Better Than Poker

Posted by Melvin Bray on February 16th, 2007 filed in Useful Perhaps

This is an article I published at Re-Inventing the Adventist Wheel back in November 2006.

I have heard that the emerging church is a white, middle-class, American, momentary digression. Well, I don’t fit but one of these categories, and regarding that one, I often wonder to what degree. Notwithstanding, I find myself in the thick of this growing, generative and, I believe, God-sent Emergent conversation about God’s dream for the entirety of God’s good creation. One of my greatest hopes in all this is that, as those caught up in emergence enact our creative commission of pulling God’s future into our present (thanks to NT Wright for such a beautiful image), we might finally embrace a vision of a present worthy of God’s kingdom [Mark 9:14-37].

Now some of you may be asking, “who am I to determine what’s worthy of God’s kingdom or not?” Please, don’t get it twisted, I’m not. I just know that the organized church puts good money and effort and other resources into making absolutely clear where it stands on pro-life vs. pro-choice, homosexuality vs. heterosexuality, civil unions vs. marriage, liberalism vs. conservatism, works vs. grace, traditional vs. contemporary, and whatever other either-ors, who’s-in-or-who’s-outs, labels or lines we like to assign or draw. On the other hand, who can deny that 2000 years into this thing the better part of the organized church has yet to embody simple, kingdom-come realities like “love hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things” in contrast to the prevailing norms of society. Wasn’t it Christians leading the charge to retaliate after 9-11?

Having grown up Seventh-day Adventist, I am uncomfortably familiar with all the ways we let ourselves off the hook from even attempting to die to our own self-interest in similitude to Jesus. After all, isn’t sanctification (becoming more like Christ) “the work of a lifetime?” Notwithstanding “whomever the Son sets free is free indeed,” if we who believe don’t take the challenges of Jesus seriously, why should anyone else?

Still most move through life endorsing this-or-that false alternative of the ones presented to us, hoping God will accept our good intentions as meaningful. After all, wasn’t it God who chalked our righteousness up to nothing more than filth? So what more could God expect?

One possibility comes to mind as inherent in the contexts in which Jesus use to whisper, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” I must admit I often missed it reading scripture, but I caught a glimpse of it talking to a friend about a blog he posted. He helped me to understand why I am so awful at poker.

Now, I know some of you Adventists, or others of the Wesleyan ilk, are thinking (or working real hard to suppress the knee-jerk response) that you already know why I’m no good at poker. I shouldn’t be playing it, that’s why, you might say. Gambling is a sin, isn’t it? Not to mention the whole cultic, satanic or otherwise nefarious history behind a standard deck of playing cards. Well, if you just can’t stomach the thought of using poker as a springboard toward a metaphor for a life well lived, substitute Uno or Rook (a game I truly don’t get), but come with me.

The reason neither my friend, Troy, nor I am any good at poker is that we suffer from the affliction of being able to see the possibilities in any hand. If only we were more cynical! To use Troy’s words, “I will play a 7/2 suited because of a possible flush. Even after a flop with only one of my suits, I might stay in. Any good poker player will tell you that the best move in poker is ‘fold.’ The key is to see the flop when possible but not tie all your money up in playing bad hands. You have to wait, some times several games, to see the hand that is either a sure bet or worth the gamble.”

As we sat in a park one day commiserating about our shared ineptitude in poker, we wondered whether it might also prove a liability in life. Our attention soon turned to where exactly grace comes in (how all these things flowed together God only knows). Is grace the ability to risk smartly or the patience to hold or the foresight to know when to fold or the ability to survive loss or the vision to see possibilities (in life, even when it doesn’t serve well in poker)? Then something came to me that I know I’m not smart enough to have figured out. What if grace is none of these things metaphorically? Or what if it’s all of these things progressively? What if grace breaks into our experience creating new possibilities on whatever terms we can conceive them, yet what if ultimately it ends up subverting the entire game of life as we understand it? Maybe Troy and I suck at poker simply because it’s the wrong game for us. What if poker—metaphorically speaking—is too small a game for life as God dreams of it? What if grace is the imagination to see the game of life in “new and living” ways that make not only believable, but possible, kingdom-come realities like “pray for those who persecute or despitefully use you?”

This is where the poker metaphor becomes especially telling, because poker’s an entrepreneur’s game, and we live in a country convinced of the entrepreneurial myth that those who achieve are primarily those who work the hardest at it. Uno, on the other hand, is a child’s game—no risk, no consequences, no gains, no losses, everything’s just for fun. Rook, though not as frivolous, is equally as inconsequential (what’s the ante?), yet is the type of poor imitating we church-folk like to do that doesn’t reach for kingdom-come, but makes more ‘Christian Correct’ some superficial aspect of a thing.

Poker, however, has all the stuff we’ve been told real life in a market-overrun world is made of: wager, risk, raising the ante, profit, forfeiture, winners, losers, holders and those who can’t even afford to buy in. It’s the perfect metaphor for late-modernity—love it or hate it. ‘Such is life,’ we hear with a simultaneous twitch of the cheek, shrug of the shoulders and raise of the eyebrows, and we believe it. Still I can’t help but wonder why. When did Christians become so cynical or pessimistic? Perhaps its owing to some sort of Calvinist, original sin/total depravation, theological fatalism working in us. If one follows the doctrine all the way out, how can one avoid it? Or maybe, closer to home, it’s the natural expectation of a self-righteous legalism that insists that even in God’s economy people get what they deserve. “According to their works,” right?

Part of what makes Jesus such a polarizing figure is that He challenges the validity of this narrative (story) we’ve all bought into: he subverts its appeal as the only game in town. Today, those who claim the name of Christ number in the billions. But what’s the use in claiming Christ just to domesticate his hopes for what life can and should be?

The imagination to envision diplomacy as the primary if not only acceptable response to terrorism, or “enough for all” as an achievable economic structure, or a society where abortion is the least viable option as opposed to legislated against in a regressive act of female slavery is the grace that has been afforded us. Karma or the admonishment to do good because “what goes around, comes around,” which clearly has a self-interested motive to it, is the best that good-hearted people can come up with and is a worthy aspiration for any human kingdom. Grace, which theologian Miroslav Volf describes simply as “giving more than one expects in return,” is totally others-interested, and something that only a deity could have dreamed up. However now that it is. Now that we’ve been shown the possibility of a more beautiful game, where the stakes are higher, but so are the rewards, isn’t it high time that followers in the way of Jesus aspire toward it?

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

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One Response to “Better Than Poker”

  1. Pat Says:

    Some good stuff here, Melvin. Thanks for republishing it.

    I realize that I too “suffer from the affliction of being able to see the possibilities in any hand.”

    It seems that this approach to life is inevitable when we really get that the kingdom of God has come.

    Yet, it can also make it very difficult to choose between options, or to fold when we need to.

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