Later in the story of the nation, the people demanded a king from God. God did not want them to have a king and warned them about how a king would exploit them. The people persisted, and God finally gave them a king (1 Samuel 8). God again played the hand he was dealt by his untrusting people.
Sometimes God’s backup plan can be a bit radical. John the Baptist warns: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire [Luke 3:8-9].” At some points God just moves on.
Let us be clear before we go any further. God does not have to play the hand God is dealt. God is able to accomplish whatever God wishes; that is part of being God. God chooses to adapt God’s plans to human receptivity.
We, on the other hand, must often play the hand we are dealt; we are not God. We might want to give back the hand and draw another one; life rarely gives us that opportunity. Our employer closes, or we get ill. Our parents are not wealthy, and we attend a community college. Our spouse dies young, or a recession hits just as we are planning to retire. We would like life to deal us another hand; that rarely happens. As we say in upstate New York: it is what it is.
The Apostle Paul learned to play the hand he was dealt the best way he knew. He writes “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me [Phil 4:11-13].” Paul learned how to be content with what life brought to him; he relied upon God to bring him through whatever life dealt him.
Churches must often play the hand they are dealt. They are carried upon currents over which they have no control. A factory closes and jobs are lost; people move away. Young people go off to college and do not return. Businesses begin staying open on Sunday, and church members must work. The culture shifts; and people lose interest in belonging to things, particularly communities that ask for a commitment. The standard of living rises and people get boats and cabins and can afford pricey soccer leagues; they spend their Sundays at leisure activities.
We might like to trade in this world for a different one. This is not an option. We do not get to choose our time and place in God’s story. We must play the hand we are dealt the most faithful way we can. We must never forget, however, that it this still God’s creation; and God is driving the narrative towards God’s good conclusion. We simply find our place in our chapter of that story. God will have the last word, and with God the last word is always the best word.
In the meantime, we bring the best we have to offer to what we know of God, believing that God will bless in even unseen ways; that is faithfulness. We leave the final word to God; that is hope.Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State