Currently Reading: “Put Your Arms Around the City”

on my way to work every morning

I love this small black book, that smells really lovely, and was written by a pastor named  James Angell who lived in Los Angeles in the 1960s. His writing on living out his faith in the city really resonates with me.

“Most of us like the city. We like its motion and power, its hum and action, its universities, lights, and luxuries. If the city extracts its price in terms of frustration, impersonality, crime, fear of one another, and the high cost of getting the plumbing fixed, it also gives generously of itself in the form of a wider dimension of existence through a greater sweep across the scenery of life and opportunity, and a chance to explore and exploit life to the full. I hear voices saying that most of us love the city and intend to stay here, but help us. Help us not to be destroyed by its roar, its cleavages, its ruthlessness, its capacity for ugliness and killing, its suffocations and its potential for crushing that within us which is meant to be gentle and good.”- James Angell

I found this book on a cabin shelf at a Bible camp in northern Minnesota the summer after I graduated university and was making plans to move to Moscow. I remember reading it on the old plaid couch in that cabin, or outside on the grass, making thoughtful journal notes, and then curled up on a beach chair, watching the silver sunset over Pine Lake.

The first time I read it I was younger, more idealistic, and totally comfortable with myself. I had a mission mindset – getting excited to set off on my big life adventure to Russia, where I was going to rock big-city Moscow with God’s help.

Now I’m four years older, and I’ve had lots of God’s help, but it’s much more accurate to say big-city Moscow has rocked me, rather than me making any particular impression. I feel a bit like a crusty old veteran who’s been through the wringer here. Moscow, to be completely honest (if not grammatically refined), has kicked my butt!

So, my second read through this book, is that much more different than the first time around. This time I get much more excited about the grace offered to me in the city than the grace I have to offer the city. I know what the author means when he says:

“We found loneliness, too, and we went whole days without hearing our name pronounced once. We forgot there were seasons of the year because we were busy trying to survive. We were too tired on weekends to go to church. We had more money, but less love. We had no desire to return from where we came, but the city was often too much for us. As though something good inside us had disappeared or died.”  -James Angell

That’s the way I feel about Moscow sometimes – like I came here to do something good, to do God’s will, to help people, but the city was just too much for me. Instead of offering a blessing, I’ve been too tired and angry to care about anyone other than myself. I came to offer help, but I just found out how much help I needed myself.

view out the elektrichka window

So reading this book again, I’m drawn in a different way to the simple truths in the book about loving people, stepping outside your comfort zone into someone else’s life, finding beauty in God’s strong, quiet goodness around you, reveling in the bizarre idiosyncrasies that a mega-metropolis likes to throw at you, and the joy in making your life one of wonder at God’s renaissance in you, in the world, and despite all your stubbornness. 

This time through the book I see it’s not what I bring to the city, but what God brings to me out of the city. I thought I was coming here to bless, but God actually blessed me in a way I never thought possible – through difficulties and weakness. 

flowers for sale

“Another part of the beauty secret has to do with weakness, with the cross. When anything is perfectly executed we shout, ‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’; yet, we too, are often more beautiful in failure than in success. We want to do everything correctly, to be controlled and neatly self-sufficient. Then things all went to hell. The house collapsed, and we stood there in dirty, helpless ashes. Suddenly we were beautiful.” -James Angell

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