, despair, and destitution. It has taken years to work out the ‘plans and purposes, the good and not evil, the future and a hope’, the curse at work before was broken here – in a temporary shelter for a destitute, addict young mother and my 4 children.
I kept that piece of paper and later framed it. I have carried it first into every place I have ever lived since. It hangs in my office today, just the way I first framed it in its cheap, garage sale frame.
Terrible things happened in the years that followed. But so did good and beautiful things.
And the long unfolding trend has been goodness prevailing over evil, like dawn simply prevails over night. Day in and day out, I have witnessed God keeping that promise and fulfilling those plans. Plans for good and not for evil, to give me a future and a hope.
Now what does all that have to do with Cultivating?
At the core of Cultivating is the work of restoration. Restoration is a long work, not something done quickly or effortlessly. It requires patience, commitment, and courage – the courage to choose good in small, habitual ways everyday – bravely – again and again. It is about a long walk of small daily choices based on believing a promise that good prevails over evil, beauty conquers despair, truth is never broken, and love is stronger than death.
Everything good, beautiful, loving, true; everything worth having, defending, and keeping – whether it is sobriety, a healed family, wealth by any measure, or a good life – comes through a process of accumulation. Accumulation is a process of choosing. Wholeness itself is a process. It only comes by choosing it, choosing what is good in small, repeated, generally unglamorous and unexciting ways.
Very early in my recovery I read Deuteronomy 30.19-20.
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him. For the Lord is your life, and He will give you many years in the land He swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” ~ Deuteronomy 30.19-20
Here is God, the God I knew personally who had saved me in my time, telling His own people long, long ago to choose life in their time. I understood that call to life on a very elemental level. I understood that ‘choose’ was an on-going choice, not a one-time act, and I understood that He was telling me to do the same. That command came with a promise of life and blessing, not just for me but for my children, too. The Words spoke all the way to my bones. I understood that command to choose life implied that I could also choose death. I saw people in my family system choose that way. I had too, until I cried out broken and lost for salvation. In that verse I saw the call to hold fast to Him. Nothing and no one else.
“What we hold to, holds to us.”
I knew that as an addict, and I learned it deeper as a free woman. What I choose to believe and to hold to has always been stronger than any other power or circumstance.
Later when I read Philippians that deep, core truth for me about holding fast found its echo in Philippians 4.8-9
“Finally, believers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually on these things [center your mind on them, and implant them in your heart]. The things which you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things [in daily life], and the God [who is the source] of peace and well-being will be with you.”
~ Philippians 4.6-9, Amplified Bible (AMP)
Paul could have said whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is beautiful … think continually on these things. Hold fast to them.
Later still I read C.S. Lewis’s sermon, The Weight of Glory, and came to this famous passage.
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. … Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
“All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”
That line spoke to me much like the verses in Deuteronomy and Philippians. It still does. ‘Haunts me’ might be a fairer description. Every day by my own thoughts, choices, words, and actions, I am helping people to one or another of two destinations. Heaven or Hell. How that echoes with “Choose this day between life and death, the blessing and the curse.” And echoes with “Fix your thoughts on what is good, and true, lovely, noble, worthy of good report, … and the things you have seen me do, practice and model in your own lives. And the God of peace (shalom, well-being) will be with you.”
So how does that get us to Cultivating as a set of practices and as a quarterly online magazine?
All of that speaks to the soil in which Cultivating is rooted and out of which it grows.
Eleven years ago, I found myself irresistibly drawn toward blog sites, attracted in part by the power of being able to “publish” writing without having to be commercially viable enough to pass through the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. In 2007 I launched a tiny personal blog called Cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. In the years that followed I wrote, posted images, learned website craft, took a dozen classes, and read piles of books about online publishing. And during those years, I was blessed to travel extensively; some for work, some for family and missions; much for conferences and workshops, especially the C.S. Lewis Foundation. I became a speaker and teacher in conferences, teaching the life of imagination integrated with faith and reason. Cultivating grew as a vision through that decade and so did I.
The emergence of The Cultivating Project
Cultivating went through five major re-designs from 2007 to 2018; every time it became more pruned, more refined, more focused, more true to its calling. I worked with four different designers, one of whom become one of my dearest friends. Somewhere quietly along the way, Cultivating became no longer just a personal blog of mine, but a gathering place for other voices in addition to mine. It began to foster collaboration! It became less about me encouraging other isolated artists and promoting their work, and quietly became more of a welcoming house – much like a thriving house church. A deeply held concern for discipling writers expanded into concern for discipling artists in other disciplines. I started teaching a workshop called Calling to the Arts. The responses startled me. They also thrilled me! So much longing has been expressed by both men and women in those sessions amplifying the need for acknowledging the need to nurture believers engaged in the arts and foster our growth in spiritual maturity and creative excellence.
