While thinking about the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I’ve been thinking again about The Gambler, the Don Schlitz song that Kenny Rogers made famous in 1978.
While The Gambler isn’t Bible, the perspective it offers from the mouth of a whiskey starved voice of experience is hard to deny. After offering to trade the wisdom of the table for a swallow of a young man’s bottle, a voice in the night tells a story that is summed up like this,
Now Ev’ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
‘Cause ev’ry hand’s a winner and ev’ry hand’s a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”
At this point in the song, the storyteller concludes,
“So when he’d finished speakin’, he turned back towards the window,
Crushed out his cigarette and faded off to sleep.
And somewhere in the darkness the gambler, he broke even.
But in his final words I found an ace that I could keep.
You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”
Somehow those words have been mingling in my mind with the words the Apostle Paul’s own personal story. While telling what he’d learned along the way (Philippians 3), he shows that he too discovered that we all need to learn the skill of knowing what to hold, and what to let go of.
In his own unforgettable words Paul acknowledges that, while falling far short of the kind of man he wants to be, he longs to forget past mistakes and take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of him (Philip 3:12-14).
In other words, we really do need to know what to let go of, and what to hang on to, without being able to see how it is all going to play out.
Like The Gambler, Paul doesn’t see this skill as being just a matter of knowing the rules of the game. He too knows that life needs a wisdom that is more than knowledge. When it comes to reaching for the hand of God, it’s a matter of learning to draw on “the Spirit of Christ” rather than “our own flesh” (Philip 3:3) to see how to let go of whatever holds us down, and to reach longingly for that which will lift us up…
According to the song, even a drunken gambler has learned along the way that “’…ev’ry hand’s a winner and ev’ry hand’s a loser, And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”
Seems to me that even the last line about “the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep” reflects faintly what the whole of the Bible is teaching us. What could be wiser than than to pray for the skill of knowing how to play the hand that is dealt to us today—without having to know how it is all working out for our good—until we are with the One who holds all the cards?… and whose mercy endures forever!