You have an invitation. You might have received it but never opened it. You may stumble upon it every day in your day to day but still have never opened it. The envelope that holds it is getting larger and brighter now so it doesn't get lost in the darkness.
Recently my wife was asked to make a quick video clip for an NGO to be shown at it's annual event. The event was held at a small church where some of the members are connected to this NGO. I can't name the NGO in this blog because to do so would put it at risk because it operates in a Muslim nation. The NGO is not a Christian based missionary outreach but it is mostly supported by Christian workers. The NGO isn't a Trojan Horse to get Christianity into the country where they operate, it just happened that the workers are mostly Christian. They are not in this Muslim country to start a church in a clandestine way but to help people who are living in desperate situations. The Christians are going into this Muslim nation only to make a difference in people's lives for the short time they can be with them.
My wife and I sat with the two pastors that head up the NGO and they told us of some of the pain and hardship they encounter when they go into the city they work in. I have known these pastors and many of the people that go with them for years now but I had no idea what they do and what they and their fellow workers confront when they do their work. When they told us I shook my head in unbelief. I wanted to cry. I almost vomited.
These quiet pastors and the very ordinary people that go with them are going into a place of such poverty and squalor that would be enough of a challenge but the neglect and sexual abuse of the young children they attend to is beyond comprehension. The NGO is made up of dentists, gynecologists, physiotherapists and ordinary people doing extremely unordinary things in a place so horrific it defies the mind to grasp it. A dentist friend told me that when he returns from his trip there he holds his young daughter and weeps.
They are not going into this city with a mayor, the military, police or any local officials to protect them or a news crew to highlight what they are doing, they are going in by faith alone. The officials of the city have written this part of this city off and Muslims will not go in there because they believe it is the place where the devil actually lives. There are tourists who go in there though. They go in to prey on little children that are abandoned to alleys with no safe place to go at night and no authorities to arrest their predators, or they avoid the street hassles and just pay the parents to have sex with their children. But it gets worse...in this town, 60% of people are handicapped...why? Because of incest. There is no outreach to help these children or others until this NGO shows up twice a year. It took days for me to process out what they told me at the table. Just like my friend, the stories made me want to run home and hold our son.
If you think the church is a building, it isn't, it is a community of people. People coming together under a roof or in a field or a basement or a landfill all over the earth to study the Bible, learn and grow together, and then apply what they are learning. Sometimes that application happens in very terrifying and difficult situations. The Christians working in this NGO are applying their faith where there is nothing but thick darkness under bright African sunshine. I am humbled to my core for what they are doing there; relying only on their faith alone. Faith alone. I could go on about the brutality and degradation, the suffering of Christians in North Korea being caged up worse than animals and tortured for simply owning a Bible and their desire to share the gospel. I could write about the suffering of Christians persecuted for their faith in Egypt, Syria or in Nigeria but what I want to write about today is my personal pain of seeing twenty four empty chairs at a banquet table.
I went with my wife to the event and agreed to take a few photos for the NGO's website. It was a miserable evening with rain coming down in torrents. Traffic was backed up so bad that what should have taken us thirty minutes to arrive turned into a two hour traffic nightmare. When we finally arrived I had time to walk around and take photos of tables and decorations because the event was running late. Next to the main room there were two long banquet tables and twenty four chairs carefully decorated for people invited for an evening out. It was a free event with excellent Portuguese food. The candlelit tables and the decorated seats that surrounded them was a statement of faith by the people who set those tables with faith that they would attend. The pouring rain didn't diminish the care of the table settings or change the expectations that some, if not all, would arrive.
Eventually, none of those invited came in. At the end of the evening the clean tables were stripped down and put away. They all missed a beautiful evening with great food for a great cause. They missed something much greater than that however; infinitely greater. I do not know the reason each seat remained empty but I have some thoughts and not one of them has anything to do with the rainy evening or the traffic. I looked at the table in sadness because these lives do not fully understand the party they declined to attend. I believe many still want the other party.
Desires and dreams in a huge ballroom of confusion and darkness makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get out of that other party. The love of so many things keeps most doors blocked. Entertainment and consumption block some doors, relationships block others. A sense of rejection or shame block others. Pain, hatred and violence blocks others. Money and excess blocks others. Biblical ignorance and unbelief blocks others. Personal spirituality nail some doors shut. Other doors are blocked by crowds of people that seem to be having such a great time living it up, it seems this must be the place. Crowds gather around mostly at those doors because it would seem so. Life must be a party, right?
