Confessions of a Worldly Kid, Grown Up

Mary and I took a two-day break in Las Vegas last week.

As a child, my father’s epic family vacations across the West — water-ski trips, trout fishing in the Logan River, choppy boat rides under the looming Grand Tetons — those were all second fiddle choices for me. I would have taken poolside in Las Vegas, and one of those lemon-colored drinks with a turquoise cocktail umbrella.

Aria_Pylon_lit“Pour me a banana daiquiri,” I joked–scandalizing my mother.
“Jimmy Riley,” she responded. “You are entirely too fascinated with all of that.”

She was right. I was indeed. The whole thing was captivating, looking out of the window of the camper shell as an eleven year old, on the road out of California — the billboards with the show girls, the chrome plated one arm bandits, the promise of easy money. There was something both dark and sweet in the deliciously false advertising — an oasis that can’t ever be reached, a veiled beauty behind every palm tree.  Even the currency of the place, the weighty, multi-colored casino chips that doubled for cash, made it all feel like a different kingdom.

“The devil’s kingdom,” my mother would have said.

She was partly right there too.  Certainly there’s something morally dingy about the place.  A few years ago, we tried showing our kids the fountains at the Bellagio and as we tried to maneuver through a dense crowd on the strip, a couple of low-lifes in greasy t-shirts handed my children hooker coupons.

“Really?” I thought, snatching it up.  How dead do you have to be, on the inside, to show a nine year old where to find a whore house?

But here’s the scandalous thing: this gaudy, bawdy little desert kingdom is beautiful too, in its own way.  From our room on the 32nd floor, I watched the technical marvel of the Aria sign. The black, beveled column must be 10 stories high. Even in the bright desert sun, the colors and the images radiate, cinematically at high noon, as though they burst through a crack in a monumental theater door;   and whenever this screen revealed a beautiful woman I came to the same conclusion I always do:  we’re either plagiarizing or celebrating God’s creation, when it comes to the female form.  Yes, there are pimps selling flesh on the streets of Las Vegas, but the Aria sign featured, among other things, a beautiful bride emerging out of the pixel-mist.  She was bare-shouldered and stunning, and the Aria was making a wholesome pitch:  this was a place to get married.

The ViewAt Caeasar’s Palace, we had dinner with Jim and Laura Tavaré at Gordon Ramsay’s Pub & Grill. The wine was chilled, and plentiful, and the meal was the sort that can almost compete with witty company; every fork full demands your attention.  “Just a minute,” you almost say, “I’m going to savor this perfectly seasoned potato confection for a second or two; I’ll be right with you.” It was the kind of food that makes you throw your head back for a minute and think, “God is good.”

And that’s my theme here. God is present in His entire creation, even in the unapproved regions and the unexpected places. Have you ever sat down at a black jack table and sensed more of God’s presence in the friendly old guy who teaches you how to play than in the casually practiced piety of a worship team leader? Have you ever sensed the weathered old cocktail waitress, lacquered up with mascara, is blood kin with the good Samaritan? She’s working for a living, yes, but you actually get the sense she cares about you?

God makes us a very unusual proposition.  He sets us down in the middle of a fallen, but undeniably beautiful creation.  We are allowed to witness both colossal evil and stunning virtue, sometimes in the same place, at the same time, and even at the hands of the same people. There’s no safe place to hide and no dangerous place sealed from some measure of God’s protection. Indeed, sometimes the ugliest places bring out the best in us, and the most heroic parts of our nature.  No soldier ever earned the Medal of Honor by volunteering for desk duty.

Am I saying our two day break in Las Vegas was a missionary trip? No, it was just fun with friends. Good food, good wine, a venue for watching our favorite Irish band.  A different place to ponder life, to turn it over in our hands.

Some of you, like me, might be charmed, and confused at times, by the divine puzzle. How do we “lay up treasures in heaven?”  How do we enjoy a great meal, and a fine glass of wine, and the new car you just ordered from the dealer–and simultaneously affirm this truth:

 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

We’re simple creatures.  Sometimes it’s easier to read only one corner of the Instruction Manual, (and misunderstand it at that).   When Jesus considered a lily of the field, and declared that even King Solomon’s clothing lacked the beauty of this single flower, was he calling God’s creation evil, merely because it was rooted in the soil of the world?  When “God so loved the world,” (John 3:16), was there some sort of translation error?  When God is praised in Psalm 104 for the wheat of the fields and the wine that gladdens men’s hearts, was He guilty of a mixed message?

Are we meant to be locked in a solemn, joyless contemplation of a better world to come?

Is life here allowed?  Can we laugh, have joy, celebrate, make love?The glorious answer is “yes.”

I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”   When Peter, the old, simple, weeping fisherman, who betrayed his Lord at the crucifixion, saw Jesus on the shoreline, risen from the dead, he cast himself into the sea to reach him.  Jesus, in return, had prepared a meal for His loved ones.

Was this celebration unclean because it was taking place in the world?  Should they have chosen that occasion to fast and humiliate themselves and earn heaven with a joyless procession of sackcloth and ashes?

The questions answer themselves.  Of course, we are to celebrate life, to enjoy the fruits of our labor, to prepare the wedding feast, to sing, and to dance, and to tell stories and to laugh.

But there is this simple warning to be had in the entirety of the message:  God makes a very good meal indeed.  He made beautiful women, and you should take one of them to wife, young man.  He made money, and you should use it to build up the kingdom.   He made sport and entertainment and literature and the wonderful physics behind the Aria sign, and He made them so all incredibly beautiful that it’s damn easy to worship them if you’re not careful.

Don’t worship them.  Celebrate them.

Give praise to God for them, and build a treasure for yourself in heaven in the act of that praise, and in that faith.

I’m finally, old man that I am, beginning to understand how I can delight in the hot, flashy glamour of the Aria sign in Las Vegas, and still be singing, in my heart, “leaning on the everlasting arms.”