How God Redeemed Poker Nights

Edited on 7/2013: This post was originally written in 2007 when our family lived in Denver.  For the next few days, our family is excited to be hosting friends from Denver, especially since it’s the gentleman who began the Poker Nights that I write about below. Because of Poker Nights, we began living more missionally and  on-purpose. This, coupled with other things God was doing in our lives, ultimately led us to pack up our belongings, move cross-county and plant a church. True story!


My pastor-husband has been playing poker. GASP! [edited: note the sarcasm] No money is involved. Well, at least not large amounts, mainly plastic chips and a $5 donation for pizza and such. And he loves it!

One of our church member’s hosts Poker Nights. He desires to really get to know his neighbors and others in the community. Instead of merely inviting folks to church functions and hoping they show up, he wanted to meet them right where they were. Not expecting them to act like Christians when they weren’t. But personally getting to know them with no strings attached. Seeing people, not a project. Building relationships and trust. And earning the right to speak into another’s life.

 We’ve discovered, the unfortunate reality of being in vocational ministry is that we are around Christians, or people who attend church, the majority of the time with little opportunity to get to know others outside of our faith community. Truthfully, it’s not what we prefer. It just sort of happens with all the meetings, programs and events. I don’t even think we have met all of our neighbors. Or we can’t remember the names of most of the ones we have met. Sometimes, it feels as if we are on a hamster wheel, going around and around and around. And, then, we start to wonder,

“Are we really making a difference?”

Personally, I’ve asked myself this question a lot, especially in this season of my life. Having previously been on staff of various churches and para-church ministries, I am now teaching at a university, along with adjusting to being a new mom and the challenges and busy-ness this season entails. Although I know all of life can be ministry, at times it seems I am just moving from one task or responsibility to the next: Home. Work. Church. Repeat. Home. Work. Church. Repeat.

Don’t get me wrong, we love our jobs and we love our church. We really do. And we know that certain meetings have to happen to get things done. Still, at times, you just desire to function more directly with people, as opposed to shuffling papers, attending numerous meetings, and putting out fires. We all fall into ruts, ya know? But I digress.

For the last few months, Jon has been attending Poker Nights after we put the kids to bed. At first, I thought, “Why does he want to go?” Then, I realized since Fridays are his day off, he needs time with the guys. He goes and has fun. And the best part: he meets people who would  not usually be in his sphere of influence.

Such is the case with a guy named Bobby.  

Jon only knows Bobby from  Poker Nights. Last month, Bobby was fine. Last week, Bobby went to the doctor thinking he had carpal tunnel. After an MRI, it turned out he had a brain tumor. In less than a week, the tumor grew massively. Before he left last night, Jon found out Bobby was in the hospital and the guys decided to use the ‘money in the pot’ to get him a gift.

When Jon arrived to play poker, he found out it was much, much worse. The tumor was very aggressive, and Bobby went from being okay the week before to being on life support. And his parents had to decide whether or not to take him off the life support. Rather than playing poker, Jon and the guys from our church left the table and went to the hospital to spend time with a family they didn’t even know, in order to show love and support for their poker buddy.

When they got to the hospital,  they met Bobby’s parents and his boss, who happens to be a Christian. Jon asked if he could read Psalm 23 and pray with them. They said, “Yes!” Afterwards, they all went to dinner and talked. He said he could visibly tell Bobby’s parents were very grateful and appreciative that he and the other guys were there.  Jon offered our church for the memorial service, if they choose to go that route.

Later that night, Bobby was taken off of life supports. He was only 29 years old. One week he was fine. And the next week, he’s dead. Had it not been for the poker group, my husband would have never gotten to know Bobby.

Last night, I was supposed to have attended a recital at the university where I work. Yet, even before we were told about Bobby’s state, I knew I was to change plans, so Jon could go to Poker Night. I am so glad I followed my gut instinct,  listened to God and diverted my plans. Had he not said, “YES!” when asked to attend Poker Night, Jon would have never had the opportunity to minister to this family, or even connect with these men.

And to be sure, God did use a game of poker to connect people, build relationships, and share His redeeming story. The day before Bobby went in for the surgery, our friend from church, who hosts the Poker Nights, and his wife took him out to eat. They’d known him for quite a while. Over that meal, they shared Christ with him. Bobby heard Christ’s story of salvation. Did he make a decision? Honestly, I don’t know the specific answer, but God does.

All of these events got me thinking about good vs. best. Good would have been me sticking to my plans and going to a recital that I really wanted to attend. Best was my husband having a much-needed night with the guys. Then, watching God turn it into a night where He was given glory, and the opportunity to work through my husband and other guys to show this family love during a time of grief and loss.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in what a “good Christian” is supposed to do. Arguing about what is acceptable and not acceptable. Or what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. So much so, that I believe we miss out on significant ministry opportunities right before us. God-ordained moments to live out our faith in ordinary and extraordinary ways in our everyday lives.

