7.08.2008

SOMEWHERE AT THE BEGINNING OF SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN

I forget what I've posted and what I haven't, but here's the intro to a book I wrote in late 2003 called "Somewhere in Between: The Musings of A Newcomer to Urban Ministry." It's a compilation of 108 devotions written for urban Christians, with at least one for each book of the Bible. A lot's happened since then, but I could largely write the same thing today, especially the sense of being somewhere in between.

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Philadelphia, 1991. My dad and I are rumbling through West Philadelphia in our rental car, en route to the University of Pennsylvania at the beginning of my freshman year. I am literally wet behind the ears, having hastily left my aunt’s house that morning. My eyes and ears are ringing, as I adjust to the sensory overload that is the city: I take in horns blaring, intricate architecture, and the bombed-out shells of old buildings as we speed down Chestnut Street. The streets are buzzing with activity, a far cry from the staid setting of my suburban Northern California neighborhood. At that moment, I feel very far from home.

Who knew at the time that I would fall in love with Philadelphia during my four years at PENN, and give my heart forever to the city? After all, while cities intrigued me with their flavor and grittiness, they also repelled me with their dirtiness and decay. I held urban environments simultaneously in high regard and low regard. I loved the wealth of cultural assets and hated the aggregation of human depravity. I was drawn to the city’s rich personality and overwhelmed by its vivid flaws. I felt very much somewhere in between infatuation and disgust, between desiring to dive in headfirst and wanting to get out as soon as I could.

Thirteen years and counting later, I still feel very much somewhere in between.

There’s something about cities that provoke polar opinions. Some love their gritty character and can’t conceive of living anywhere else, while others hate their smelly filth and avoid setting foot there if it all possible. Some are disgusted by urban sinners and their bad choices, while others are equally disgusted by the evil systems that oppress and discriminate. Some think that what city folks really need is the gospel message and not social ministries, while others argue that the gospel message is social ministries.

Even if you’re a die-hard urban disciple, you may find yourself toggling between extremes. Is race no longer an issue, or the issue through which all of life should be viewed? Should the work be done by transplants or locals? And if I’m new to my city, why don’t I feel at home anymore in my old neighborhood, but I don’t yet feel at home in my new neighborhood?

It didn’t take long in my career in urban ministry to realize that if I wanted to achieve long-term happiness and sustainable effectiveness, I would need to navigate between such extremes. If I wanted to do right for myself in Philadelphia, I would have to learn how to live “somewhere in between.”

If you are reading this book, it is likely that you too have made or are about to make some sort of commitment to living and serving in an urban environment. Perhaps you are experiencing what I am experiencing. Like trapeze artists who have let go of one set of hands and haven’t yet grabbed onto another, we feel suspended in mid-air. And even it is but for a moment, and even if there is a big safety net below should we slip, still we feel the uneasiness of being “somewhere in between.”

But here’s where the analogy breaks down. Urban ministry is not the same as swinging on a trapeze. It is infinitely and eternally more important. I believe that God is calling a new generation of young disciples into urban ministry, and that not everybody is listening and obeying, to the detriment of their souls and their intimacy with God, and to the detriment of cities and city structures and city dwellers that need divine redemption. This is no sideshow entertainment; we’re talking about the eternal destinies of a generation of human souls and urban systems.

What I have written in these pages, I have written for myself as much as for anyone else. I too have heard the call, and too often I don’t listen or obey. I have lived in urban Philadelphia for well over a decade, and yet I still feel like a newcomer to city life. If anything, in my theology and my identity I feel even more “somewhere in between” than when I first dipped my toe in the pool of urban ministry.

My hope is that some of the confessions, observations, and exhortations contained in these pages will be of use to you in clarifying your understanding of urban discipleship, calling, and ministry. If you’re seeking a stylized view of the inner city from a successful urban minister, you’re holding the wrong book. If you’re looking for a guidebook of slick strategies and effective “best practices,” you won’t find much here. If you’re hoping to leave this book having more answers than questions, I’m afraid I might disappoint.

But if you seek another perspective on the sometimes lonely, sometimes confusing journey of urban discipleship; if you want to get past the sound bites of the extremists and their polar viewpoints; if you’re feeling “somewhere in between” but are committed to being faithful to God, hungry for a closer walk with Him, and attuned to His work in the world’s cities; then you might find something satisfying for your soul here. Read on, then, and muse with me about feeling somewhere in between as a newcomer to urban ministry.
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