Roll The Dice: Why Grace Is For Gamblers
I am no good at games of chance.
Once I had four Kings in a game of Texas Hold 'Em poker. FOUR KINGS. I was holding three Kings and one was in the flop. I played it masterfully. One by one everyone in the game dropped out except for one young woman, who was rather good and had a mass of chips. I wanted her chips, badly. It would meant a win for me, and I had not won a game of Texas Hold 'Em EVER. At the end of the betting, I laid my cards down in triumph. FOUR KINGS. Everyone gasped and a few people cheered. After staring for a moment at my cards, the young woman laid her cards down, too.
A Royal Flush.
Only the most elusive hands in all of poker.
No wonder my grandmother detested card games of all kinds. They lead to devilry.
I've also tried the lottery, but to no avail. The only thing I have ever won when playing the lottery is more lottery tickets, which, by the way, all ended up being losing tickets.
Once many years ago, I entered a football pool one year at my work. It cost a few dollars to enter into it, so the pot wasn't very large--maybe a hundred bucks or so. I lost every week but one. The week that I won, two other guys won, too. We had to split less than a hundred bucks three ways. That was also the week that a bunch of guys didn't play. I won twelve dollars.
The only football pool I ever won was one where money wasn't involved. Go figure.
I hear stories about people who gamble and win. There are people who are "professional" gamblers, who seem to do pretty well playing the odds. I don't get that, to be honest. It doesn't seem fair. The fact of the matter, though, is that most people are a lot like me. We come up short. We lose.
I'm even worse at Craps--you know the game where you roll the dice down a long felt table and everyone bets whether you are going to screw it up or not. I only tried it once, but that was enough for me. You'd think that I would have experienced a bit of beginners luck when I first tried my hand at Craps some years ago while on a cruise to the Bahamas. I sort of pictured myself like James Bond calmly tossing the die whilst wearing a nic white dinner jacket and with a beautiful girl next to me "for luck." Instead, I lost miserably whilst wearing an Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts with my wife off at the Blackjack table. I tried cupping my hands and blowing on the die like I saw in gangster movies, but it didn't work. Nothing worked.
In the end, I had to relinquish the pair of dice to another sap, and then I was forced to slink off to the slot machines. I sat next to an old lady, who grinned at me and pumped quarters into the slot and pulled the lever with a practiced rythym. I began clumsily putting quarters in and won a couple of times but soon realized that I was down $15 with no end in sight. Just then the old lady's machine started to jangle and a siren went off overhead. She'd hit the jackpot. Granted, it was only a $1,000 or so, but still.
I got to thinking about gambling and grace this week because I am preaching a sermon on Ephesians chapter 2. I know. Weird segue, right?
Anyway, in his letter to the 1st Century church in Ephesus, Paul explains in great detail that the way they had been living before they became followers of Jesus was a life that was basically devoid of real meaning. It was a life that was controlled by the adverse influences of their culture, held in fear by superstitions and dread of evil spirits and gods and goddesses, and driven by their selfish desires. They were, he described, spiritually dead because of the ways that they had intentionally stepped away from God, and by the ways that they had missed the mark when it came to goodness.
That last part made me pause a bit.
The Greek word that Paul uses for "sin" is hamartia, which means quite literally "to shoot and miss." This understanding of what it means to sin is a whole lot different than the one that I grew up with.
When I was a kid and attending the fundamentalist Baptist churches that my family was a part of, we heard a lot about sin. But sin wasn't "shooting and missing" to the preachers who held court in our churches for an hour or more on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings and Wednesday nights (we were in church a lot), sin was something pretty darned egregious. If you drank beer, you were a sinner. If you watched Knots Landing on TV, you were a sinner. If you smoked cigarettes---sinner. If you were a woman and wore tight pants that showed off too much of your superstructure so that men lusted--sinner. If you were a homosexual, you were worse than a sinner---you were on a one way trip to Hell.
Oh, and if you played games of chance... serious sinner, man.
The problem with our understanding of sin was that it was all about what other people were doing. And there were gradations of sin--a sin continuum, if you will: Knots Landing Watchers on one end and Cross Dressers & Gamblers on the other.
But in Ephesians chapter 2 Paul says (and I am paraphrasing here), "Your inner, spiritual life was completely dead because of the ways that you had stepped away from God and the ways that you were constantly falling short of being the people that God had intended you to be..."
This doesn't sound like something that has been invented by theologians, dramatized by crazy preachers and used to marginalize people who don't seem to measure up to what a few angry folk who call themselves Christian seem to think is right and proper. This is something that we all have in common. This is something that permeates all of our lives and the world around us.
Nothing is as it should be.
I mean sometimes we get glimpses of the way things ought to be. Just like sometimes you can roll the dice and win, right? But for the most part, there is space between where we are and where we should be.
And that space is where Grace happens.
The word for "Grace" that Paul uses in Ephesians 2 is charis, which is the translation of a Hebrew word (aren't I pretentious?) hesed. Hesed means, "loving-kindness." The way that it is used in the ancient Hebrew tradition is as the kind of love that comes from deep within the heart--the kind of love that is not deserved yet given. It's the kind of love that comes when someone has a deep and lasting covenant with someone else and everything they do or say springs from that place. God's grace is like that. God's grace fills in the empty spaces of where we are and where we should be. And it comes from a place of deep and abiding love--the kind of love that only God can muster.
In fact, when we busy ourselves with trying to find some worse sinner than us, we are making the whole concept of Grace all about us and not about God. Like somehow we have managed to figure out things on our own and are a little bit higher up the food chain than some other poor sap. As if.
And we'll do stupid stuff like condemn someone for living an "immoral" lifestyle, then we'll go cheat on our taxes. Or some people, who call themselves "pro-life" will blast away at those who support abortion but then uncritically support war and capital punishment. Some of us wouldn't dare treat a stranger with disrespect or rudeness, but submit our own families to hateful words and ill treatment.
We can't possibly pull off this whole salvation thing on our own. We are too messed up. It's God's deep abiding love alone that saves us in the end. Paul tells the Ephesians, "Because of God's grace and not because of anything that you could do, you have been and are being saved."
I need to hear those words. Our salvation comes in those grace-filled spaces that occur each and every day as we aim, shoot and miss. We're almost always going to miss. And even if we do land close to the target, it's never right in the dead center, it's never a perfect score, it's never enough. When I begin to understand this more fully, I can see that no amount of "good works" on my part is going to cut it.
And this is the way God prefers us---Unfinished and in need of God and God's grace.