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Parking Lot Gospel

A few weeks back I posted the following post on another blog I toy around with and I ended up getting such positive feedback that I figured I’d share it over here.  My brother John, who writes for The Wall Street Journal, carved out some time recently to scribble down these thoughts—I think he ought to launch a blog of his own and I think you will agree.  


200001695_29ee80e885_oIt happened in the spring of the year, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they destroyed the people of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.  – II Samuel 11:1


Lives aren’t built to change at Target on a Friday.  But sometimes they do.

I had meant it to be a routine trip to round out the week, and try to get a day’s jump on my wife’s birthday. She turned 32 on Sunday, wanted a camera, and I tracked it down at a Target six or seven miles from my house. I went in, without hesitation pulled out an oft-used piece of plastic from my pocket, and bought it. Expensive, but worth it.

Minutes later, I slipped my truck into reverse and angled out of a slim parking spot. That’s when I heard the grind of metal on metal, the crinkling of a bumper, the thud of my heart. I didn’t stop the vehicle right away, as if driving a bit would make the problem go away.   

It didn’t. 

Peaking out the window, I saw the damage and knew the remedy would be costly. I had scraped the side of a Mercedes SUV. One that had a “For Sale” sign in the back window. 

In the past 18 months, I’ve had my own cars run into when they were parked. I’ve spent probably $400 or $500 to fix them. My mind works like this: perhaps it was my turn to hit and run. The owner of this Benz can afford it. No one saw me.

I began creeping away from the scene. It didn’t surprise me that I could take my foot off the brake and let the truck quietly creep through the parking lot, graciously escaping the carnage, leaving the owner to deal with it.  Turning off my heart.

But something yanked my eyes back to the big crater in the side of that Mercedes. Something asked me if I would be able to look myself in the mirror that night when I washed my face, and brushed my teeth 20 feet from my son’s crib.

The answer was yes. I probably could. But I stopped the truck anyway and asked a more important question. What would Jesus have me do? Two words — “unto others” — invaded my thoughts and held my mind. Wouldn’t let me go. Wouldn’t loosen the grip. 

So, I parked the truck back in the slim parking spot, rummaged through the glove compartment for a business card. Found one and shut the door. Opened it again to find a pen.

“Hi. I unfortunately ran into your vehicle and damaged the rear. Please call me for insurance details. John”

18 words, probably would end up costing me $40 a word or so, I figured. And so I sat there, holding that card. My name, my identity dancing on the front of it. And then I slipped the truck in reverse again and began to drive away. Card still in my hand.

Eventually, I stuck the little piece of paper with my name and number on the front and the note on the back  under the windshield wiper and crawled home hoping the owner never called.

Typically, we aren’t aware at the moment our lives have hit some notable inflection point. Though we would like them to be, such points aren’t orchestrated in an auditorium or on retreat or when the stadium is full of spectators. Inflection points happen when the stands are empty, when we ebb through banal routines and are confronted with the unexpected.  Usually, in solitude. Usually, in a hurry. Usually, off guard. This is when we ride the tipping point of a needle, ascending or descending toward a changed life.

King David. He was supposed to be with other kings that spring day when he slept with a soldier’s wife. I don’t think he figured his indulgence would become such a fateful inflection point, but it did. 

I’ve always read II Kings 11:1 to be a warning. If you are supposed to be at war, and don’t go, you’re inviting an inflection point. And not really a welcome one. In an artful brush of foreshadowing, Samuel writes of a king who decided to stay home when kings typically went to war. When kings went to work. David stayed home. His life changed.

Hitting a parked SUV — as mindless as that activity is — pulled me into a somewhat cosmic schoolroom where the lesson had everything to do with purpose and meaning and cause and effect. Reaping and sowing and golden rules. An inflection point of another kind. 

When faced with the unto-others ethic, how would I respond? Simple, almost too basic for contemplation, this ethic slapped me in the face and almost defeated me. 

