When a Sprint Becomes a Marathon
Maintaining Priorities Throughout The Pandemic
Going Viral Blog
Mike Smailes 4th June 2020
On the 23rd March everything changed for us here in the UK. It was part of a wider story but it now had implications at home! As businesses worked out how to function outside their walls, churches had to do the same. As schools closed their doors to all bar the few, education came home. As you worked through the implications of lockdown, I’m sure it meant new patterns and approaches for almost everything. We all found it a shock to the system. There were gainers and losers, but it meant change for all. We had to adapt and do it quickly. Whether these adaptations were embraced or resisted we made most of them in the knowledge that this would only be temporary. It was like a sprint. It left most of us exhausted and took lots of effort, but we managed because it wouldn’t be forever!
Standing here at the start of June, two and a half months on, the body is perhaps beginning to feel the strain. The sprint has become a marathon and that requires very different thinking and a radical review of what can genuinely be sustained. Now is perhaps the best time then to review our priorities and work out how to maintain them in an adjusted environment over a much longer period.
In approaching this then, my hope is to help us remember our God given priorities and to think a little about how these have been impacted thus far, and how we might maintain them from here on. The impact of the pandemic on these priorities will have been many and various but possibly fall into two simple categories.
- Priorities on Pause
As we felt the burn of the sprint with all those new stresses and strains on our time and energy there may well have been important things we put on pause. As the sprint becomes a marathon, now would be a good time to re-evaluate and redress. To take these priorities off pause and put them back into centre stage.
- Priorities Taken Up
This time of dislocation has also had its up sides. Many of us have discovered new ways of doing things or even started some things we had never considered before. In other words, some things that should always have been front and central in our lives have now started to find their way there.
What then are these priorities?
As I’ve begun to think about this, identifying our priorities is not necessarily as straight forward as it sounds. It depends in some ways what point we view ourselves from. As humanity our greatest priority is to glorify God and enjoy him forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism). This should impact everything.
‘So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.’ 1 Cor 10:31
As members of society our priority is to work out what it means to love our neighbour in every circumstance. Then there are the priorities arising from our responsibilities in family and work and we could include the commitments we owe to our friends too. All of these are worthy of serious consideration but, for now, we will confine our view to the church.
Priorities As Church
Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost with churches around the world. Acts unfolds the drama for us. God fearing Jews from every nation had descended on Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks and by the end of that first day 3000 of their lives have been re-oriented forever! In the days that followed many thousands more become disciples of Jesus and were added to their number. This must have meant enormous change for all of them, but Luke points out at the very start some priorities that remained central for them from the beginning.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42 NIV
In these simple words, the church through the ages has discovered central priorities that cross cultures, times and ages. A new devotion. That word devotion is carefully chosen. It speaks of passion and drive. Desires that harness the heart and activate the will. The kind of devotion that drives a soldier to lay down his life, a mother to sacrifice all for her child, a lover to cross continents. Once driven by their own view of the world they are now devoted to the apostles teaching. Once captivated by self, now devoted to the fellowship. Once fiercely independent now passionately reliant on God for all things as they regularly break bread and pray together. A community has formed where once it never existed and the Spirit of God who now fills them has established these new priorities.
He will be doing the same in the lives of all who respond to the call of Christ, receiving his salvation and forgiveness. These are our priorities as his people. How has this time tempted us to press pause on some of them? Where has the Spirit of God drawn us to embrace them more fully in this time than ever before? Where our fingers have been on pause, we’ll think about how we might release it for the marathon ahead. As we run, how we can maintain those good things we’ve taken up.
Priority 1: Devotion to The Word
“They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching…”
The first thing we learn about the church from its birth is their devotion to God’s word through his Apostles. The Spirit had brought them life in Christ through this word and by it they would grow together. If God’s Spirit lives and breathes in you, if Jesus is at the heart of his body here, we will find a similar devotion to his word amongst his people today.
For us, this has been one of the many privileges of becoming part of the Lansdowne family. God’s word is delighted in as hundreds are drawn each week to gather under the sound of it. His word is in the driving seat of all we do, constraining the direction of our ministries, shaping the contours of our community life, forming the centrepiece of our gatherings, honing our relationships with each other and guiding our goals and motives in every area of our lives. This church is full of God’s Spirit!
As we chased out of the blocks when lockdown began, we worked hard to see the word continuing to draw us, shape us and motivate us to continue laying down our lives and following Jesus. However, as patterns, ministries, groups and gatherings all had to change overnight the temptation for all of us to press the pause button was real. Who hasn’t felt the pull to allow our spiritual disciples to slip while we ‘adjust’? Many will have relaxed boundaries, at times unwittingly, finding a multitude of excuses to slip out of our spiritual armour, relaxing our hold on God’s truth. As many tuned in online perhaps many tuned out of our responsibilities to shape and fashion each other with God’s word. After all, we not allowed to meet up anyway! Some areas of ministry have been forced to take a break, but have we also closed our minds to the biblical imperatives that drove us to engage in them in the first place? For some so committed to God’s word shaping their approach to work and family, have we maintained a similar approach to the extra time many of us have been forced to spend at home?