There is an eternal divide between these two parties and the divisions and distinctions played out in our temporal world are getting more apparent to me every day. I was a bartender for many years and I never needed a clock to know how much time was left before the bar closed. I could tell by the last rush when everyone wanted to get another round of drinks before the bar closed. The volume of the crowd would go up. The clock was winding down to closing time but everyone wanted to keep the party going. They didn't want to leave. They didn't want the illusive dream of a good night out they slaved for all week to pass away without a fight. I sensed that same feeling in the traffic as we drove to the event that night; chaos, frenzy, a frenetic rushing with little courtesy to get somewhere. Mob madness. In my two hour traffic odyssey I thought about the madness not just on that highway but in cities all over the world demonstrating and protesting against corruption and brutal selfishness, voices making defiant stands against those who have lost their humanity for money and power. And the forces against those voices use intimidation, deception, manipulation and fear, imprisonment and torture, war threats, empty promises, corrupt leadership, repression, suppression and greed. Lobbyists buy governments and political and corporate corruption destroys societies, families and individuals while the very planet groans in ecological suffering under the weight of it all. Fortunately, many people are finally recognizing that something is very wrong with what is going on and are looking around for a fire escape to get out safely. To forget the blocked doors and look for another way; the only way out and to safety. I attend a church where some people are entering the doors for the very first time in their lives. Somehow they found the fire escape and they left the ballroom of confusion and darkness. That fire escape is the goodness and love of God calling people everywhere to abandon that party and turn to God and come out of there. He is looking around that room for broken hearts and raised hands to grab.
Those twenty four seats that sat empty that night represent thousands, upon thousands, upon countless thousands that are being invited by God to attend something far greater than what this temporal world offers and has offered. These parties have a totally different atmosphere and spirit and a very different ending. The invitations are after the hearts and lives of human beings. Ultimately, the invitations are for the eternal souls of mankind. There is no neutral response to the invite. It's an all or nothing. No one can attend both of these parties simultaneously by going back and forth because they are opposed like never before. You either love one or you love the other. You either sit in one or sit in the other. You embrace the values and enjoy the atmosphere of the party you're sitting in or you don't.
I attended the party the world desires for decades. All the while, over the confusion and seduction of unmet promises of security and pleasures, I could hear and often see a very different party in the far distance. A party that had a very different dress code. The dress code there wasn't about wealth or power or prestige or perfection, it wasn't about talent or beauty or popularity, it was one where you came with a desperate need that could not be met at the other party. How I chose to meet my needs determined the party I was attending. In those decades (I will describe as: decades of deception.) I did not even begin to understand my desperate situation at that party in darkness because what I was pursuing was only leading me to my death. For that is what the party I was attending was actually celebrating; it was celebrating death, my own and everyone next to me. It didn't say so on the invite though. I had to get deep into the party before I took a look around at what it was doing to me and to others. It was then I raised my hand. "God, please rescue me from this place." And His hand grabbed me. I pushed through the thick crowds and past one room of lies after another toward a narrow door, all in desperation to get out of there. Finally outside, I ran for it.
Sometimes I wonder if I'm still running for it. Some days I feel completely at ease and great at this new party and other days when I feel so unfit and too damaged to be there. It is then I reach for the invitation. I have a stamped invitation written on my heart. And yet, I will never feel confident in myself that "I" belong at this new party or that "I" earned the right to be here. I actually tremble. Even in my deep gratitude, I tremble because it is such a perfect party and I am far from perfect. Every seat was set by the One who invites all men and women and I fear I may break something. I can only cling tighter to the One who invited me and Who stamped His Name on my heart. A stamp of love that meant His own death so I could leave the party of death I was celebrating. I couldn't get out of there without Him and as I stumbled through the crowds in darkness it was His voice and hand that was reaching out to me. I do not deserve to be where I am nor it is arrogance to have hope that I was rescued. I am in this new party only because of divine pardon and grace. I heard something else and believed it to be true and reached out and felt a hand there. Mercy was calling to me in the darkness of that party of death. When I stopped to think about what I was doing I reached out for a hand that is so loving and kind, so perfect in goodness and so stable and trustworthy, I wonder why, why did I ever slap away such a hand? Why did I stay where I saw the hands around me closed tightly into fists of rage or pain or grasping tightly to things they did not own and could not keep? I believe I am most fortunate in my life because of this: I wanted to leave that party and a light shone in the darkness to lead me out. I did not rescue myself nor could I ever. I once was blind and now, by grace, I see.
There is so much to learn and do at this new party because it is not a big chill out party, it requires everything everyday pursuing new things in faith and courage. As weak as I am, as imperfect as I am, I never look back at that other party or that other time and feel any regret about leaving, I only feel loss of so much life because I didn't leave sooner.
And I wasn't able to take more people with me.
I'm at a new party now helping to set a table for friends and family with hope and with love that they will attend; and when I look up at this amazing party so is everyone else around me.