Ironically, I was wading through a season of disappointment at the more formal schoolroom I had been attending: church. I was leaving the building empty of late, wishing for home runs, but settling for walks or strikeouts, an occasional single. I had grown tired of seeing the deficiencies in my leaders that I saw in myself.  It seemed that Christ was attending the 9:30 service, and gone by the time I got to the 11:00 service, he was already at lunch.

And here was Jesus, in a parking lot. As if the rear bumper of a silver Benz were all the pew I needed. 

What amazes me most is that I drove home praying that God would bless me for my obedience. I prayed that he would repay me somehow. I thought of the new house or new kitchen my wife and I had dreamed of. Thought of the lost income we had suffered when Kimberly decided to stay home full time with Jack. Thought of golf clubs and beach front. And expected God to pick a category in which he could repay me.

As if living the life of obedience was a transaction. 

The fact of the matter is the note I left ended up costing me $500. The lady who I hit, and her husband, did little to assure me that they were adequately appreciative. I probably won’t be renewing my subscription to The New Yorker this year, we’ll scale back the kitchen project, probably skip a month of retirement savings, and who knows what else. My wife took back a pair of shoes. 

God has yet to pay me back.

A couple nights later, it hit me. This is the hard part of the Gospel. The part where I could have driven away, no one would have known. Plenty of people would have done it. The part where I could have considered myriad financial constraints on my life, and concluded the responsible thing to do was bolt.

But this was God asking me, in a quite unique and mysterious way, to contribute to his kingdom. It seems quite obvious to plop such contributions in a red Salvation Army bucket, or send it in for a capital campaign needed for a new church building or ship it off to an orphanage in India. I’ve given money to buy poor kids backpacks full of school supplies. I’ve paid my way to the mission field. Gave a pair of khakis to a fellow Bible college student who needed pants.

Repairing the Mercedes was a new form of offering, hard to digest and abrasive. What if I told you I gave my tithe to some rich guy who shops at Target? What if I told you I shared the Gospel in a parking lot, when nobody was around?

It’s been particularly easy in my life to perform the Gospel when there are crowds. To slip money in the big dish that floats down the row on Sunday morning, or pray in front of my small group. I’ve found it easy to make changes to my exterior character as my infant son grew into a formative child.

But the stands were empty that day at Target.

What do I mean by stands being empty? I mean no one is around. No one is cheering.

I experienced this when training for marathons. The best part of running a marathon is the actual running of the marathon. People are cheering at every corner, as hundreds or maybe thousands of others match your steps pace for pace. There are volunteers giving water, and the finish line is filled with adoring spectators who wish they could accomplish what you did.

But marathons really happen during the 16, 18, and 20 mile training runs. 

I’ve run too many of these. They are lonely endeavors.

On my training runs, I used to run the last few miles around a track that wrapped around a football field at the high school by our house. I’d enter the stadium alone and see dozens of vacant rows of bleachers. I would do these runs at night, and the sky wrapped the stadium in pitch black silence. No one cheered. No one adored. No one ran with me. 

I don’t run marathons anymore. But it seems I never quite quit running in front of an empty set of stands under a dark sky. It could take the shape of a parking lot on a Friday, or an office on a Monday. The question is, will I stay home? Or go to war? 

Carrying the Gospel demands that I go to war and be prepared to die, or at least dish out $500 to a guy who may not even need it. May he bless the journey to your parking lot. 

-John D. Stoll

  1. November 15, 2008 at 3:28 am

    John should absolutel start a blog of his own!! He packs soooo many different lesson into one simple entry. What a great lesson…..actually several lessons for me.

    Please thank him for taking the time to put pen to paper to record his thoughts.

    Doing the right thing when the stands are empty. That’s hard. Worthwile, the right thing to do, but still hard. It prepares us for decisions that are even more difficult that we will face in the future. Not knowing when the next test will come, when the next temptation will surface, is difficult. But doing the right thing when the stands are empty is an incredibly helpful practice!

  2. kenstoll
    November 15, 2008 at 4:04 am

    I’m sure he’ll appreciate the comment Spudsie—I will pass it along.

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