The sprint has also given us plenty of new opportunities to grow in this priority. Many small groups are now meeting more frequently. Maybe the daily devotions were a lifeline to you at the outset. I’ve had conversations with plenty of people who have connected with others to open the Bible together. In some ways there is a new flexibility. Families have started learning to worship God together in their homes. Those who live alone have learnt to lean on God’s word more than ever. A friend asked me to keep him accountable in a personal challenge during this time. The 66 books in 66 days. That’s a lot of Bible. He admitted to me recently that he was nervous it would feel like a drag. By the time you read this he will have finished, and nothing has been further from the truth. The more of God’s word you drink in the more you’ll want.
So, was there a growing devotion to God’s word in you as the sprint began? Question then. Are you still running? Or is now the perfect time to get your marathon shoes on and get back in the race. How do you need to put God’s word back in the driving seat? In your ministry at home, work and in the family of God? How will you ensure that, whatever changes are on the horizon, your devotion to God’s word will grow?
While restrictions remain then, devotion to God’s word must remain our priority.
Priority 2: Devotion to The Fellowship
“They devoted themselves to… the fellowship…”
On that day of Pentecost, a large number of people who’d never known each other and were from many different nations, became so deeply committed that some would give their lives and others sell their homes out of their profound devotion to each other and their united commitment to Christ. Fellowship takes us so far beyond a superficial conversation over coffee after a service that this is almost unrecognisably different. Fellowship – koinonia – speaks of partnership like Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring; having ‘in common’ like a family; united like a football team. The Bible uses this word to talk about the relationship we’ve been brought into with Father, Son and Spirit. It also speaks of the partnership we’ve been given together. We’re now family.
Arianna Masten was a 15 year old with just one arm. She wasn’t born that way. It was an accident. The car she was in swerved and ended up scraping along the road on its side. She was in the back and unbuckled her seat as she felt the car start to tip. That’s why she lost her arm. Why did she do it? Her 2yr old brother Matthew was trying to get out of his seat and she was wanting to protect him.
When asked ‘Why do it?’ What would she reply? ‘He’s my brother.’
Those first believers were responding just like her.
They wanted to be together
“all who believed were together and had all things in common… day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” Acts 2:44 & 46 ESV
Spending time together. It’s what families do. I know many of you will have missed this more than ever. It’s been the bread and butter of church community hear at Lansdowne for such a long time. That’s not to say of course that people haven’t been overlooked. Many have. Perhaps you were feeling left out long before lockdown. And if no-one’s approached you recently why not take the initiative. I was hearing only today of one member of our church family who is planning small gatherings in her garden now that the rules allow it. What could you do? When Arianna came home from hospital Matthew rushed over. If we’re family, we will do the same.
They wanted to share together
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Acts 2:44,45 NIV
Their possessions, time and skills were no longer their own. They volunteered anything and everything for the sake of the family. It wasn’t a commune. Many still had homes. But they loved to share!
This is a big challenge. But in our world, it makes us so distinctive. Christ delighted to share all with us. His loving devotion will be seen in us as his Spirit brings that devotion to the fellowship.
In the years that followed. Arianna would discover the real challenges of life without an arm. But Matthew was always there to help. Has the Spirit been prompting you to do the same? Where do you have an arm because someone else doesn’t? What things do you have that God could empower you to share? What needs are you aware of that have still to be met through us?
This has been one of the most encouraging stories of lockdown for me. Seeing the ways that people have reached out with loving practical support. So many have been creative. One brother has been regularly calling a large group of individuals to pray and read the Bible with them. Many small groups have found themselves needing to look after each other far more than normal. And when the big storms have hit some within our church community, the outpouring of love has found ways to reach across all these barriers. God’s Spirit is richly at work among us.
That’s not to say the pause button has been out of reach. Loving each other is hard work. Who hasn’t been tempted by the broad road presented to us in these times? We can’t meet so we just click play and watch from a distance. Right? Wrong! The priority hasn’t changed and now that we’re moving into the marathon, we all need to work through how we remain devoted to the fellowship. If you’ve stopped reaching out to others, now is the time to start again! Are there relationships that still need mending? Believers you should be discipling who are currently struggling? Not sure? Pick up the phone. Make the call. Start the spiritual conversation and make a commitment to keep going. As staff and elders we are working hard to ensure that everyone in the fellowship is being effectively cared for and discipled but this is only a fraction of what God is able to do if his people will let him use them. Is there a small group of people that God is making you responsible for? Will you let them drown or help them to swim? Are you making sure that others are discipling you?
