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."