by Rev. Ellen Cooper
The sound of slot machines is unmistakable – even in this digital age, they still make ratcheting noises, ring programmed bells, and even make the tinkling sound of spilling coins, when one asks for their payout ticket.
Walking the floor of a casino is an absurd experience. One is much like another, here in Reno, with slot machines featuring every character and theme you can imagine, the solemn blackjack tables, and the inscrutable craps, which I’m pretty sure no one really understands. All around me, lights flash and blink, and people sit in their faux leather chairs, nursing free drinks, feeding machines dollars, hoping to get lucky. These aren’t, for the most part, Reno locals. They’re people on vacation, on a getaway from life, work, whatever, hoping to relax, and even be rewarded.
Only they all look completely miserable, waiting to be lucky.
It has always been a pet peeve of mine, those preachers who teach that if you simply love God the right way, if you just pray the right way, if you just straighten up (ahem) and fly the right way, then you will get your reward. What’s coming to you. The salary, the new car, the bonus, whatever it is. If you’re the right kind of good, then you’ll get lucky. The Secret is no better. The problem is that the corollary to these beliefs, is that if you don’t get lucky, it’s because you did something wrong. Miserable? Not getting any money out of those 25-cent slots? Didn’t win the game/lottery/baby pool? Obviously, it’s you. Heavy diagnosis? Sorry your prayer life is inadequate. Try harder.
Perhaps there are moments when we truly are unlucky, when some random act of chance intervenes, and momentarily thwarts us. These are more like the moments Alanis Morisette described in “Isn’t it Ironic” – they’re more unlucky than ironic. Rain on a wedding day, paying for a free ride, that sort of thing. But much of life is shaped not by luck, but by circumstance, like how we grew up, what we learned or didn’t, and who our family is or was. Lucky for us, there is always a force of grace at work as well, even alongside seemingly insurmountable origins.
Charlie sits outside the convenience store down the street from my house, next to his grocery cart. It is full of odds and ends, a blanket, empty food containers, a few items of clothing. When I see him, I bring him something to eat, and sit down on the curb and talk to him for a while. He doesn’t want to tell me about his life before Reno, or much of anything, really. But we talk, and he eats, and he seems glad for the company. The last time we met, as I got up to go, he came after me down the sidewalk. He called my name, and I stopped and turned. Tears in the corners of his eyes, he asked me if I had any crystal.
I don’t, and wouldn’t know where to get it if I wanted to, but in that moment of great vulnerability on Charlie’s part, I felt very lucky, indeed. A man whose story is too painful for even him to tell, shared something utterly true and urgent, with a stranger who merely bothers to pay attention. I touched his arm and told him to be safe, and prayed on my walk home. I hope I did it right.
All the casinos in the world, no matter the payout, can’t undo a lifetime of struggle. But if we’re lucky, we can help each other. We are lucky to be the hands and feet of the grace that walks with us, always, whether we can see it or not.