"For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night." 1st Thessalonians 5:2
Back in my seminary days, there was a wonderful local tradition in the seminarians' apartment buildings. Each month a group of folks would gather in one of the basements to play a Texas Hold 'Em poker tournament. It cost each participant $7 to get in the game, but all the money went to the local food bank. So this was not a game about taking anyone's money.
Also, each monthly tournament went on until one group of seven players were left. At this point, the game continued at just one table until there was a single winner. The higher you finished in the tournament, the more points you earned in the yearly contest. At the end of the school year, the player with the most points was awarded a crimson jacket.
For the two years that I lived at seminary, one player had not only won the crimson jacket, but he won it two years in a row and was heading to his third! J was a really REALLY good poker player.
I was flattered when I was invited to play in this. I admired all the details, the fun, the tournament rules, and especially the camaraderie. But it was clear to me that I was way out of my league with these guys...they were MUCH better at poker than I was. Still, it was fun and I looked forward to it each month.
I began to watch J carefully as each month passed by. He could win even as he was laughing and joking with other players all over the rooms at the different tables. He could win when it seemed he was going to lose. He could pull out a card that made the entire table yell with either delight or groan with realization. He was dramatic, cocky, hilarious, and fun to watch.
But one time...just one time...I caught J not paying attention...
He came in late one night and almost missed the opening hand. The rule was that if you were not in your seat when the game officially began, you could not join it late. J was rushing to get there and just barely made it in his seat as the time keeper announced the beginning of the tournament. J missed his usual warm-up time where he teased and joked with his friends in the room. He missed getting his plate of snacks and his drink. He even missed putting on his official crimson jacket. So it occurred to me that J was not focused on the game. I began to wonder if I could use that distraction to my advantage.
Sure enough, as one hand progressed, I knew I had a really good flush. Funny thing about flushes...no one ever sees them coming. A flush is a hand in which all the cards are the same suit, but not necessarily in any order at all. Most folks in poker are looking for a pattern, but most ignore or dismiss a flush. You really have to pay attention to see it coming...and J wasn't really paying attention.
I decided to play the hand aggressively as if I might be bluffing (but I wasn't!). As the individual cards were turned, I kept raising and everyone else kept folding - except J who was putting in his chips as I raised but only because someone at the table reminded him to (he was still looking around, greeting everyone, and joking with the whole room).
He wasn't paying attention to me at all...and then he looked down and saw that it was just the two of us...with a large pile of chips on the table and just one card to turn. THEN J began to play the way he usually did, but he was too late. He raised me but I knew he was bluffing. I saw his raise and raised again, pretending I was bluffing and trying with all my might not to smile. Then he raised my raise! Ordinarily, I would have folded and given him the pile...but something told me he was bluffing because he hadn't been paying attention and now I had him. I told myself, "Hang in there, Plunkett...he doesn't have anything!" Sure enough, we got to the end of the raises and I said, "All in" as I pushed all my chips to the middle of the table. He began to laugh and joked with me about how he just KNEW I was bluffing. I allowed myself a smile and he pushed all his chips to the middle and said, "Call."
Then I turned my cards over revealing a beautiful flush that easily beat his two pair. I removed all the chips from the table, stood up and shook his hand. By tournament rules, J had to exit the table because he had no chips left.
I played pretty well that night and even made it to the final table before losing quickly. (Like I said, those guys were really good poker players.) The next month, J made sure to be seated at my table, and he was able to quickly dispatch me from the tournament. There were no hard feelings on our part, for which I was truly grateful.
But each time I remember that evening, I am always reminded of how the Lord cautioned us to be on alert, to "pay attention" so that we would each be ready when He returned in glory. To be caught unaware or off guard would be the worst thing any of us could do.
To be caught off guard in a harmless poker game is one thing; to be caught off guard when the Lord returns could be disastrous!