This fellowship is so important to Christ that he died to bring us together. How will you ensure we never forget it?
Priority 3: Devotion to The Lord
“They devoted themselves to… the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
That first church were passionately committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. That is why they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. They wanted to ensure that he’d always be remembered. Always central. They were remembering him and leaning on him together. As they remembered, they prayed. Jesus was central and everyone knew it. He was remembered at every meal together, and they prayed together every day!
Eating together. Sharing one loaf and cup together. Praying together. I have found this one of the toughest aspects of our current separation. It’s so hard to really meet this desire that God’s Spirit puts within us. How tempting, as we have retreated to our homes to forget these priorities. If we are truly devoted to the Lord we will be drawn to remember him as we eat together. We’ll long to be able to sit down and pray together.
One of the blessings for me in the days leading up to lockdown was letting God show me how much people were praying together. I witnessed it increasingly around Sunday services, in people homes, and when groups gathered. The telephone, WhatsApp groups and zoom have been a lifeline, as many of us have learnt to pray together in new ways. But it’s not the same is it? In fact, the more I pray with people remotely the more I long to be with them in person. As we gradually have opportunities to get together in small groups, let’s be proactive in remembering the cross as we eat and then consciously turning each other to him in prayer.
Why don’t you start now? The next time you eat together with a believer, don’t just say grace. Stop and remember his body broken and his blood shed. Put the Lord right at the heart of that meal. His death is what has brought you together. His body is what will feed you forever. Worship him there. Maybe meals could become an ongoing time in your family to worship the Lord. If we can start to gather in outside spaces there’s another opportunity to put the Lord Jesus at the heart of our gatherings. And whenever a friend comes to you with a need, for advice, or just shares some great news. Look for the most natural opportunity to turn this over to the Lord in prayer. I know it’s not the same praying on zoom but if you don’t normally feel confident to actually pray out loud these online prayer times are great places for you to be quietly involved as you pray along and say your ‘Amen’. If we have to fight to lean on the Lord together in prayer whilst it’s difficult, just imagine how these times will be when we can easily be together again.
When the doors of our meeting place can be properly flung wide, will we rush to taste again the sweetness of the Lord’s presence in the midst of his people? My dream is that, however long this marathon gets, God will use it to deepen our hunger for that day. Every little taste, however restricted, will surely make each of us crave that day all the more. And when it comes, perhaps we will have learnt not to take it for granted again.
Priority 4: Devotion to the Lost
“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
These people in Acts 2 are living lives of worship out in the world. Sharing their lives. Talking excitedly about the Lord. Discussing the truth as they are taught. People are coming along. Many are being saved. They’re being added to the family. Every day as they meet together new people are there.
Something like that was happening. But Luke explains what was really going on.
“And the Lord added to their number daily
those who were being saved.” Acts 2:47
The Lord’s doing it all. Are we trusting and expecting him to do the same today? For me it has been such a privilege to see God drawing people to himself over the years here at Lansdowne. How easy for us though to carry a strange, and sometimes all-pervasive, sense of failure and guilt around our own involvement in making disciples. This is not our work. God is the great evangelist. We need to remind ourselves of this because we are the ones he will use!
This lockdown has shaken many. People are asking questions. There are lots of opportunities but, without events, services, groups and clubs to bring people to, we may all have found ourselves silently relieved that there’s ‘nothing we can do’ at the moment. Have you felt the pull of the pause button in this direction too? Having said that, many have found new opportunities like never before. Some have invited friends to open the Bible with them and those conversations are already underway. Others have reached out to neighbours and colleagues with practical support in the name of Jesus. You may have taken this opportunity to get in touch with absent friends and old colleagues like I have. Perhaps you’ve been able to start discussing big questions with people online. I’ve found one of my atheist friends more open than ever. If that’s the case, as this brief window of opportunity starts to close, and the sprint slows, how will you continue to let God use you to add others to his church? Why not look at the ‘open the bible’ material yourself at openthebible.org and pray for the courage to invite someone to do it with you one-to-one. If you have a specific skill or ability that others could benefit from please come and speak to me about it. I’m sure that as we look to the Lord together, he will help us discover why he has given this to you for such a time as this. Just today I have learnt of one small group of 10yr old girls who have just invited their friend to read the Bible with them and they have accepted! God is at work. Will you keep on praying with us in this? Will you look expectantly for all that God is doing?
As this sprint becomes a marathon will you be part of us holding each other to these priorities? As we remain devoted to the word, the fellowship and the Lord we can expect him to work in awe inspiring ways and continue to add many to our number as he saves them one by one.