LOUISVILLE, Ky. – “How do we put God’s first things first?” That was the question asked by Frank Yamada, president of McCormick Theological Seminary, when speaking at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Big Tent event held Aug. 1-3.
“I’ll give you a hint,” he said. “The answer is not to worry about it. The simple answer is to focus.”
Yamada’s message during the Aug. 2 plenary session was based upon Big Tent’s 2013 theme, “Putting God’s First Things First,” taken from Matthew 6:33-34, but in his reading of the Scripture, Yamada began with verse 25.
While speaking about focus and how it is the key to productivity and how it “enables us to see the world more clearly,” Yamada’s cell phone rang, and he answered it.
After hanging up, he asked, “How many of you reached for your phone, or thought ‘Really? Who forgot to turn off their phone?’”
Speaking of his illustration of being distracted by the phone, Yamada said, “Chances are you were not concentrating” when the phone rang. “You were not concentrating on what I was saying … If you were distracted you are not alone.”
“Too much distraction can lead to mental overload,” he said.
Yamada spoke of coming home from a busy day at work and “feeling like your brain in tired. So, we flip on the TV.” And on that TV, there’s a stream of type running across the bottom of the screen while the people on the television program are speaking.
“All of these distractions distract us from true purpose of life and how we can focus on what really matters,” he said. “The counterpart to distraction is focus.”
He talked about being in the “flow” or in the “zone,” that place where “you feel extraordinary focus … it’s that time when you are conversing with someone about something that matters and the world stands still … you are capable of extraordinary things when in the flow.”
“Attention and focus are critical,” he said, “but they are not just the key to productivity and happiness; they are apparently critical to our spiritual health. Just listen to Jesus’ words again:”
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:25-34, ESV)
Yamada said his text came from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus was speaking to the crowd on the way of discipleship.
“He has just finished talking about God and man and you can’t serve two masters,” said Yamada. “This is another way of saying you can’t focus on two things at once … Isn’t this the heart of idolatry? Focusing on the wrong God?”
Jesus then began His discourse on worry. “Worry is the soil in which distraction grows,” said Yamada. “Worry is preoccupation over something in which you do not have any control. These things keep you up at night and pre-occupy your bandwidth.”
He said there are things that are important and necessary to care about, but he urged those listening to think about the fact that “at that point in time when you are worrying about that thing — think about actually how much you are helping that thing about which you are worrying about.”
“Jesus says, ‘Do not worry,’ and that’s poor advice if that is all He says … He just doesn’t say ‘Don’t worry,’” said Yamada. “He directs His attention to creation – ‘Look at the birds of the air’ and ‘Consider the lilies of the field.’ It is as if Jesus harkens us back to the beginning, to the creation, and what do you hear? You have value in God’s eyes. Don’t you know that?”
Yamada said when fear has one’s attention the lessons from Genesis 1 are applicable. After God made man, He “saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)”
“You are very good. You have value,” reiterated Yamada, then he wondered, “What would life look like if we lived life in that core from God, ‘You are very good?’”
Finally, Yamada said that Jesus doesn’t end with “Don’t worry … He gives us proper focus on what and where we should fix our attention: ‘But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’”
“It sounds simple, doesn’t it? In all of this distraction to focus in on God’s truth … focus in on God’s love and then do the work of the Kingdom. In other words, right the wrongs, be agents of justice to see God’s reign on Earth.”
Or, he said, as Micah reminds us, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, ESV)
“Friends let us be reminded of the wisdom of Jesus,” said Yamada. “Hear this life-giving Word from Jesus. Know that you are good, that you were created for God’s purpose and go about making this world a little more like God’s reign.”