Photo credit: clarkmaxwell on Flickr
It’s a beautiful spring Sunday morning here in central Maryland. Cool, sunny, a little breezy. The rains that have been a continual backdrop for the past two weeks have finally ceded their hold to gorgeous blue skies. But it’s not a typical Sunday for us, because on a morning when most Christians are preparing for worship, getting the kids ready, having coffee, our family, along with most families at our church, stayed home.
No, it’s not a church split. No one is angry at anyone else. And the pastor still has his job. It’s just that on this particular Sunday, we took a different view of what it would look like if we worshiped God and loved our neighbors at the same time.
Some background: our church – Columbia Presbyterian – has been at our current location for a couple of decades. We have a large property, big parking lots, and between 500-600 in regular attendance on any given Sunday. We’re parked right in the middle of suburbia with neighborhoods and a very large park and lake right across the road. And that park and lake are an important part of the story.
For as long as we’ve been at this location, the Columbia Triathlon has been based out of that park. It’s big. a USA Triathlon-registered event, with many athletes, thousands of people. And on one Sunday morning in May every year, they all converge on that park and the surrounding neighborhoods to run, bike, swim, and to cheer for athletes. And all this is happening in a suburban neighborhood just about the time that our 500 worshipers are arriving for church across the street.
Imagine the traffic.
Imagine the parking nightmare.
Imagine the opportunities to love our neighbors.
The park has a few hundred parking spaces, but it’s not nearly enough. So race-goers end up parking anywhere they can – all throughout the neighborhood, clogging up suburban streets, blocking driveways.
A couple of years ago, we entered into a relationship with the Ulman Cancer Fund, the race sponsor, and offered up our building and parking lots for race registration and activities on Saturday. And a small team of dedicated servants show up early on race day every year to serve coffee to the pre-dawn spectators who gather in the park. But that parking problem persisted, and we were still fighting our way through the traffic just to get to our building on Sunday mornings.
It would have been easy to stew about it. But instead we decided to approach the race asking ourselves, “What would it look like for us to love our neighbors on race day?” We thought about their needs. We considered our own needs. We thought about God’s instructions to his people as they were exiled in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you.” And we arrived at a simple conclusion – loving our neighbors would mean opening up our parking lots on Sunday morning for race-goers, relieving the parking disaster in the neighborhoods around us, and welcoming athletes and spectators with joy. So for this one Sunday a year, we moved our morning worship service to the evening and most of us stayed home.
Small teams showed up to help direct traffic, welcome people, and cheer for athletes, of course. But the point was to keep the parking lots clear, so my family, along with most other families in the church spent the morning outside of our normal routine, even as we prepared for a worship service in the evening.
Are there critics of this decision? Sure. Sunday morning is traditional worship time in America, and for some, it didn’t seem right to “give in to the culture” by cancelling morning worship. But it wasn’t just a question of what was good for us as a congregation, but also what was good for the peace and prosperity of our community and its people. Self-sacrifice is at the heart of the gospel, after all. So today we’re loving our neighbors by welcoming athletes and offering a solution to a difficult neighborhood problem.
It’s not a perfect solution, by any means. I’m sure some confused visitors showed up for worship this morning and wondered what was going on. And some community members may not be all that comfortable with the church taking a definite role in this event. But we earnestly believe that we’re called to love our neighbors, and even to sacrifice our time and personal convenience for them. So, while it’s a little inconvenient to rearrange our church schedule, we taking a step towards service today, and gave our neighbors some breathing (and parking) room.