In the months that followed the first Calling to the Arts workshop, I wrestled with my own calling, the purpose of Cultivating and whether I should even go on. Perhaps I should have seen it coming, but I did not. I began to hit a breaking point internally. I could not write. I could not post. I could not photograph or process images. A silence took over me. Not the peaceful kind in the deep presence of God. The other kind. The kind where words fail and hearts break. There probably is a proper and known term for it, but I do not know what it is. What I do know is I was paralyzed and I just couldn’t move anymore. I thought it was all over and that Cultivating had run its course and come to an end. I have never been more ready to quit, never felt less accomplished or less fruitful. Part of it was depression. Part of it was exhaustion. Part of it was grief (not the same thing as depression). Part of it was life change.
And part of it was calling, only I didn’t know that.
One of the attributes of calling is that it is often first experienced as discontent. And sometimes we don’t distinguish holy discontent – the kind of discontent that Hannah suffered in her longing for a child in the book of First Samuel, Chapter 1, from simple frustration. In 2017 my discontent became absolutely demanding through a longing for a certain kind of website, a website platform built for photographers that I saw late one night. It sang something to me and I could not stop thinking about it. I also could never again figure out where I saw it. But that late-night glimpse of a white screen background with images brilliantly displayed and text shining out crisp and elegant has never left me. I started positively craving it. I searched all over and could not find anything that exactly represented what I saw that night or what I could feel trying to emerge out of me.
I’m not proud to say this, but I think it is important to the story to tell it. In my growing frustration, I had my faithful designer redesign Cultivating to match another website I admired because I thought I should be like that. And even though my good designer did everything I had asked for, when I saw it, I knew it was wrong. It was the wrong design done for the wrong reasons. And it didn’t function right, ever.
My heart had failed. In trying to be credible (i.e. like other people), I had forgotten why I ever started Cultivating to begin with, forgotten what gave me joy in writing, and forgotten where to fix my focus.
Out of the seeds of failure something new is born
That “heart” failure on my part led to some hard soul-searching and out of that soul-searching a few clear points emerged. I had to come to terms with my limitations – health, work load, writing style. I had to account for my strengths and my weaknesses. And I had to remember my first loves. I had to remember what I had loved writing about in the beginning and what I loved photographing. What was it? Where did I find joy just for its own sake? What made my own heart take wings?
I love the seasons. I love the rainbow spectrum of colours associated with them. I love their rhythmic dance across this good, green earth. I love the changing of the landscape. I love the emblems of the seasons and the changing recipes to match.
I love the human face. I love it so much when I look at people my heart sometimes feels like it is breaking for the beauty I see there. Some of the happiest moments of my life have been photographing people for portraits and in processing those images. I am astonished by the wonder I see there.
I love typography. I get giddy over fonts. I have opinions about typographical design that I cannot yield. Some fonts move me till I’m nearly intoxicated while others appall me with their poor design and ugly presentation.
I love Scripture. I love the word of God. I love it in all its nuances and the wide spectrum of its translations. I love it in Amplified and love it in ESV. I love in the Tree of Life Version and in The Message. I love the way God sings to us across all time and all languages, all dialects and all states of our hearts.
I love music and movies, dance and drama, galleries and places to go. I love the wealth of media that God has given us to enjoy and learn from.
I the format of magazines – a selection of material gathered together to be enjoyed periodically as a collection.
When I could remember what I loved to begin with, and when I could turn off the voices of obligation and “shoulds”, I began to hear the call to change.
What I could hear in my own heart was the longing to create something I had always loved. A magazine. A quarterly magazine framed by the seasons themselves. An online quarterly magazine whose material changes every season just like print magazines, and with an audience of believers engaged in the arts, working to live whole lives integrating faith, reason, and imagination.
Every decision that has been made since coming to that remembrance, has led to the creation of Cultivating in this new format. All the costly struggle to become something new – this process so like a little caterpillar crawling into its stage of transformation and so many dark nights later emerging to Spring and taking flight in its new form – has led to this.
Cultivating – the seasonal practices of goodness, truth, & beauty.
One of my favourite quotes from C.S. Lewis captures precisely how I feel about what Cultivating is becoming.
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that he is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.”
So here we are, friends. A new day, a new season, a new shape, a new place to practice Cultivating. Thank you, every one of you, who has weathered this journey with me. Thank you for your prayers, your support, and your good company. Let’s cultivate something so beautiful and breathtaking this weary world remembers where we came from, where we are going, and what it is to live better in both those worlds!
Cultivating at its heart is a story of restoration. It is about the power of hope to fuel courage – the courage to choose good in small, habitual ways everyday – bravely – again and again. It is about a long walk of small daily choices based on believing a promise that good prevails over evil, beauty conquers despair, truth is never broken, and love is stronger than death.
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner based in Colorado. She is editor-in-chief of the online quarterly magazine Cultivating the Good, True, & Beautiful, and is founder of The Cultivating Project, a discipling initiative for Christians engaged in the arts. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is passionate about the spiritual formation and discipling creative believers. She and her husband Peter run a thriving environmental and engineering firm and try to keep up with their rambling house and gardens called House on the Way. Lancia loves nearly every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis; drinks strong black coffee with whipped coconut oil and cinnamon; and sincerely hopes in her lifetime to reach zero in her inbox!