I’M SORRY, WHAT WERE YOU JUST SAYING?
Seek first the Kingdom of God, says Jesus, making a clear assumption that people usually seek the kingdom second, third, or not at all.
The preoccupations the people had around Jesus feel very different to ours on first glance: the struggle for food, water and something to wear loomed large, like a white van tailgating in the rear mirror. But it is a mistake to think the sting has been taken out of these anxieties in modern Britain. More people than perhaps we realise live from hand to mouth, and from bed to work and back again. As the economy hollows out middle income jobs, more are working in places which pay poorly, work them hard and long and keep them on the edge, unsure if they can afford next month’s rent in damp, overcrowded accommodation. How do we help people like this? What does Good News look like when you’re exhausted and scared most of the time? When we think about evangelism and discipleship, these are places the Church must occupy with empathy and understanding, if we are serious about our mission.
The new economy has done other things, of course. Above all, it is changing our desires. Only twenty years ago we had limited capacity and enthusiasm for the world’s information. A daily news bulletin would do. We could catch up with everything else by telephone or face to face. Technology has succeeded in creating a huge appetite for knowing stuff in just a short few years. The new capitalism competes ruthlessly for one thing: our attention. Grab this, and you can conquer the world. The best brains in the world are working creatively and round the clock to distract us from what we’re doing, and the evidence is, it’s working. James Williams, a former Google strategist turned Oxford trained philosopher has said:
I used to think there were no great political struggles left. How wrong I was. The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.
He did not say it, but might as well: the liberation of human attention may be the defining spiritual struggle of our time.
Some of you will know about an experiment carried out where people were put into a room on their own with nothing to do but to sit there for fifteen minutes, to see what happened. A majority admitted feeling uncomfortable with nothing but their thoughts to console them. The experiment was then repeated, only this time an instrument was placed on a table in the room which could administer a nasty electric shock. In the fifteen minute period, one in four women self-administered pain to relieve the boredom. Two in three men did.
We are over-stimulated by noise, information and speed - and have grown accustomed to it. In some cases, we have become addicted. It is not clear how this is re-wiring our brains, but neuroscience tells us it is beginning to. And it is too early to say for sure what this means for the life of faith, but we can make an informed guess. The good news is, we are more connected to other people’s lives than ever before – if we want to be. This means we can reach them with the Gospel one way or another, also. Like St Paul, who availed himself of the sweep of Rome’s rule and its infrastructure to gain access to any city he wanted, we live at the very start of an era when someone in another country might be converted to Christ because of something we absent-mindedly posted on a social media feed late one tired night.
The bad news is, this person probably lost attention in less than five seconds because clickbait flashed up an article about a politician they really hate and want to hate a bit more by reading up on or because someone shared another of those weird ‘cat is surprised by a cucumber’ videos.
Our smartphones have become the rod and staff which comfort us. Any spare moment can be spent using Facebook, Instagram or Spotify. And so deeper thought is easily crowded out – and deeper prayer, upon which this world depends.
So, when we talk about seeking the kingdom, we should face the real possibility that we are being distracted from the signs of it by which our hope in Christ is nourished. Like one of those smartphone zombies who walks down a pavement with lots of space and blunders unapologetically into the path we are taking, we may be unaware of what God most wants us to see.
We rightly speak about the importance of vision – of a clear sense of where we need to be heading – but we should be aware of what we are doing in the moment, which is, after all, the only sphere in which God can meet with us, in which we can seek the kingdom and pray for its coming. The attention deficit induced by the unrelenting seductions of modern life leads us to think about something else while God is standing in front of us in the shape of the person talking to us. Jesus said, ‘do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has enough trouble of its own’. Tomorrow is way too far away now – the next minute will do fine for distracting us now.
The economist, John Kay, has written a book called ‘Obliquity’. I had no idea what the word meant, so respect for those of you who do. It’s the idea that those who take a route one approach to their goals are less likely to secure them than those who take a more indirect journey. In economic terms, to become very rich is an object best secured by being good at doing something else. Make the best cars or computers and people will buy them; don’t cut corners for short-term gain – it doesn’t deliver in the long run.
Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you.
It is from the wholehearted pursuit of a relationship with God that good things flow. We worship God because he is unfailingly loving and gracious and in Christ we find our sufficiency. This is our earthly calling. It doesn’t guarantee success, but the assurance of God’s love anchors us in Christ in a way that others will notice. And that anchor will keep us rooted to a spot from which we can see the signs of the kingdom all around us - until the Holy Spirit moves us on.
We should be entertained by our technology and connect with others through it – it’s our world and we should happily continue to stream Netflix, watch YouTube and check out Buzzfeed’s thirteen reasons why you should never contact your school heartthrob again. We should post on social media to encourage others; to make them laugh; to help them think.
But we should know this world is being moulded in ways that can hinder us from seeing the kingdom of God when it is staring us in the face, and to stop us seeking it patiently when it isn’t quickly revealed. I don’t think we have come anywhere near to understanding how the world’s biggest companies are intentionally messing with our brains to serve their profit line.
In the parable of Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats shared one thing in common: neither paid enough attention to what was in front of them to realise it was Jesus. If this risk was present in an ancient, agrarian community, how much greater is the challenge in a frenetic, urban culture like ours.
So let’s discipline ourselves for the moment - the only space God can meet with us. There is a time to pause, to listen, and to observe. To find that place of poise, awareness and grace from which others will be blessed.
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