I just saw the Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happyness. I loved the movie, especially when it was all over, but it was almost tedious to watch the incessant problems and disasters that the main character faced. But this tedium was more than just Hollywood melodrama. It’s based on the true story of a most amazing man, Christopher Gardner, who really was a homeless single father in San Francisco trying his best to take care of his son. I encourage you to read his short biography, whether you’ve seen the movie or not. (And it’s not just because he’s from Wisconsin that I love his story so much, though it’s hard not to see a touch of what I love about the Midwest in this man.)
The movie reminded me that among the crowds of people that might seem like losers to others, there are royal sons and daughters of God, good people doing all they can to be decent parents, to find their own way, and to overcome their problems. But they are on the edge, sometimes just one paycheck away, one bill away, one buck away from disaster. Sometimes they are past the edge, living in homeless shelters or public transit bathrooms. And this is why I want you to take up gambling.
Gambling? Yes, but not on slots or horses, but on people. Bet $5, $10, $20, or more (much more, sometimes), giving some extra cash to those who are down and out. Some are going to waste it. Some are going to lose it. But for some, that gamble you took could turn into a jackpot that could make a huge difference for that day, that week, of even for a life — the difference, perhaps, between hope and despair. That’s what I was thinking during this movie, thinking about the challenges Chris Gardner faced day after day. In his moments of crisis, and in the lives of many I have known, a small amount of cash freely given could have made the difference between disaster and hope.
And no, fast offerings are not enough. I’ve been a bishop, I’ve administered the inspired and wonderful fast offering program, and I can bear witness that as good as that program is, it is not enough to reach some of the people you are going to be standing next to, some of the people you are going to be inspired to bet on. There are limits to what can be done with fast offerings, strict rules that generally mean a bishop usually can’t just walk up to someone in need and hand over some cash on the spot. (When I was bishop, I was so grateful to a couple of my ward members, real gamblers, who came up to me and said, “Bishop, I know you can’t do some things you might want to with fast offerings, so here’s a handful of anonymous money for you to use off the books for special cases.” That was a huge gamble because it was also a gamble on me, but I think tremendous good came from those “under the table” donations.) Fast offerings are a little more like investments, money that comes with rules and often doesn’t look foolishly spent. But you can be the fool with your extra cash or other resources. Be sure to give generous fast offerings and support solid charities, but save some gambling money on the side.
Sometimes the world needs a crazy gambler who dares to look fate in the eye and throw money not to the wind, but to the Spirit, placing what may be inspired or even prayerful bets on the potential of others. It may seem random and spontaneous or it may be planned, but however you do it, I’m hoping some of you will take up the true gamblin’ spirit and place wild bets and have the experience of one day learning that you hit a jackpot or two.
Turning back to Chris Gardner and the movie, I’d like to say thank God for the Glide United Methodist Church in San Francisco that gambled away so much money every day on the homeless, betting that it would make a real difference in the lives of some. Their efforts helped sustain Chris Gardner as a homeless man struggling to become a stock broker in a difficult internship. Any of you know the good people at Glide? Give them a high five or a high $20 or something. Way to go, my brothers and sisters at Glide!
The reason for this kind of gambling is not just hope of the occasional jackpot. The Christian call, the one taken up by so many inspired organizations helping the homeless and others, is to love and minister regardless of what happens in the lives of the recipients. But for some, a small act of kindness, a few bucks, a meal, a place to sleep, a ride to work, help with a bill, can be a turning point that can change their lives in a lasting way – and that’s a jackpot of spiritual wealth that I love to see.
In Chris’s case, he became a successful business, millionaire, author, speaker, philanthropist, etc., all of which is cool. But most of the success stories that might come from generous gambling will be peace and hope in the lives of people who aren’t going to become rich and famous. In the end, all the wealth means nothing, but the hope you give will mean a lot. There are millions of unclaimed jackpots out there, and no two will look the same.
Naturally, you can gamble with things besides money. Your time can be generously gambled away in serving the needy and the sick or others in your midst. It will make a difference sometimes, though perhaps not most of the time. Don’t worry. The more you play, the more you win. Keep that gambling hope alive!