Thursday, December 8, 2011
The Preacher’s Corner
Chicago church ‘works’ around marathon
Saturday was the running of the St. Jude Marathon in Memphis, Tenn., and a friend warned me that if I were traveling to the city, to be careful, for many of the streets would be blocked off. God bless all those energetic people who are willing to move their feet for St. Jude.
We who are not physicians or nurses often think we cannot do much for people in the hospital, but these people can run, and their effort makes us all think and search our hearts for ways we can help too. St. Jude has ministered to several people I know, and it is a cause very close to my heart.
When I lived in Chicago, the big Chicago Marathon went right down Michigan Avenue in front of our church. You never saw so many people all moving in one direction on foot at speed! These people would have made great “extras” for a remake of a Godzilla or King Kong movie!
But there was a lesson to be learned here, and I want to share it today.
The Chicago Marathon was on a Sunday morning, and as I say, it ran right in front of our church, which fronted on Michigan Avenue. The marathon divided downtown Chicago in half. If you lived on the west side of Michigan Avenue, you could get to our church with little trouble, entering through the rear doors.
But if you were on the east side of the marathon route, the only way to the church was to cross under Michigan Avenue via a little-known underpass a mile south of the church on Grand Avenue. Since the runners went by the church just before 11 a.m., it was a distraction to our activities to say the least. So church people groused.
One year, Dr. Jack Stotts, our preaching minister, forgot about the marathon and got caught on the wrong side of the street. Jack and his wife Virginia lived on the south side of Chicago, and were traveling up to the church about 10 a.m. By then it was wall-to-wall people. Jack and Virginia made their way up the sidewalk to the John Hancock Center, across from the church, and somehow got the attention of a policeman.
Jack pointed to his clerical collar with his right hand and to the church across the street with his left, and the policeman realized where he needed to be. So, with the policeman leading them, Jack and Virginia, holding hands, dodged their way through seven lanes of runners, and somehow made it over to the church so he could preach. Needless to say, they had a story to tell for the rest of their lives!
Of course, church attendance was down that day. Lots of people anticipated the same problems and just stayed home. That is what got us thinking. Here were thousands of people coming by the church, and the folks on the inside were allowing themselves to be frustrated and handicapped, thinking only of their personal inconvenience. What a lost opportunity!
So the next year, the church made plans. Worship was scheduled for an earlier hour, well before the marathon, and then when it was time for the race, everybody from the service gathered on the sidewalk in front of the church, and for a long city block, the runners saw banners that said things like, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7) and “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Members handed out water and Gatorade. Some dressed up and were cheerleaders. The youth ran alongside and offered words of encouragement. Some people brought their pets who barked words of encouragement. It was silly and fun!
Others had the church open for people who wanted to come in and rest, or just have a look around. Lots of people did. Even though hundreds of them probably rode by the church in their cars on the bus every day, this was perhaps the first time some of them had ever passed through its doors.
A building with the word “Presbyterian” on it can be intimidating, I suspect — given the terror it seems to strike in the hearts of store clerks and delivery people when I have to spell it for them. So also the words Methodist, Catholic, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Baptist and Episcopal, and all the other names we have that are so familiar to us, but so hard for others to spell or understand.
For the last many years too many churches have occupied themselves with what goes on within our stained glass, and cared (or, at least, appeared to care very little) for what goes on outside. I think people perceive (perhaps correctly) that we are more concerned with “who is worthy to get in” and with sorting out who conforms and does not conform to the standards of our belief and conduct. If true, how sad, but Jesus said, “Come unto Me, all ye…” (Matthew 11:28), not just the people whose lives can be displayed as examples of probity and perfection.
“Evangelism” is a word in terribly bad odor these days, and for good reason. If we redefined it as “hospitality,” and treated people, like we would want to be treated — not as problem to be solved but as a person to loved and understood — maybe we could get to know more new friends and they could get to know us, and perhaps also our Lord.
The good work churches do is wonderful. But others, like the marathon runners, do good also. It was a “life lesson” for me to see our Chicago church making common cause with them. We need to “see beyond” our stained glass windows! God grant us holy imagination to figure out how.
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