About a decade ago, my husband and I started at a new church. As was our custom, we asked for a meeting with the pastor. The pastor came to our house and we had a delightful conversation about this new church, a church like we had never attended before. During the exchange, the pastor said to us something that was at the heart of this church’s mission. He said, “After all, it is not about us.” We nodded in agreement.
But as time has gone on, I’ve begun to chaff a little at this statement. It doesn’t sit as well as it once did.
Recently, I took a trip across the country. I just may have gotten to the place where I don’t pay much attention to the safety demonstrations that occurs on every airplane flight. These days when I am seated, I quickly notice my proximity to the exits, look to see who I have to climb over to get to safety in the event of a disaster, and then settled in with ear phones and a book to read.
(Yeah. Totally selfish.)
This particular plane had monitors in the ceiling and all the regular announcements transmitted over these monitors. I happened to look up as the oxygen mask portion of the announcement was on:
“In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a uniformed crew member advises you to remove it.”
I was suddenly struck with the message that I cannot be really useful to anybody until after I put the mask on myself first.
It occurred to me that this seems to ring true in my relationship with God.
I might not be useful to anybody until I make God my top priority.
I think we all know this, yet with this safety message I realized that my faith walk is anemic without the recognition that my love for God is the key to everything. Jesus told us the number one commandment was new, and yet was still the same old commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might/mind.” (Matt. 22:37)
Cultivating this relationship is the most important thing I can do. Without it, I am like a person without the oxygen mask, I cannot expect to be much use to them, let alone in my ability to love them.
I am beginning to see a strong correlation between my love for God and the fruit of the Spirit. It is almost like a graph chart. As my love for God grows stronger:
My love for others grows.
My courage increases; I am not afraid.
My fruit is real and not “stapled”[i] on my “branches”.
My grace towards others is measurable and sure.
My service is more effective.
My strength to do his will is inexhaustible.
My trust in the Good Shepherd is unshakable.
But the question becomes, how do I improve my relationship with God without taking on pharisaic tendencies, avoiding legalism, or creating a rote practice?
I think the answer is somewhat individualistic. What works for me doesn’t always work for someone else. However, there are principles we can use. How they are achieved, it seems to me, is personal.
We need to spend time with God as we would with any friend or family member. Time is precious to most of us. To spend time with someone is to show how valuable they are to us. This can be while going for a walk, sitting in prayer, or simply practicing silence with God. My time spent with God has changed over the years. For me it has become a simple intention to remember that God is with me and to look for those signs in my world that show his presence. And silence. I need the silence with God.
We need to know the person of God, who he is, what his character is like. Several years ago I was involved in Bible Study Fellowship (BSF). Generally, they spend a year in one book of the Bible. The year that had the most influence on me, was the year we did an overview of Israel and the Minor Prophets. After years of being in church, I found out about God. He wasn’t the ogre that is often transmitted to us concerning the Old Testament God. Rather I saw him as loving, wooing his people to right living, and being heartbroken because his people would not listen and needed discipline. The God of the Old Testament was the same God that Jesus loved and called Father. I would not have known these things about God, if I hadn’t purposefully studied to learn more fully about him.
We need to make memories with God. There have been bad times and good times in my life. God has been there through them all. I have memories of wonderful worship experiences. I remember when God sent comfort in one way or another. I cherish those moments when he has answered deep longing prayers. My memories of his faithfulness carry me through the tough times.
We need to respond to his love for us. It all starts with God. He loves us first. Any love that I have for others is a result of the love he has placed in me through his Spirit. I want to recognize that I cannot love on my own and acknowledge that God is the source of love. It’s a very humbling practice, yet a worthwhile practice.
It is through these relationship builders that my love for God can and will grow.
Just as the oxygen mask helps me to remain focused and alert, so the love of God leads to authentic and lasting usefulness for the Kingdom of Heaven.
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 1 John 4:16
[i] Thank you Jan Johnson for this phrase.