When the Mekong River rounds the bend at Chiang Khong in northern Thailand, it still has many hundreds of miles to go before it reaches the sea. But it is already nearly half a mile wide.
On a Sabbath morning late last year, I stood on the Mekong's banks with 12 Ambassador College students who had come to Thailand to teach Indochinese refugees.
At our feet, the river's brown-gray waters swirled by, driven by fierce currents from floodwaters from the mountains of China.
"On the opposite bank we could see a little town sleeping peacefully in the hot morning sun.
A few fishing boats lay quietly at anchor. Wooden houses rose from the water's edge and followed the twisting streets to the banana plantations on the hills beyond. The sun glinted on the gold spire of the Buddhist temple. We heard the sound of a dog barking, of geese cackling as they glided across the river.
Through my telephoto lens I could clearly see women washing clothes at the water's edge and a lone fisherman mending his nets. Here was Southeast Asia at its best, tranquil and inviting. We might have been tempted to borrow one of the little boats tied up on our side of the river and row leisurely across the Mekong to see this charming village at close quarters.
But if we had done so, we might never have come back!
You see, the Mekong River at Chiang Khong marks the border between Thailand and communist Laos. And the peaceful village was part of an alien land ruled by belligerent, ruthless men, agents of a repressive and godless regime.
A young Buddhist monk came down from the Thai temple behind us. "Don't be deceived," he said. "It looks peaceful, but it is no longer safe to go over there. They shoot at our fishermen. So we have closed the border. Most of us don't even go in the river now."
At this point a long, narrow fishing boat came around the bend, hugging the bank. A Thai flag was tied to its short mast.
The monk explained: "He has to be careful. He must stay on our side of the river. But the current is strong. If it should carry him over to their side, the communists might shoot at him"
"You mean there are soldiers over there right now?" I asked. I remembered the stories we had heard of refugees being shot as they tried to swim across the Mekong to escape.
"Yes, yes, of course, soldiers."
Suddenly the quiet village didn't seem so peaceful.
"He is quite safe if he stays on our side," the monk continued, pointing to the fisherman. "But if he should get caught in the current, he might be shot. Please be careful on the river," he cautioned.
"OK," I told the students. "Rule No. I on this expedition is: Stay off the river. Let's not take any risks. Don't swim in it, sail in it or even dip your feet in it."
The students replied with enthusiasm, "Yes, sir!"
Actually, it was one rule I didn't need to make. No one in his right mind would voluntarily go on the Mekong.
Maybe it was safe on our side. But where did our side end and theirs begin? You were still in Thailand if you stayed close to the shore. But what if the current carried you out into the "gray area" in the middle? Would a trigger-happy guard, itching to take a shot at you, even if (or perhaps, especially if) you were flying a Thai flag, agree with you on the line of demarcation?
Later that afternoon, we sat around the table in an informal Bible study and discussed the wider implications of the lesson we had learned. Simply stated, it is this: Stay out of the gray areas.
The lure of Satan's world Satan is a deceiver. He makes his way look good. Like the little Lao town across the Mekong, Satan often puts up a good front. Even though this world is doomed, it can seem like a pleasant place at times.
Never before have people had so much to choose from — varieties of food, fashions, entertainment, appliances, furnishings and even lifestyles. Most of us do not yet have to beseech God for our daily bread.
Some of this variety is good. God is the Author of variety. His creation abounds with different sizes, shapes, colors and sounds. But we must be careful, for not all variety and opportunity are from God.
Paul warned the prosperous Corinthian church that it was sometimes difficult to recognize Satan's true colors, for he was transformed into an "angel of light" (II Cor. 11:14). In the same way, Satan's world may also appear wonderful and entertaining. Sometimes we can fail to clearly see the real Satan and the insane, ferocious resentment, hatred and anger he feels for every potential Member of God's Family, whether in the Church or not yet called.
Those in Nazi Germany felt it. And there have been no holds barred in Cambodia since 1975. Soon, the whole world will feel Satan's wrath as he brings his civilization crashing down about our ears.
The devil plans to turn this world into one vast refugee camp, betraying every last human being who served his systems and trusted his governments. His only motive for dealing with man is to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10).
