From the Trash Can to the MGM Grand



I pressed the up button on the elevator to get on the walkway that extended over Tropicana Avenue to get into the MGM Grand. We needed a bite to eat. The elevator arrived and I stepped in. The lights of the casino were green and mesmerizing. The skyline was the best that man could make. I was impressed. And then I stepped out of the elevator. There, twenty feet from me, was a man digging through the trash. Looking to get his next meal from something thrown away by the wealthy partygoers. Reality shocked me. All the pretty lights, beautiful art, groundbreaking architecture and design couldn’t keep the plight of humanity in the darkness.

The shock to my system was real. We want to have a magical pill to fix these things. We want to develop a government program to eliminate these problems, but those aren’t the solution to our problems. So what is the solution?

Oh, I wasn’t thinking about a solution for the homeless man digging through the trash. I care about that, but I think it will be solved if we actually solve another problem. I got ahead of myself.

If we actually fix the problem of the thousands of people just one thousand feet away from this homeless man – people waiting in line, extravagantly decked out in their finest to go clubbing. And who could really blame them? Steve Aoki was doing the mixing that night at the Hakkasan, a state of the art night club that the MGM Grand spent $200 million to build. A place where, if you’re feeling really extravagant, you can spend $500,000 on a bottle of Aces of SpadeGold Brut. The best that the world can offer. Anyone has the chance to mingle with the celebrities of our culture. But underneath that shiny veneer, all I could see were people desperately seeking to satisfy something missing in their souls. In the end, being decked out in the cutting edge of style wouldn’t cover that hole forever. The alcohol may numb it for a while. The beats and dancing may keep it at bay for a moment. Finding a person to sleep with for the night will just bring physical pleasure for a brief time. All the money spent will not fill the void. It can’t be filled by the material things of this world.

And yet we, the church, hold the solution. There’s a vibrant church here on the strip, yet it seems to barely even be putting a dent into the materialism, hedonism, and desperation of our culture. It seems to be the same even if we remove ourselves from the best society can provide, which slapped me in the face after seeing the man digging trash, and think about our communities in our normal lives.

The change must start with us. Jesus wants us to change. And when we change, things start getting better around us. God wants to transform us and transform those around us. That's really the core of the story of Jesus. God took on flesh and lived among us. To show us a better way to live. To provide us with the ability to live that better way. And to show us that even in the most dire situations, God can bring life and claim victory. These aren’t just things that God was in the process of doing two thousand years ago when Jesus dwelt on the earth. God continues to do these things through us living for Him today. Letting God guide our lives where we are, wherever we are. When we do this, our lives are changed. The lives of those around us are eventually changed. And our communities are changed.

The problem we have with this in practice is that it is a long game and not a short one. We like one step, quick, tangible actions that will change everything for the better. We would love to go back home and into our community and workplaces, do one great thing, and have everything changed for the better. I would love to do that here on the Vegas strip. That would be nice. We would like to master a convincing argument that would change those around us. But it doesn't work that way.

This is about total conversion. Our total conversion. The long game. This is about us really giving our lives to Jesus. Our whole heart. Every part of who we are. And I understand that it is very hard to commit to doing that and regularly do that in a society that tells us to just compromise a little here and a little there. It’s tough to do that when we feel that we are doing it alone.

But when we take that step, when we begin to live trying to bring God’s will into our world, things begin to change. We begin to change. And things around us begin to change. Not instantaneously as we would like. Instead, it’s about every day, bringing Jesus into our world, building His reputation, sharing His words, confronting people for Him when necessary, and then, being part of the transformation.

It’s not so much that we transform the world. Jesus does that. We really also shouldn’t make converting the world our goal. The idea of the gospel is much more about us living in community with each other in such a way that we minister to the world and others want to join in on the Incarnational life that we are exhibiting together. We don’t have to do this alone.

But in the end, if we have lived faithfully and the world still isn’t transformed, that’s out of our hands. We can’t control whether others are transformed by Jesus, but we can make sure that those around us encounter Jesus. The question is whether we have been a light in the world. They have free will just like us.

