Play to the River

low hand

With the recent interest in Poker and the televised World Series of Poker held each year here in Las Vegas, it’s hard to live here and not indulge in some live poker action from time to time.  My game of choice is Texas Limit Holdem, the same as played on the WSOP but with limits on betting. The game is simple in that each player is dealt two hole cards and then uses them with the community cards dealt to the table to make the best hand possible, or bluff your way to the pot if you have nothing.  The first three community cards the dealer lays down is called the Flop. Upon the Flop each player will bet or fold their hand. Then a single card is dealt, the fourth card, referred to as the Turn card.  Again, the remaining players will bet out or fold based on what they can play or bluff. The remaining and often deciding card, the fifth community card is called the River.  More times than not, this card determines the value of your hole cards and whether you were correct to play your hand or if perhaps you should have folded and cut your losses.  There is a lot of strategy involved from knowing odds, reading faces, ability to act or remain completely silent.  You will notice if you watch live poker on TV that players will wear shades to prevent other players from being able to see their eyes.  Eyes can give away a players hand value.  The best players in the world are those who leave their shades at home and play to the River.

I can’t help but to draw a comparison between poker and life, especially as we try to walk after Christ.  Okay, so I just lost about half of you who are thinking how can a Christian compare a spiritual journey to a poker game.  This isn’t about advocating or prohibiting live gambling-that’s a matter of personal conviction. Let me continue in my own words. When you are playing and your dealt hole cards are two Aces or and Ace and King, you might get excited at the great chances you have of winning the hand. Many people are born into situations of advantage and apparent ease. Maybe you’ve never suffered personal loss. Maybe your family has wealth and you had good schools and education, married right and have perfect kids.  Life so far is good. But then life happens. It’s an amazing statistic in poker that Aces lose close to half of the time! The hand may be the highest hand you can start with but can easily lose to three deuces or a small straight. How many times have we seen the perfect family from the outside suffer through a painful affair and divorce, or their kids ending up drug addicts. You hear the comments that they came from good homes-no one expected the outcome-everyone is shocked. When you are dealt a high hand you are not guaranteed success. In fact it requires a greater strategy to protect your hand from loss because the River card can give someone a winning straight or a flush and you will lose all you have invested in what you deemed a sure thing. We see it every day-politicians caught in affairs-corporate CEOs caught embezzling-rich kids being convicted of felony crimes and yes, Pastors and evangelists stepping away from ministry due to improprieties. When we measure our two-seven hand against a pair of Kings we feel like we were short changed and have no chance of winning. The temptation to fold and throw away the hand is great. To stay in at this point would require more time and investment and your losses could be increased.

On the other hand (pun intended) life deals you the lowest hand possible, a two-seven off suit. You see no value in staying in the game and in most cases you would fold this hand-it has little chance of being a winner. You weren’t born into privilege. You have an illness that affects your lifestyle. You can’t find adequate work, the kids don’t call, you may be alone due to divorce or separation, depressed and ready to fold. Yet you have a faith and a belief in someone higher-Christ, who sees your hand and may even be your dealer, and in spite of overwhelming odds you play the hand and stay in the game.   One rule of poker is you can’t cash a pot if you aren’t in the hand to the end.  So you journey on and wait to see if life will improve on your hand. Then comes the Flop, the first three community cards, a six, a three and a King-all different suits, no help to you or your cause at all. In fact the over card of the King reduces your chances of winning even more. Surely someone in the game is holding a King and just paired up. You have virtually no shot of winning this hand.

The enemy likes this game. He likes to remind us of our failures, our short comings, our history and track record. We look at the percentages and feel like the enemy is right. It’s easy to feel the weight of doubt when we focus on what we can see and not on what might be coming for us. It’s hard to claim the promises of God when we can’t see the evidence of favor in our current circumstances, when we can’t hear his voice when we pray, when we desperately long for his presence but can’t seem to find him.  I can’t begin to tell you how many hands I threw away only to find that the Turn and River cards would have secured the victory for me if only I had stayed in the hand.  And yet against overwhelming odds and a hand full of relative nothing, you play on because the Spirit prompts you to remain faithful.

The Turn card is a five-no help, no pairs, nothing to bet out on except a pure bluff. It is so hard to continue the fight when it appears that nothing is falling your way. You go to church, you pray, you study the Word, you give, you feel like you are doing everything right but just can’t find victory or peace in your life, and can’t get beyond the hand you are holding, but you play on and ask for God’s help and peace in your struggles, believing with everything in you that he still has a plan for your life.

The River card comes out, almost in slow motion.  On live TV the dealing of the River is extended to create drama as it can make the difference. The card is a four. You played out a losing hand all the way to the River in faith that God was working on your behalf even if you couldn’t detect his engagement, even if there was no evidence of success, even though many had advised you to lay down the hand and quit. But you played on to the River and found that you were in possession of a straight, a hand that wins most every time.  That one little card dealt last, that off suit 4, tied all the lose ends of your scattered life together in a way that now made sense. All your nothingness now had value and secured for you a winning hand. Your faithfulness paid off and the hand life dealt you was victorious after all!

If you are holding a hand full of nothing and are tempted to fold it and give up, be encouraged that no hand wins until the River card is dealt, and that as long as you are in the hand, you can still win! Thank God for his promises which are true. Thank God that he has plans for us that we know nothing about until it’s revealed just in time. I am currently holding a hand full of nothing. The circumstances I face aren’t what I’d call a winning hand and I’m not sure exactly what God is up to in my life. But I know enough to stay in the game, stay faithful to God even if I lose the hand, and by all means, play all the way to the River!  God Bless!

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