"Clean escaped" Satan, said the apostle John, has deceived the whole world (Rev. 12:9). Only a very few have ever "clean escaped from them who live in error" wrote Peter (II Pet. 2:18). These few include those God has called to be a part of His Church today, to work behind His 20th-century apostle in preparing for that better, honest, undeceiving environment we call the world tomorrow.
"Clean escaped" — what a graphic phrase Peter used! Have you ever thought of yourself as a former prisoner of war, "clean escaped" from Satan's system, now making your way through hostile enemy territory to the Kingdom of God?
That's how Satan regards you. He has a special hatred for those who dare to escape his system.
Pastor General Herbert W. Armstrong has continually warned that as Satan's last years run out, he is increasing his efforts to subvert and undermine God's people.
This perverted but incredibly powerful and intelligent superbeing will do his best to get you back into his clutches along with the rest of the human race. Christ warned that if it were possible, Satan would deceive even the very elect (Matt. 24:24).
Paul said we need not be ignorant of Satan's devices (II Cor. 2:11). His tactics are those of a lion on the prowl (I Pet. 5:8), stealthily watching and waiting to pounce on a zebra who wanders too far from the herd.
Christ's apostles at both ends of the Christian era have called out to God's people to be sober and vigilant — aware of the danger (I Pet. 5:8, Jas. 4:7, Eph. 4:27). These apostles — special targets of Satan's wrath — knew and know the danger as no other men can (Luke 22:31). And so they warn us to stay out of Satan's way!
Hold to the trunk of the tree I remember a ministerial conference I attended several years ago.
Mr. Armstrong called and said he would be late that morning, and asked that the conference start without him. The meeting was temporarily conducted by one of the senior ministers. The ministers were discussing a question on some aspect of Christian living, but somehow got bogged down in a quagmire of "what if' questions.
After about an hour Mr. Armstrong arrived and, of course, the temporary chairman immediately handed control over to him. Mr. Armstrong settled himself behind the desk and then asked, "Now, what are you fellows discussing?"
The ex-chairman explained and then said, honestly: "But we were not getting anywhere. It's one of those gray areas."
"Well," said Mr. Armstrong, "what are we doing in the gray areas? Stick to the trunk of the tree. Then we can see clearly."
We did, and soon the problem was resolved.
It was a good lesson. Too often we wander into those gray areas. Most of us don't leap suddenly and deliberately into Satan's darkness. We edge away from the light. Not too far at first. We think we are safe, because we can still see the light.
But how close can you get to Satan's world, with its false glitter and deceitful allure, and still be safe?
How close can you get to lying, cheating, stealing, lusting and fornicating, for instance? How much prayer can you miss without suffering a lethal underdose?
How long can you go without opening a Bible, keeping second tithe, participating in a church activity, correcting a child, reading coworker letters or praying for the sick?
How much dissident literature can you read without becoming disenchanted? Remember, it is designed to worry you, so you will have questions.
How long can you read pornographic magazines, watch violent movies, neglect your marriage, eat wrong foods? How long can you remain a "free thinker," less than totally committed to God and His Church?
How many Sabbath services is it "OK" to miss? Just how dark does Friday evening have to get before it is sundown for you?
In all these instances and in many others we could mention, there is perhaps a gray area. It may not be fatal at first. But it's only a matter of time before "longer" becomes "too long," "occasionally" becomes "often" and a "bit more" becomes "too much." Then, "seldom" becomes "never."
The gray areas are like the Mekong.
Maybe — just maybe — some of the river close to the Thai border is safe. But the farther you get out toward the middle, the stronger the current becomes. Suddenly, there is a point when you are no longer in control, although you may not realize it. But the communist soldiers know.
They are watching and waiting. They have you clearly fixed in the sights of their high-powered rifles, and their fingers are curling around the triggers.
Safe, sure ground Not every gray area is as well defined as the mighty Mekong. But all are potentially dangerous.
So Christ, through His servants, shows us how to be sure we stay on the safe and sure ground. It's the terra firma of sound doctrine, loyal support, unswerving commitment, humility, obedience and faith. We aren't perfect yet, and we all have our lapses — but don't let yourself stray too far.
If things start looking gray, take steps to get back quickly. Because out there somewhere, where the gray starts getting black, lurk Satan and his demons, waiting for you to take that one fateful step too far.