It's a lot like buttoning a shirt. You have to get the first button right on the shirt. When you do that, all the other buttons will then fall into place. Transformation is about getting our lives right with Jesus first. When we do that, everything else will just fall into place.

Jesus comes to town. He doesn’t come in a $200 million dollar extravaganza. He comes miraculously and beautifully. He once came in a manger. Another time, on a donkey. Today he comes through people like you and me, living for Jesus. It’s tough to see the something so unassuming as Jesus in a world that can amaze us with things like the Vegas Strip. But that’s just one example. Our distraction can be something else. Whatever it is, in the midst of lights and noise, Jesus wants us to see Him. He wants us to hear him. He wants to be the center of our lives. Will we let him? For the lights and the noise aren’t the solution. Jesus is. May we live in such a way that those around us experience the blessing of Jesus through us. We can't control whether they see Jesus or not, but we can control whether we show them Him. 

Grace When We Fall



When I was a little guy, I was playing in the backyard in the country. There before me, I saw the ladder to the hayloft that I was never supposed to climb. I was a little tow-headed four year old, but, as with things that we aren't supposed to do, I kept giving my attention on that ladder. I had all the other fun things that I was allowed to play with. There were balls, bikes, swings, and a yard that seemed totally massive to a little guy like me. But that ladder is what I wanted. Up there, at the top of that ladder, I knew I would find the perfect fun that was eluding me down here. Isn't that the lie that sin always tells us? On the other side of that wrong decision will be better days. That desire we are longing for can only be fulfilled if we cave just a little bit or for only a little while on this wrong thing.

One of favorite Christian musicians, Derek Webb, had an affair last year and published a telling confession a few days back on the Internet. His story seems to go the same way as the ladder but a little more consequential. He bought into the lie that on the other side of the affair would be the love he was looking for. Life would be better. He would finally feel complete. This last week, he wrote a confession and posted it online. In it he said,
"i was a fool. i believed lies, which led me to tell lies....what you think you want, what you think you can have, is not real, and you’ll lose real things pursuing it. as an unfortunately and extremely reliable source, please believe me."

I eventually gave in and climbed that ladder to the hayloft. Near the top, my young, small hands missed a rung, and I fell. Tumbling down, back toward the shadows, smashing my head on a wooden beam and busting my head open. Laying there, broken and bloody, I eventually found the strength to get up and head back to the house for help. 

This is the way of sin. It breaks. It destroys. It harms.

My words to my mom when I saw her, blood running down my face, was "I lost my shoe." Somehow, in the fall, my shoe had fallen off, and I was in no state to find it. I thought she would be mad at me for breaking a rule and losing my shoe. Instead, she saw her four year old all bloody. She reached out to help and love me.

This is the way of God.

Grace doesn't always make things physically better. I still had a cut on my head and blood running down my face. I still had a concussion, a massive headache, would need stitches, and would vomit. Some mistakes carry with them consequences that don't go away here on earth. That's just not the way that grace works. And that's why sin is so dangerous. It always causes consequences spiritually, and often physically, that just don't go away. But grace says, "I love you anyway." Grace says, "You don't have to hide what you did to have my love." You can go on from here and still live life to the fullest.

On the other hand, if you keep hiding in the barn, covered in your own blood - the mistake of your sin - seeking for your own shoe trying to make things right yourself - you won't get the healing you need. And I think a lot of our sin is like that. Our society tells us that we won't get grace and the we should be independent and fix it ourselves, so we keep it hidden. We wrestle with it alone. We want to fix it ourselves. But when we go back to God like I went back to my mom, grace wraps her arms around us, lets us cry on her shoulder, and says that, "It is going to be okay. It may not be the same, but it is going to be okay. I still have something in store for you. I love you."

