Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Playing the Percentages, Beating the Odds

Ever been to Vegas? Do you enjoy a little gaming now and then? I guess gamblers learn pretty quickly to play the odds in their own favor, although the house always seems to come out ahead. I wonder what percentage of people actually beat the odds. And for the life of me, I can't understand why anyone ever plays the lottery. The odds are just ridiculous. I am more likely to be struck by lightening - twice, then to win the big jackpot. But gamblers keep trying to beat the odds.

Athletes are often gamblers as well. And not just the Pete Rose variety either. In just about any sport you choose, the players, coaches, and managers quickly learn to play the odds, to figure the percentages, and to adjust their strategies accordingly. And God help the big league manager who bucks the odds and lets his big right hander pitch to the lefty slugger with the game on the line. (Goose Gossage pitches to George Brett and the Royals win the pennant.) It just makes sense to play the percentages.

Sometimes we gamble with our health without much choice in the matter. The doctors lay out the odds and percentages for us. The oncologist may give us a forty percent chance of living two to three years if we can handle the chemo. The radiologist is not so optimistic, six months to a year, and the surgeon says that nothing can be done. Whose numbers do we believe? Whose odds do we play?

And no matter whose prognosis we choose, most of us have been around long enough to know that real people like us make up both sides of the equation, the people who survive and those who don't. And we don't get to choose which end of the percentages will be our fate.

In the Gospel, the math used to figure the percentages gets seriously skewed. Apparently, Jesus knew nothing about playing the odds. He says it's best to leave the ninety-nine sure things in the wild and go after the one you may never find. And the widow who gives a little pittance is honored above the big donors who put their names on new buildings. According to Christ, the most blessed and happy people are not the movers and the shakers, not the superstars or the celebrities, but the poor and the pure, the humble and the hungry. Even the one who gains the whole world isn't a safe bet for heaven. Seems like God's got it all backwards.

Or, maybe he's trying to tell us something. Remember Blaise Pascal and his famous wager? If you bet your life that God is God and you are wrong, you lose nothing. But if you bet against God and you are mistaken, you lose everything, even your very soul. Are you looking for a sure thing, a safe bet, something that is can't miss and utterly reliable? Better go with God. Count on Christ. And when the chips are down, put all your chips on Him. "Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed." (Romans 10:11)

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