The Key to Life and Poker
MARCH 6, 2019
We just returned from vacation in the mountains of North Carolina near where I grew up.
We had a great time; but after a week, I was climbing the walls. When we drove into our garage last night, I felt a sense of relief. My wife thinks I’m crazy. We were in a wonderful mountain setting, we were with friends we like a lot, and we played the whole time. Why in the world would a restful and fun vacation drive me nuts?
Let me tell you. You can’t control vacations. That’s why.
You can’t control retirement either. Almost all my friends who are my age are either retired or dead. The live ones often ask me when I’m going to retire. My answer is always the same, “When I drool or die.” When one retires, one loses control. And it’s the same with Christmas. I would really like to give you a religious reason for my dislike of Christmas. I guess I could tell you that they’ve taken Jesus out of Christmas, it’s become a pagan holiday, and there’s a war against Christmas. But the truth is I don’t care about any of that. Well, I do but not much. The truth is that it’s almost impossible to control Christmas.
I haven’t been a pastor for a long time, but I was one for almost 30 years. The Bible says that if you can do 25 years as a pastor, you get a free pass to heaven. They don’t even ask about Jesus. They just invite you in and offer congratulations. When a dog plays checkers, one doesn’t criticize his game; one is simply surprised that he’s playing at all. If one can, as it were, play checkers for that many years, the angels are amazed and you get a free pass.
Where in the Bible does it say that?
I’m not sure, but it must.
I’m often asked if I miss being a pastor. My answer here is always the same as well. A cure for depression is to remember that it could be worse. It really could be worse…I could still be a pastor. But there is one place where I would put an addendum. I do miss having some control over what happens in church. If you’re not the pastor or an officer (I’m neither), you have no control. If you don’t like the music, the decisions of the leadership, or the mission statement of the church, there isn’t a thing you can do about it. Frankly, I would like a little control.
What would you change if you could?
Well, nothing…but that’s not the point. If there were something I didn’t like, I wouldn’t be able to change it. It would be nice to know that I would at least have a vote. I can’t change anything because I have absolutely no control.
Of course it is, but it’s also human, sinful…and maybe a bigger sin than most of us would suppose. In fact, I believe that our need to control is at the heart of our fear, shame, guilt, and much of our disobedience. At least that’s true for me.
Sometimes a biblical text may address one issue and end up giving principles that relate to a pile of other issues. That’s true of Matthew 6:25-34. In those verses, Jesus is addressing our anxiety and asks us to “consider” the “lilies of the field” and the “birds of the air” that are all under God’s care and provision. He says that we can’t—no matter how many vitamins we take or how many trips we make to the gym—add even an hour to the length of our lives. Then that passage on anxiety ends with these words: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
The issue addressed here is anxiety, but the principle is about control. Jesus is saying that in the area of control, we don’t have any or at least not very much. Not only that, pretending that we do is silly, sinful, and destructive. In fact, now that I look back on the days when I was the pastor in the churches I served, I didn’t have much control then either. Nothing ever went the way I tried to make it go, people didn’t do what I wanted them to do, and my plans often looked like Jericho after the trumpets.
So Jesus says that in life and in poker (well, he didn’t include poker, but it works there too) we do better when we recognize that we serve a sovereign God who loves us. Or as Thomas à Kempis said, “Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.” I looked it up and it means “man proposes, but God disposes.”
Now don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t mean that we do nothing. The Bible is a curious mix of passive/aggressive teaching. Spurgeon said that we should work as if everything depends on us and pray knowing that everything depends on God. In other words, do all you can…and then go get a milkshake.
My friend Tal Prince says that he gave up making resolutions because it became apparent to him that he didn’t have the ability to keep them. So instead of making resolutions, he now makes relinquishments. That really is the key to giving up control. It’s intentionally relinquishing everything to God, doing what you can do, and then leaving it alone.
When you relinquish control, really good things happen in life and in poker. For instance, you can risk. The problem with most of us is that we spend way too much of our time worrying that we’ll say the wrong thing, not be good enough, offend people, make a tragic mistake, lose everything, or get hurt, etc., so we become paralyzed. You should never play poker if you can’t afford to lose. Only those who risk ever win and only those who risk are able to deal with losing. That’s also true of the Christian walk.
For instance, when one relinquishes control, you can walk away when you need to walk away. That great theologian and metaphysician, Kenny Rogers, sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em and know when to walk away.” Frankly, there are some problems that don’t have any solutions, some messes that can’t be cleaned up, some people who can’t be changed, some sins with which we will always struggle, and some walls that are just too high to climb.
I recently started going to a new doctor, Robert Schamberger, and I like him a lot. During my physical, he asked me if I smoked. I told him that I smoked a pipe and—before he could say anything—I asked him if he drank. He allowed that he did. “So,” I said to him, “let’s make a deal. I’ll leave you alone about your booze and you leave me alone about my pipe.”
He started laughing and said, “That works for me.”
There’s a strange kind of relief in doing all you can, knowing it’s all you can do, and then leaving it alone. Only a believer can do that because a believer knows that God is in control and we aren’t.
There’s one other upside to relinquishing control. It’s the discovery that God is good all the time and he knows what he’s doing (or in the case of poker, the dealer doesn’t cheat). That’s the only possible reason Paul could say in 2 Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” That’s crazy! Well, it’s crazy…unless every circumstance in life is under the sovereign God who creates, rules, and sustains all that is (Romans 11:33-35). It may seem unfair, uncomfortable and hard to swallow, but asking and receiving from God the kind of faith that affirms his sovereignty creates a very powerful prayer: “Father, I don’t understand you, but I trust you,”
When Anna and I were dating in college, I didn’t have two dimes to rub together. I couldn’t afford dinner, a movie, or sometimes even an ice cream cone. Our dates were often no more than just walking around campus and talking. I used to say to Anna that I was sorry I couldn’t afford more. She said to me then (and a good many other times subsequent to college), “Steve, I don’t care where we go as long as I’m with you.”
Giving up control—thus enjoying vacations, Christmas and church—is saying to a loving God, “I don’t care where we go, what we do, or how long it takes, as long as I’m with you.” But it’s more profound than that. It’s the way we’re called to deal with the heavy stuff—past issues of abuse, a diagnosis of cancer, failure, divorce, a bad marriage, financial disaster, and even our struggle with sin. It’s relinquishment. That’s the key to life and poker.
I just realized that what I wrote sounds so bleak. It really isn’t. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s the source of joy, laughter and freedom; getting a better night’s sleep; and in my case, being far less grumpy than I am. And don’t forget the rest of the story.
For a Christian, there is always the rest of the story.
He asked me to remind you.