The sky rumbles and lightning streaks across it with increasing recapitulations of the first hesitant flashes. It promises to be a night of glorious noisiness and beautiful pouring down rain I always anticipate joyfully in the Spring. You might almost call it a guilty pleasure; guilty because always lurking in the corner of my brain is the realization that there is danger and terror for some in the skies; pleasure because I can’t imagine a more powerful demonstration of nature’s re-creation.
“The rain and snow come down from the heavens and stay on the ground to water the earth. They cause the grain to grow, producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry.”
But, it’s not my intention to write about the weather tonight. If it’s talk of the weather you crave, you need only to walk into your local barbershop and sit down. You’ll be embroiled in an earnest conversation about the heat, or cold, or wind, or rain, within seconds. Come to think of it, you need not go to the barbershop; head for the florist shop, or the grocery store, or even the library. We humans talk of the weather when we dare not delve deeper into more personal subjects which have real bearing on our feelings, and beliefs, and very existence. No, I’ll move on, even though I will keep an ear out for the rain as it alternately pounds and then gently murmurs on the metal roof above my head. Who has need of sedatives or mind-numbing alcohol when the tranquilizer of God’s creation is being administered so generously and effectively?
Earlier today though, my mind was not so calm. I was struggling with my conscience, you see. A friend, a lady with whom I work periodically, wanted me to make a wager with her. I don’t gamble. Well, in honesty, every purchase I make in my business is a type of gamble, but with those, there is a level playing field, with chance having none of the advantage and good judgement carrying the lion’s share of the burden. But my friend wanted to make a bet about weight loss. I had shot off my mouth (a fairly regular occurrence) within her hearing about losing a few pounds already in my two-week old venture into ultimately shedding many more of them. She, needing help to do the same, thought that a competition might aid her in taking the steps necessary to lose a similar amount of weight.
Did I tell you that I don’t gamble? I have avoided betting on anything since I was thirteen years old. You may think that is too young to stop gambling, but it was also the year in which I started gambling. That’s right. I had made one bet in my life before today. I didn’t even intend to make that bet, but you know how it is with kids. Every time someone says something with which you disagree, the words come automatically, “You wanna bet?” We never intended anyone to take us up on it; the words just meant “you’re wrong and I’m right.” On this occasion, my friend Steve and I were discussing the upcoming boxing match in New York City. In Madison Square Garden, on March 8, 1971,”The Greatest” Muhammad Ali and “Smokin'” Joe Frazier were to meet in the fight of the decade. Being a kid who was all mouth myself, I couldn’t imagine that the big, slow, methodical fighter, Frazier, could ever best Ali, who “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee”, taunting and mouthing off the whole time. When Steve told me that Frazier was going to win, I uttered the fateful words, “You wanna bet?” Within seconds, his hand was stuck out and shook mine as he said, “Yeah, five dollars.” A day later, Ali went down in defeat after fifteen rounds and a unanimous decision, and I owed Steve five bucks. Which I didn’t have…
Ever the fast thinker, I realized that I carried in my pocket the answer to my dilemma–the lunch card, paid for by my dad at the start of every month. Most of the kids who used these were from financially disadvantaged families and the cards were free to them. My dad never wanted to dig for cash for five kids at the beginning of each day, so he arranged with the school to purchase the cards for the full face value. Steve was a big kid who liked to eat, so I had my answer. Every day for a week, I waited in line with him in the cafeteria and, when we got to the station to make payment and get a tray, I handed Mrs. Olsen the card and Steve took the tray and got a free lunch. I went without my noon meal for a week. I never forgave Muhammad Ali.
I have also never made another bet…until today. I accepted the wager my friend offered. You see, I have learned a few other things during my lifetime, one of the most important being that you should never miss a chance to help someone if you have the capability to do so. This is almost a no-brainer. We are going to see who can lose twenty-five pounds in the shortest amount of time. The loser will pay for a nice dinner for the winner. I can’t lose. No. That didn’t come out right. I’m pretty sure that I can lose…the pounds. It’s just that this is a bet that I can’t lose, even if I do lose, if you take my meaning. If she wins the actual competition, it will be worth every penny spent to encourage her in her goal to shed the pounds. And, the friendly competition will give me incentive to work harder at watching what goes into my mouth and to keep to my exercise regimen. This is not a bet, it’s an investment!
Did you notice when I told you I was battling my conscience earlier? The battle didn’t last long. One thing we must understand is that many of the legalistic tenets we have followed, simply because we were taught that they were right, are actually detrimental to our mission as followers of Jesus. “Thou shalt not gamble,” is a law never found in the text of the Word. Yet we treat that important concept, which helps us to avoid financial disaster and self-centered thinking, as absolute. What I’m saying is that when the opportunity comes for us to help our neighbor by putting aside a concept, we shouldn’t have to think twice. I will be happy to pay the price for losing this wager. That said, I’d also be happy to have the nice meal to enjoy after all the scrimping on calories I’m going to do over the next few months.
Perhaps it’s time for us to examine the things we believe and consider the necessity (or lack thereof) for all of our rules and regulations. You might be surprised at what needs to go. There is also the possibility that some other safeguards need to be added. I’m all for structure. But, I like the idea that “form follows function” as well, an idea which I have discussed with you before. On that last occasion, I warned against change simply for the sake of change. Tonight, I invite you to consider the purpose (function) for which we exist and then to determine if the forms to which we hold actually do help us to achieve that purpose. It they don’t, we need to break out of them and do the things which help us to deliver the goods.
“No gambling” isn’t a law, but a principle. I want to be very careful here and be unambiguous in saying that I do not mean that we have the option to cast off those things which are compulsory. There are absolutes and they must be adhered to. Tonight, I’m speaking specifically of the protocols of do’s and don’ts which we have added to those absolutes. Somehow the guidelines become law over time and before we know it, we believe that they themselves are the absolutes, when they are most decidedly not.
Oh boy. I’ve gone a lot deeper than I intended, when I said that I would speak of a more important subject than the weather. Perhaps we should extricate ourselves from this tangled mess and finish up. You’ll make your own way out as you can, will you not?
The match is on, the bell has rung. The prize once again is the cost of meals, just as it was over forty years ago in my only other wager. I couldn’t afford to lose that one. This time, whatever happens, I simply can’t lose. I like these odds.
Tomorrow, we’ll come out swinging. Let’s hope it’s a good, clean fight…
“The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed-It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.”
(William Shakespeare~English playwright and poet~1564-1616)
“There are more pleasant things to do than beat up people.”
(Muhammad Ali~American boxer)
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© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.