Wednesday with Michael Spencer: Confessions of a Poor Player

Photo by John Croudy at Flickr

Wednesday with Michael Spencer
Confessions of a Poor Player (2009)

I love chess. I’ve loved it since I was a kid. I’ve kept my first chess sets. I can recall every hand held set I ever took to school when I was told not to. I still stalk ebay looking for a particular plastic set that I wanted when I was a boy, but could never afford.

I coached our school’s chess team for 5 years and loved every minute of it. Those were some of my very best times with students. Every so often, I’ll go on a riff reading chess books, studying games and playing chess computers for weeks at a time.

Of course, I love the gear. I have an Isle of Lewis set that I ordered from the UK at a shipping rate I don’t want to discuss. (Actually, I have two.) I just bought a Chinese style set that I don’t need. I own two tournament sets. I’d be really happy to run the chess room in any pub anywhere. Hire me.

I’m a fair study of the history of chess. I’m average in a few openings. I can teach the game well and do basic analysis for beginning students.

But I’m a bad chess player. Very, very bad.

Chess is a very unforgiving game, especially against any competent player. If you want to know what I mean, set your chess computer to the level of anything above an amateur and see what happens to you if you play anything less than perfection.

Chess isn’t a game for blunderers and people who make serious errors. You can tell a computer to take it all back, but after years of making the same mistakes, that sort of cheap grace doesn’t go very far in making a real player.

I’m not mentally equipped to play the game well. My ability to concentrate is sporadic. My mind works with multiple topics and makes quick judgments. I see my own actions, but rarely calculate consequences with any real accuracy. My move always seems like the best move. I like to believe that my errors will be overlooked, and of course, that’s never the case.

So I have a house full of nice chess sets and books. I can keep a game going while I’m working on other things. (I’m getting cooked right now by Sigma Chess.) I can teach the game, appreciate the game, tell you stories about great chess players. But I’m a very poor player and always will be.

Sound familiar? Anyone?

I know a lot about Jesus. I have a lot of books about him. I know stories about great Christians. I’m a very good teacher of the basics of Christianity. I’m great at explaining how to get started. I have all the standard information memorized.

I study the Bible, and I know it well. I teach it and I can answer most of your questions. I think I’m right most of the time, too. (Surprised?)

I enjoy the music, the worship, the fellowship, the discussion. I can play the songs. I can lead in prayer and preach a good sermon. I like liturgy, church history, reformation theology…even Christian blogs.

I’m an educated minister, a trained amateur theologian and a writer with a decent reputation. I have a lot of mail saying I’ve been helpful to people wanting to live this Christian life. I’ve tried to pass my faith on to my children and to live it out at home.

But, like chess, living out the life of a disciple can a very unforgiving business. I blunder, make wrong moves, throw away opportunities and live by a double standard. God can’t point at me with any pride and say “There’s someone doing it right.”

I’m just not very good at following Jesus. I’m a “poor player.” I collect the stuff, the stories and the information. I hang around and admire, even hope to imitate. But I’m not much of a player at living out this Jesus business.

I’m better than the beginners, but I’m nowhere near the saints. I have a lot of “know” and very little “do” in my Christianity. I’m more of a fan than a follower.

Of course, religion is like chess. The Kingdom of God, thankfully, is not.

The Kingdom of God is a very forgiving place. My blunders and short-sightedness; my poor playing and missed opportunities; my laziness and distraction…..Jesus knows about them all. Jesus seems to enjoy calling people like me- and you- to be disciples, even when he knows what we’ll be like.

In the Gospels, Jesus’ disciples were very poor players, and sometimes Jesus was frustrated with them. But mostly, he kept showing them- over and over- grace, the Kingdom, the cross, the Gospel. Over and over and over.

The Kingdom has the high call and the deeper life, but it also has the grace to catch me and the laughter to let me keep on trying. The Kingdom asks us to live like God’s people, but the Gospel forgives and perseveres with us when we’re utter losers.

It is ridiculous that I’m a Christian. But I am. It’s ridiculous that I, with my record and likely future, call myself a minister. But I am. It’s ridiculous that I can have the Holy Spirit poured out in my heart and I can live with “Abba, Father” as my homing cry. But the Kingdom of God is like that. Ridiculous. Gracious. More than generous.

My “game” isn’t what’s on display here. Oh yes, I’m playing (or running, to quote Hebrews,) but the race is won, the game is over. I’m part of a team where the victory has already been announced, but the games go on, just to make Jesus look good.

My poor Christianity is discouraging and sometimes disgusting. It would make a lot more since if I were cut, told to quit and sent out.

Instead, I’m included. I share the victory. I have a place at the table and in the Father’s house.

Grace changes my perspective on the game. It is what it is, but grace is a greater thing, a deeper, more beautiful thing. I must be careful not to become a fan of the game and forget why I’m here at all. I must remember that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of rules and morals and taking stands in the public square, but of righteousness and joy and the Holy Spirit. I’m not called to be a trophy Christian, but to be a trophy of his grace.

I’m a poor chess player, but I’m trying.

I’m a poor Christian, but I’m trying.

The difference is that all I’ll ever be in chess will be the sum total of my efforts.

But all I am and will ever be as a Christian is because of Jesus and what he has achieved for me in my place. In the Kingdom, my game is secondary. My faith, even as a loser, glorifies the King who saves me. Whatever happens in me- as imperfect and incomplete as it will be- will never be more than the evidence that his grace refuses to quit, give up or send me where I deserve. To the praise of the glory of his grace, I will live, die, live again and reign with him.

In the present, God delights in what his son has done, and that delights spills over even to my poor playing. In this Kingdom, I am free from condemnation. Free to grow, free to fail, free to be myself and free to try again. What I will be is God’s promise. I live my life in his grace and love; out of that good ground, the fruits of his Spirit will grow.

8 thoughts on “Wednesday with Michael Spencer: Confessions of a Poor Player

  1. +1. This was Michael at his best, giving insight into something he enjoyed personally, throwing himself under the bus about it, relating it to his walk with Christ, throwing himself under the bus for THAT, then concluding by tying the two elements together and letting us know, “It’s all about Christ’s saving grace.”

    Lovely piece.


  2. Great post. It also made me wonder if anyone has done serious research on applying game theory to religious practices. If the initial Google search is any indication, this could be a wide open field…


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