Preach the Gospel at all times, and it is necessary to use words




Saint Francis is famous for saying, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” He's emphasizing a great point that our actions need to be in sync with the gospel. We must always love others and show God's love with the way we live. But we also must speak the Gospel, especially when given a teachable moment or a special opportunity. Unfortunately, I think the idea behind this phrase in these times is often used as a cop-out to just be bold to silently do loving actions. We get it honestly as an overreaction to the "shove it in your face" Christianity that some exhibit, but in the process we lose something important: the actual good news, the gospel. 

Because at some point, actions need to be explained with words. A conversation has to happen. So I would twist Francis’ quote and say, "Preach the gospel. And it’s necessary to use words.” At some point we have to tell them the story of Jesus and God’s plan for our lives. It may be three years after being their loving neighbor rather than the first time that we meet them. Once we set the stage as people of love, we will eventually earn the right to speak to people about the most important, life changing news they will ever hear. The life of Jesus shows us that there's never a change of mind unless there's a change of heart, and there will never be a change of heart without a conversation between trusted friends.


Revelation from God is generally divided into two different types. One is general revelation. These are the things that we can observe about God if we are looking - things that we realize just from the beauty of nature and living our lives. Then there is special revelation. This is the message that God has given to us through the Bible. You see, when we just love people, they may get the general revelation. But it is through speaking the message of Jesus - a message that isn't shared through just loving people - that those around us can be brought into a right relationship with God through Jesus. We are the people who the special revelation will enter the lives of those around us through.

General revelation was nature, and it can teach general things about God. Special revelation is the Bible and it can teach us specific things about God and Jesus. Because here is the thing, we're Christians. We don't buy into this idea that every religion has the same God. We don't buy into the idea that everything we can know about God can be learned through nature. We're Christian. We believe that God came down in the flesh and lived among us as Jesus. When he was here, he taught people how to live. These words are recorded through the writings of people inspired by God through Scripture. And we believe that this is the case for all of Scripture. God spoke through people to give us specific revelation. Revelation that just nature itself and living itself does not contain.

Now, your love is a lot like the general revelation. It can only teach general things about God. But your words, when laced with Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are the special revelation. They contain the life and message of Jesus.

What I see happen a lot these days is that we have a tendency to throw the special revelation away and just focus on general revelation. We would much rather love than speak truth at all. And because of this, the church then becomes just a social club or another charity in town. It's a place where we do good things to the community from. It's a place where we raise up our kids to live good, moral, and upstanding lives. But this is not the purpose of the church. Oh, these things should be happening through the church, but the purpose of the church is specifically linked to the special revelation we have from God. It's linked to love, that's true. But it's linked to teaching also. Teaching and love. As the apostle John wrote, "Deed and truth."

Because life-changing doesn't typically happen until words are spoken. Love opens the door, but words bring the special. And speaking those words at the right time is a bold thing to do for some. For others, they just utter them and waste them all the time, thinking that speaking is all that matters.

Think of it like visiting someone to have a meaningful conversation. People who just aggressively share the words of the Gospel would be like a person who just yells from outside without being invited in. I've heard enough stories of people who hide from the knocks of Jehovah's Witnesses to know that we need to build relationships these days to actually have a chance to have our message heard. People know that the way you actually live doesn't lie.

It's sort of like how we learn a burner on the stove is hot. Some of us actually have had to touch one because we didn't trust the instructions not to. For others, someone saying, "That's hot, don't touch" is good enough. Now, I understand that this illustration fails in regards to totally explaining special revelation because special revelation gives us teachings that can't be scientifically proven. But words can do a lot to help us live the right way without having a lot of the consequences we might have otherwise. That's why God viewed coming down as Jesus and inspiring people to write Scripture as necessary.

If you're sharing the gospel verbally and it's not showing fruit, I would guess that it may because you aren't living a loving life. But if you are loving and don't see the fruit from your labor, I would surmise that it is because you don't ever intersperse words into your love. When the opportunity arises to move from love to words, you must seize that opportunity and speak. Share the special revelation of Jesus that we only know through the Bible. They aren't going to believe those teachings naturally. You have to intervene, just like Jesus intervened into the world to bring His special revelation.

 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18 ESV).