Not long ago my work responsibilities took me to Hong Kong for three weeks. I’m a theology professor, and I was invited to teach a class on the four Gospels to a group of Chinese pastors. Two experiences from that visit brought into sharp focus deeper realities of the great battle between good and evil taking place around us.
A House of God
On my last Sabbath in Hong Kong I was invited to preach in the Filipino Adventist church. Hong Kong is affluent, so I anticipated an attractive church building with adequate, functional facilities. The reality was quite different. The street we entered was an unassuming apartment block on which the meeting hall—hardly bigger than my living room—was located. About 70 people, mostly women, sat closely together. Sabbath school had just begun.
As I took my seat, I was welcomed with warm smiles and handshakes. The lesson study was ably led by a lay leader. The congregants had studied well, and the discussion was lively and personal. I noticed that several people had tears in their eyes. Life is not always easy for them. Many had left families behind in villages in order to find work—which was often grueling—so they could earn money to send back home. As I looked around the room at these dear people, I was nearly moved to tears myself.
After the service we had lunch together. The meal was simple but tasty. I was then free to return to my guest room to rest, but several people asked me to stay for the afternoon program. Though a rest sounded inviting, I decided to stay.
The time was 1:57 p.m., and soon the afternoon program would begin. Suddenly I realized that as the guest speaker, I might be asked to preach again. In my mind I began to reformulate one of my recent sermons—and I was just in time. At 2:00 the program started with prayer and a song; the leader then announced that the time would be given to me.
I preached from Matthew’s Gospel about the love of God, and I again saw people in tears. We then had a Bible study on the life of Christ.
The program is probably over now, I thought, but once more the program leader announced that the time would be given over to me. I was completely unprepared. I offered a silent prayer and said that we would have a question-and-answer session. This was followed by a sermon on prophecy. We then sang, prayed, and closed the meeting.
It was now evening, and one of the members traveled with me to my guest room, more than an hour away.
“Will you be going home?” I asked when we reached our destination. “No,” he answered. “I will go back to the church.”
Suddenly I realized that to these people, church is not something they do out of habit once a week. Church is a haven for them. They live difficult lives, often in challenging circumstances. Church is their home—the place where they are accepted and loved, where they feel part of the large, beautiful family of God. They come tired, sometimes broken, but leave spiritually renewed with fresh courage to face another week.
I looked back on my day. I had preached three sermons. In a sense I felt tired, yet I also felt refreshed—spiritually refreshed and invigorated. I had felt the presence of God in the love, the kindness, and the deep spiritual experience of those brothers and sisters in Christ whom I had met for the first time. This church visit truly had been a house-of-God experience.
A House of Loss
The next morning a local pastor took me to visit Macau, known for beautiful Portuguese colonial architecture and its many casinos. When we first arrived, hawkers inundated us with leaflets and vouchers for the casinos. We then noticed a row of buses offering free rides into the city. A free ride sounded good, so we hopped on a bus and a few minutes later were dropped off in front of a casino. We decided to go in just to see what it was like and to find a place to eat.
My pastor friend and I had already been given two vouchers worth a total of US$30. Soon after we entered the place, a woman approached and said that we had been randomly chosen to receive a gift. She gave us two envelopes. Inside was the equivalent of US$150 in additional vouchers. Between the two of us we now had vouchers worth $180. They obviously wanted us to stay and gamble. Instead, we used the vouchers to purchase a vegetarian meal in the casino’s Japanese restaurant. We also took the opportunity to visit with the chef and shared the gospel message with him.
Back in the hotel lobby, everything shone in opulence—the floor, the decorations, the walls, the sheer abundance of space. A group of singers wandered the corridors serenading the guests with Asian-Latino music. We noticed a large golden calf surrounded with gifts and brilliant light. My mind immediately went to the golden calf of Exodus 32. This calf was not displayed in memory of Exodus; the Chinese New Year was fast approaching, and it was to be the Year of the Ox. Yet the parallel with Exodus 32 was too strong to discount.
The people gambling at the casino seemed to be enjoying themselves. Alcohol and soft drinks are offered free. But despite some laughter and excitement, my pastor friend and I noticed several individuals apparently experiencing deep and painful financial losses. Some, it seemed, had just wasted away all their savings. Despondency is never far away in a casino, nor is the potential for violence, I thought to myself as I noted the metal detectors by the doors.
What a Contrast!
It was then that the irony hit me. All these trappings—the vouchers, the free meals and drinks, the beautiful music, the decadence—are but a hook to grab prospective victims. The entire setup was not to entertain but to separate people from their money. Just the day before, on Sabbath, in the humble environment of a small hall in an unassuming apartment building, I sensed the presence of God. People went into that building wounded but left healed. In the opulence and magnificence of the casino, however, many people go in whole but leave wounded and despondent.
What a glaring contrast between the ways in which God and Satan work. God—ever loving, ever true—will work in any environment, whether it is humble or rich, to heal, bless, and offer a peace that surpasses all understanding. By contrast, Satan is the ultimate loser. Having nothing of substance to offer, he focuses on gratifying the senses and then destroys peace and wholeness. He leads his unsuspecting victims to ruin. His houses are but places of loss and pain. And they abound.
Thank God for the opposite reality: for places of worship such as the Filipino Adventist church in Hong Kong and the thousands of similar facilities throughout the world for those dear members who love the Lord and the people around them. As long as there are people and places of worship such as these, there is hope for this world.
May every Adventist church be a house of God in which wounded people can become whole.
Kim Papaioannou is a New Testament professor at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines.