Last week, I had the opportunity to go to Las Vegas to attend a conference for work. Yeah, I know what is going through your mind ... post-donut Elvis in the white rhinestone encrusted jumpsuit, neon lights, and "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."
I did decide before the trip that any souvenirs needed to include rhinestones, and found an appropriately cheesy shirt. The neon lights were impressive (and in the desert mask the true length of "the Strip" ... its much longer than it looks on TV and movies). I found that out the hard way, thinking rhinestone shimmering heels were appropriate footwear. But I did manage to tough it out enough to see the fountains at the Bellagio - and they just might have been worth it! My foot is still paying the price ... and my shoes may very well have seen their "last disco" (without ever having been to a disco at all).
City of Sin ... I knew the reputation Vegas seems even to be proud of, but I had no idea just how "in your face" it would be. Everywhere you looked, there was excess. ALL you can eat, ALL day long buffets. More slot machines than I could count, with so many themes and colors there really is one for everyone (I'll admit, I just HAD to play the redneck Jeff Foxworthy slot machine - but alas, it wasn't funny). Girls not leaving much to the imagination working the craps tables. Sidewalks littered with the pornographic calling cards of "call girls" being handed out by pushy people in T-shirts. Free alcohol and $5 water. Shopping galore, in catacombs beneath and between massive hotels that at times seemed inescapable (I was very tempted in a store that sold only socks, but came to my senses before plunking down $12 on silly socks).
Everything is designed to suck you in and make you pay. The casinos are dark mazes, and the windows tinted against the light of day - lest you realize how much time has passed, or are able to see where the exits are. Music and the excited clanging of slot machines is constant (only in my room at the hotel could I find solace). Restaurants that make you feel you somehow have to "prove" yourself by not being cheap. I love a good California roll, but there just isn't $12 worth of fish in there (for those of you that don't know - these rolls are typically cucumber, imitation crab, and avocado). But frankly I don't care if the waiter thinks I'm cheap.
Everyone expects you to come back with a story. But the fact of the matter is, God is in Vegas too. There is (thank Him!) nowhere to hide from Him; nowhere He cannot influence. I prayed before going to see Vegas through His eyes. The neon lights just aren't bright enough to outshine our God, or to cover up the shame. The streets are filthy, and I recall someone commenting "I don't want to know" as we hopped over a stream of what might(?) have been water running across the sidewalk. The beautiful women on the cards were being trampled underfoot - and if you think about it their lifestyle was doing the same. I don't care how glamorous someone pretends that is ... its not.
I could almost feel lives being destroyed around me. Somewhere out in the city each night, at least one husband and father was falling captive to some kind of addiction. In plain sight, the elderly were numbly wasting their money. Sometimes playing two slot machines at once, you'd see them, smoking and not even blinking when they won something. I wonder how many people actually picked up the brochure titled "When it isn't fun anymore" that was hiding along the side of the ATM. The wise recognize that there is a problem, and give their money to someone else for safekeeping. Others believe the lie that they can recoup their losses. Even in the airport on the way home, I overheard someone on the phone saying they'd "make it up" to someone for the money they had lost.
What perhaps impressed me the most, however, is the natural beauty surrounding this electric heart beating wildly in the desert. Perhaps because it is so different from home, I was struck by the rich color of the surrounding mountains (I didn't even know to expect mountains) and the amazing sunsets refracted by the dust in the evening. If I ever go back, I hope to find a quiet spot in the desert to gaze up at the big open sky - I can only imagine it is breathtaking.
I'm thankful to be back home, and thankful to have felt God's presence with me even in a city that does everything it can to keep Him out.