Shortly after the Rev. Frank Yamada began his keynote address to the Big Tent today (Aug. 2), his cell phone rang. As he scrambled to answer, so did numerous others of the 1,000 participants gathered in the Kentucky International Convention Center ballroom.

Admitting that his cell phone ring was scripted, Yamada ― president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago ―asked, “Didn’t you check your own cellphones, wondering if it was your’s? Chances are you stopped concentrating when it happened on what I was saying. You were concentrating on that little buzz.”

Such is life in the modern world, Yamada said. And it runs counter to the lesson of Matthew 6, on which the Big Tent theme ― “Putting God’s First Things First” ― is based.

Big Tent, Aug. 1-3, is a celebration of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission and ministry. It’s composed of 10 national Presbyterian conferences, more than 160 workshops and other special events to mark the 30th anniversary of Presbyterian reunion and the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Presbyterian Center here.

“How do we put God’s first things first?” Yamada asked of Jesus’ teaching about worry and anxiety. “It’s a simple message,” he said. “The word is ‘focus’ and it is the key to our professional, personal and spiritual lives.”

In a world of so many competing demands for attention, many simply to try to do too much, Yamada said. “Contrary to its popularity, humans are not very good at multi-tasking. It prevents us from focusing on what is essential,” he said, noting that researchers have determined that it takes 25 minutes to redirect one’s attention after being distracted.

“Don’t you often feel like your brain is just tired?” Yamada asked.

“Attention and focus are incredible gifts and turn us into extraordinarily productive and creative persons,” he continued, “and according to Matthew are also critical to our spiritual health. ‘Don’t worry about (distractions),’ Jesus says.”

Worrying is a form of idolatry, Yamada said. “Jesus understands the lure of distractions and the need for focus, but says you can’t focus on two things at once. This is the heart of  idolatry,” he said, “focusing on the wrong thing, focusing on the God who is not God, on the wrong God.

Meg and kids at worship

Kids are a prominent part of Big Tent. At left: Meg Flannagan of the Big Tent worship team. —Danny Bolin

If idolatry is the evil, worry is the soil in which it grows, Yamada said. “Fill in the blank (with all the worries) that keep you up at night …. Many are necessary things to care about, but think about what change you can possibly affect by worrying.”

Contemporary life is “an unholy culture of anxiety and fear,” Yamada said. In Matthew 6 Jesus says “don’t worry,” but the message doesn’t stop there. “Jesus directs his listeners to creation, helping them to explore it. And the message is: ‘You have value in the eyes of God, don’t you know that?’”  

When we focus on fear, Yamada said, “We lose what is most important: God’s message that we are very, very good and have value in God’s sight.” He wondered how the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin encounter or the current stalemated debates in Congress would be different “if we started with that core truth that starts with God.”

Jesus doesn’t stop with the admonition “don’t worry,” Yamada said. Instead, “He gives us the proper focus: ‘seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you as well.’”

“It sounds so simple and it is,” Yamada said. “It starts with God’s love and then service to God’s kingdom ― to enable people to see tangible signs of God’s love for all creation (as in the good Samaritan parable) … or in Micah’s words: ‘do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.’”

It’s simple message in our overly-complex world of too many distractions, Yamada reiterated. “It’s a life affirming word from God through Jesus: you are good, now go about making this world a little more like God’s reign is supposed to look.”