For the past eleven years, I have been spending three days in January at the Hilton Garden Inn in Des Plaines, Illinois. This is where the North Central Jurisdiction Committee on the Episcopacy and the NCJ College of Bishops meets every year. For eight years, I represented the West Michigan Conference on the NCJ Committee on Episcopacy, and for the last three years I have participated in the College of Bishops as the episcopal leader of Iowa.
Both groups have their own agendas. However, part of the time we spend together building relationships, and, in the case of last week, discerning and praying about who God is calling us to “be” at the special called General Conference in February. Each bishop also meets with a small group of Episcopacy Committee members to give an update on our lives and ministries. In addition, a mid-quadrennial evaluation is completed for each bishop by selected lay and clergy members of each bishop’s annual conference. It’s always a spiritually enriching and blessed time.
I observe two “traditions” for my yearly visit to the Hilton Garden Inn in Des Plaines. In 2009, I was preparing for the Boston Marathon in April and decided to train for the Boston hills by running up and down the ten flights of hotel stairs early one morning during my stay. I’ve continued my yearly “memorial” stair climb each January.
My other tradition is to visit the Rivers Casino, which is a five-minute walk from the hotel. The Rivers Casino opened in 2011, and my inquisitive nature led me to check it out. I do not normally frequent casinos and agree with our United Methodist Social Principles, “Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, destructive of good government and good stewardship. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.” (¶ 163G, United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2016)
Every year, my experience is the same. The huge rotating sign outside the casino urges me inside: Bigger Jackpots! Let’s Go Big! Up Your Game! As I gaze around the packed casino, all I see is people, some in wheelchairs and even hauling oxygen tanks, but most mindlessly pulling on slot machine handles, eyes glazed over. Although there are the occasional whoops and hollers of a winner, few people look happy.
I am bombarded by sights and sounds, all carefully orchestrated to encourage me to become a winner. Hypnotic rotating wheels, amazing video displays, and flashing images are intended to keep me focused solely on the games. Fifty table games, including Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, 3 card poker, Baccarat, Mississippi stud, Pai-gow, and Caribbean Stud, beckon me to gamble.
Almost 1,000 slot machines are programmed to deliver small, frequent “prizes” at irregular intervals, psychologically manipulating me to keep coming back in the hope of finally hitting the jackpot. Naturally, the big jackpots only come when huge bets are placed, thus encouraging gamblers to risk more money. History is strewn with gamblers who won the big one, only to lose it all within hours.
In its relatively brief existence, Rivers Casino has become the leading casino in Illinois in gross income. According to the Illinois Gaming Board, Rivers had 3.1 million admissions in 2017, with adjusted gross receipts of more than $433 million. By comparison, the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church approved a general church budget of $604 million for the 2017-2020 quadrennium.
Every time I enter Rivers Casino, I learn something new about human nature and about the church and my faith.
- As disciples of Jesus, we need to be upfront and honest when sharing our faith with others. Whereas the casino always wins, you and I will almost always not win. The heart of Christianity is found in losing, not winning. Jesus says we have to lose our lives in order to save them. The first will be last, and the last will be first. Being a Christ-follower implies thinking of others as better than ourselves, emptying ourselves, and humbly asking, “Could I be wrong?”
- In the casino, everyone is welcome to play the slots and lose their money, although the high rollers are often given preferential treatment. As Christians, we also need to be transparent about who is welcome in our church and who isn’t. If we say everyone is welcome, then we must live that out by how we greet guests, how we invite others to participate in the leadership of the church, and by our conscious decision to be inclusive. I suspect that gamblers treat the strangers sitting next to them with more kindness than some of our church members treat “outsiders” sitting in their pew.
- It is important for Christians need to understand the difference between gambling and risking. The only sensible way to approach gambling is to be prepared to lose everything. If we place a $5 bill in a slot machine, it is not a risk, it’s an almost sure loss. With gambling, we have to be able to anticipate and absorb the loss, but the addictive thrill of winning the “big one” keeps us coming back.
- Risk, on the other hand, is an important part of our Christian faith. When we risk stepping outside our comfort zone to engage our communities in deeds of love and caring, we grow in grace and hope. Risk is thoughtfully and wisely making big decisions to give ourselves away, while gambling pays no heed to failure.
- Whereas signs outside the casino like “Bigger Jackpots!” “Let’s Go Big!” And “Up Your Game!” may rally people around the gambling table, the signs that describe the mission of a disciple of Jesus are more like “Lose Your Life,” “Love Your Neighbor,” and “Make a Difference.”
A few years ago, I had a conversation with a retired pastor in his 90’s who was so invested in the future of The United Methodist Church that he even volunteered to pastor a church if it would help. He said, “The church has to change, or it will die. We have to change our image by putting a moratorium on judging and welcoming everyone into the church, without exception. We also need to be continually offering spiritual growth and mission opportunities to people and sending them out in ministry wherever there is hurt and pain in our world.”
As I wander the casino, observing and praying, the words of this pastor still linger in my heart. As different as the church and the casino seem to be, they are also very much alike. Many people go to the casino to find community and acceptance. Strangers get to know each other when they sit side by side. There is a remarkable camaraderie around both winning and losing.
In the same way, the church is the body of Christ in our world. It’s where we connect with God and others as we pursue a common mission to bring in the kingdom of heaven. Human beings yearn to be in relationship with one another and be accepted for who they are. Healthy churches provide multiple opportunities for people to form deep and lasting commitments and then go, make a difference.
Wouldn’t it just be better to tell the truth before people walk through the door of the church? “Enter at your own risk. Even if you’re fortunate enough to come in a winner, you’ll leave a loser. Only when you recognize your weakness and vulnerability will you see your need for a savior. Join the rest of us losers, for when Jesus gets a hold of you, you’re going to die to everything you hold dear. God may ask you to give up your career, your home, your salary, or your long-cherished misconceptions about life and other people. You may even end up at the bottom of the rung rather than the top: dead last. Up your game or lose your life. What will it be for you?