Albertson's Monopoly and the Faith
Well, it's that time of year again!
"Spring?" you say... or perhaps, "tax season?" But no; I'm talking about the time when the Idaho-based Albertson's supermarket chain conducts its annual sweepstakes based on the enduring board game. Grocery shoppers have the opportunity to collect game pieces and fill in specific "property" sections to win gift cards, a car, a house.... even a million dollars!
Some customers don't collect these free game pieces, apparently feeling that the whole thing must be a waste of time; a must-lose situation. I started becoming a pretty avid player a few years back, however - in fact, my visits to Albertson's stores tend to increase during this relatively brief window of potential opportunity. I've won a few unrelated sweepstakes prizes in the past... plus, as a still-single "older guy" I have a pretty considerable amount of time on my hands. Why not?
If you're a player, maybe you can relate to the feeling that I get at the beginning of each game period. You get your new board and you start collecting tickets. You see the pictures and stories of past winners, and your pieces quickly start filling up the different board segments. Anything seems possible at that point. There are so many spots available, and so many prizes to be given away. Surely there's a chance!
As time goes on, though, things can get more and more discouraging. You start getting the same game pieces over and over. The bonus codes you receive - which you type in online with diligence - tend to result in nothing but a message that includes the words "Sorry... not a winner." The few codes that are winners generally earn you (you guessed it) two additional game pieces, which consist of more stickers that you already had. It takes on the appearance of a cycle of futility.
You begin to realize how astronomically bad the probability of winning must be, and may even re-consult the odds chart - which reminds you that the chances of scoring that cool million are about as good as tripping over a bar of gold during a walk down Boise's Main Street. Inevitably, the painful truth sets in: is it not quite likely - even probable - that the most important pieces were thrown away by a shopper who didn't even care to play? Maybe there is just no hope. Maybe it's time to face reality and quit.
As my Monopoly board reached its apparent saturation point this year, it occurred to me how much this experience can mirror one's walk with Christ. I recall being eighteen and fresh out of high school, going to a week of summer church camp once again, but feeling like this time things would be different. After all, the temptations, the cliques, and the peer pressure of the foundational American school experience were over. Living as a Christian seemed like a much more realistic proposition as a freshly-minted adult. My whole life lay ahead, filled with possibilities; an empty game board with all of the pieces ready to fall into place. Even that grand prize was attainable! The whole thing might even turn out to be easy. Isn't that what Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, after all? "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." Surely I wasn't misunderstanding him!
The optimism of youth (whether physical or spiritual) can be a great thing. But if it's not tempered with the plain truth about the difficulties of this temporal life, that positive outlook can turn dark amazingly quickly. As I look back from the vantage point of a forty-five year-old, I see a frightening amount of naivete in my newly-gradated self. Little did I know that my choice to go to college (at a secular university, no less) would land me right back in the middle of the river of whirlpools that a worldly life inevitably contains. I also didn't truly appreciate the fact that my old enemies - the Devil and my own flesh - hadn't gone away just because I made a renewed commitment to Christ (or even when I got baptized in the Clearwater River at age nineteen). That incomplete perspective would serve me ill, and sooner than I could've imagined.
Because it wasn't long before I started getting the same old "game pieces" over and over. My "bonus codes" didn't produce instant prizes. And negativity set in: What's wrong? Why is this such a battle? Where are all the rewards that were supposed to pave this road? What happened to the good feelings that made it all seem easy? I'm not proud to admit it, but throwing away the whole board became a viable option in my mind. Maybe there are no winners. I mean, look at the odds!
If one reaches that point, and ultimately surrenders to such thoughts, it's a self-fulfilling prophesy. Just as with Albertson's Monopoly, you can't win if you don't play. In fact, quitting after you've already collected so many pieces is more foolish than being the guy (or gal) who just refused the game pieces at the checkout counter. At least that person didn't also throw away hours of their time combing that game board (which is somewhat randomly laid out, and probably for a reason) in the effort to fill it up with winning combinations, only to quit when they were perhaps unwittingly a piece or two away.
You may be familiar with Jesus' parable of the four seeds (if not, please see Mark 4:3-20). If you're like me, as a young Christian you may have not even questioned the possibility that you were anything but seed number four. "Of course that's me," you thought. "I'm in this for the long haul!" But then the miles of that haul started adding up. And while you knew you weren't the first seed (or you'd have been refusing those "game pieces" from the get-go), the chance that you were number two or number three started being more realistic. The metaphorical game board may have started getting forgotten in some spiritual drawer as difficulties, challenges, and more seemingly pressing desires found their way into your world. And looking at your screen of life to find the words "Sorry... not a winner" time and time again probably contributed to the discouragement. Why not give it up? Why believe you can win? In fact, maybe no one wins! Maybe the game is just a façade; a promotional tool to dupe customers into forking over more money!
In terms of the supermarket sweepstakes, year after year of failed Monopoly campaigns didn't stop me from sticking with it until the end in 2016, though. As hopeless as things seemed, I was willing to believe in the possibility of winning, at least. Sometimes that's the best one can do, I think. All the faith that can be mustered is the faith to say to the self, "I don't know if I'll win, but I'm willing to keep gathering those pieces to see what happens." And would you believe it? In the last week of the game, I won ten bucks!
The doubter, the unbeliever, the negative person, will respond with, "Big deal! You spent all that time and effort to get a measly ten dollars! You're a fool!" But I'd come back by saying, "There's still another round coming next year!" A small victory can bolster your faith just enough to hold on for the next victory, and the next, and the next - right up until you collect the ultimate Grand Prize. At least you've found irrefutable proof that there are winners in this thing. There may not be many, but they're out there.
Many years after starting the sweepstakes of the soul, my board has gotten folded, wrinkled, worn, and a bit smudged in spots. There have been periods when I foolishly tossed potential winning pieces aside. But as of today, I'm back in it. I think perhaps that's because in the midst of all of my youthful ignorance, there was a small seed of genuine faith; a true desire to keep the commitment I was making. In Philippians 1:6, the Apostle Paul wrote, "...he which has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ." This is not to say that I consider myself to be "eternally secure" in the contemporary evangelical sense of the term; Paul himself also cautioned against such notions. The game must still be played to the end (as Jesus said in Matthew 24:13), otherwise, salvation isn't by faith. That's what faith is: being faithful. It's continuing to collect game pieces even when it seems like the crucial spaces will never fill up. Sometimes (for me, anyway) it's picking up a game piece that someone else tossed aside in the parking lot! It's finishing what was begun with nearly boundless feelings of optimism, even when the feelings have found their bounds. And it's reminding yourself from time to time of what you've already won; the down payment you've received (see Ephesians 1:14).
So if you're interested in collecting an amazing prize someday, play the game, folks! You too can be a winner!