If I ever had issues with Jon going to play poker, I don’t anymore. He got out-of-the-box, and I am so glad that he did. Didn’t Jesus come to save all? And are we not called to live our lives in such a way that all can see Jesus in us? But how do we do this if we spend all of our time in little bubbles? We are commanded to go and live on mission in our daily lives, wherever we find ourselves.

All of these events just challenged me. This was definitely a  game-changer.

As Christians, we get so comfortable attending all the church events. Telling ourselves that if it is at church, it must be the best use of our time. For goodness sakes, I’ve been told church soccer leagues are better for my kids than city soccer leagues! Or that a church book club is a better use of my time than ones at the city library. Really? I don’t think so. At least not anymore.

Please know I am not bashing church programs. Many are very good, but some are not. Sometimes, though, we get good vs. best confused. Each of us must discern for ourselves how to best use our time, talents, and resources. To do this, we need to  pray,  read the Word and listen for God’s voice to direct us.

As a pastor, I have to ask: If we are always at church and at church-sponsored events, when are we allowing our members and ourselves, for that matter, to be missional? To really live on purpose? To reach out to our neighbors? Or even to our own families? To connect with non-Christians and be the light in this world that we have been commanded to be?

Good vs. Best. There’s a fine balance.

As one who has worked on staff at churches and other para-church organizations for the greater part of my adult life, I must say, really connecting with non-Christians just doesn’t happen in my normal day-to-day life. I have to really be intentional about it. Sadly, I have not been so good at this. And that’s not right. It just isn’t.

But last night, I felt a part of something bigger. Sure, it wasn’t a big ministry program or outreach event. Yet, it was more significant than anything I have done in a very, very long time. And I wasn’t even an active participant. I was home with the kids,  praying that God would use my husband and that He would be revealed to this family.

It made me wonder: When are we, the Church, going to get it? When are we going to realize that we have to shake things up, if you will? When are we going to step outside of our comfort zones and stop using the verse “be in the world but not of it” as an excuse not to be in meaningful relationships with people who are different than us? We need to live out our faith and share the Story with those who need to hear it.

We need to be creative and do some things that are not typical or the norm. Things that aren’t safe. I mean, does God really call us be safe? I don’t think so. The people I read about in the Bible didn’t live safe lives. Perhaps, we all need to take a few more risks.

I’m sure some people, maybe even some of you reading this, have issues with a pastor playing poker. But that pastor felt more used by God last night than he has in a long, long time. Have you ever had that feeling when you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was directing every single step you take? And that you were participating in something much bigger than anything you could have orchestrated yourself? Yep! That was it.

God used this entire sad situation to make me realize that ministry doesn’t mean church programs, or even church events. Sure, it can, but not always. And probably far less than what we are comfortable with, if truth be told. Ministry is living our lives as Christ-followers in all we do, in all we say, in all we think, and with all whom we come in contact.

It is not about being afraid that we might say the wrong thing, or not get a scripture right. It’s much more simple, than complex. And it is far more spontaneous, than structured.  [This being said by a very ‘structured’ person, who needs to heed this statement in her own life.] Yet, sadly, it’s fear that keeps many Christians from really ministering and reaching out. It is not about being afraid of what people (read: other Christians) will think if they knew that we were part of this event (read: Poker Nights).

It is about obedience.

It is about faithfulness.

It is about the Great Commission.

It is about stepping out-of-the-box, or even the four walls that we call the church.

Remember: WE ARE THE CHURCH. We are the Body of Christ. We are the ones who are commanded to go everywhere, sharing with everyone Jesus’ story. Doesn’t matter if we are in a church building, at home, at work, or somewhere in the community. As Christ-followers, we are His representatives.  And as such, we need to live out our faith in word and deed.

Sure, we need to grow in our faith and connect with others in our faith communities. But we also need to go out into the world, ministering with our very  lives. Living out our faith in practical, everyday ways. Being the hands and feet of Christ to all we come in contact: our spouse,  family, co-workers, friends, even the clerk at the grocery store. Do we even say two words, unless of course, we have been charged for something other than what we purchased?

Minister to your spouse, your kids, your neighbors, your co-workers., your church family. Heck, even the barista at Starbucks. You know, the one who always serves you with a smile. Do you even know his name? His story? What about the postman? Or the librarian? Or your child’s teacher? Remember, we all have a story to share.

Take the first step.

Speak the first word. 

Think outside-of-the-box.

Do it afraid.

You don’t have to have a program or a reason to be kind to someone. Just be kind. When we find ourselves doing things without a formula or a plan, it can be scary. We worry about the how-to. Why not improvise?

Just do it!

Be Christ in your everyday lives. Pray for God to bring people into your lives to get to know, to build a relationship with. No strings attached. Be real with them. You don’t have to be Super-Christian. Why? Because you are not.  We are merely Christ’s ambassadors to this world.

So, yes, we do need to be in the world, but not of the world. It is a balance, and one that I am still figuring out. I would have never thought several months ago a PokerNight would be an opportunity for ministry, but God did. And it most definitely was ministry, pure and simple.

What is God saying to you? How is He calling you to step outside-of- the-box? Don’t miss the opportunity because of fear of failure or fear of others. Just do it!




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