“The best thing that could happen to you is to have your worst sin broadcasted on the evening news.”
This is a true statement. Some of my worst sins were made into a documentary. Twelves years ago, I joined a professional card-counting team as a means of paying the bills while I planted a church in Cincinnati, OH. Most of the team professed to be Christians and it wasn’t long before someone saw compelling material for a film. The movie, Holy Rollers: The True Story of Christian Card-Counting, has been covered by New York Times, World Magazine, CNN, and even The Colbert Report. The coverage has become a little overwhelming. I’m thankful for it. It is good for a proud man like me to be put in a position where I must publicly account for the sinful decisions I’ve made. That is exactly what I hope to do in the next few paragraphs.
I joined the team in the summer of 2006. There is a complicated backstory of how I came to be on the team. I’ll spare you the details for now. Basically, I was looking for a job that generated enough income to allow my pregnant wife to quit her job and still afford me the time to do the work of church planting. A good friend offered to get me on a team. Initially, I declined but after awhile it seemed like the only thing that worked with my particular situation. If I had a time-machine, I’d go back in time and slap some sense into myself. Blackjack caused havoc in my life. I regret it.
Charles Spurgeon said, “Do not be ashamed of confessing your past folly. I think a man who says, “I was wrong,” really in effect says, “I am a little wiser today than I was yesterday.” So, permit me to confess three areas where I now see that I was in the wrong.
First, I know my playing on the team emboldened some people to sin. Friends would often call me from casinos looking for tips on how to win some cash. I’d try really hard to explain the difference between what I was doing and what they were doing. It rarely worked. Why? Because gambling is gambling to people. Low risk. High risk. No strategy. Entirely strategic. The distinctions don’t really matter. If money is wagered in a casino, it is gambling to the majority of people. Therefore, I know what I did encouraged people to be unwise and sinful with their money. It encouraged others to gamble. After all, they were just doing what I, a pastor, was doing. What a failure! Forgive me!
It has taken me a long time to admit this because I hate gambling. I don’t play cards recreationally, scratch off tickets, or even do church raffles. I grew up in a casino community (Lawrenceburg, IN). I’ve seen firsthand the destruction gambling causes in people’s lives. I somehow thought that what I was doing would create a stark contrast between stewardship and reckless use of money. It was a naive and foolish notion. Worse yet, it did the exact opposite of what I had hoped would happen. I don’t want people to gamble. I greatly regret that my actions encouraged others to sin.
Second, I know my playing on the team has given scoffers and malcontents occasion to mock Christianity. They will cite Holy Rollers as yet another example of Christians being hypocritical. They are right. As a minister of Christ, I made all sorts of bold calls for holiness yet my life was a muddled mess of contradictions. In Ephesians 5:3, Paul commanded, “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” Being a professional blackjack player certainly suggests at the very least a “hint” of immorality, impurity, and greed. Christians ought not send mixed signals, let alone a pastor who is supposed to be above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2). Again, I greatly regret that my actions gave people cause to speak ill of my Lord and his church.
Lastly, card-counting and deception go hand-in-hand. Casinos hate winners and will do everything within their legal rights to maximize their profits. Card-counting isn’t against house-rules but private establishments like casinos have the legal right to make undesirable patrons to leave. Naturally, this tempts a player to conceal his true identity in the hopes he can get in some time in at the tables. This was a temptation I gave into early in my blackjack career. I used to make up wild back stories, use variants of my name, and even used disguises a couple of times. Eventually, the Lord convicted me of these sorts of deception and did my best to leave it behind midway through my career. I thought I could find a way to be an honest card-counter. However, I realized that this was impossible whenever people asked me what I did for a living. I only had three options. Tell them I’m a card-counter, a pastor, or lie. I opted to tell them I was a card-counter because I was scared that they wouldn’t understand how a pastor could do what I was doing. A Christian should never put themselves in a position where they can’t be straightforward about their allegiance to Christ. There are no double-lives allowed in the church. My decision to be a card-counter led me to a place where I was guilty of this even though I tried hard not to be. I deceived people and that was wrong.
I’m truly sorry for all the sins I committed while I was on the team. I left the team in December of 2008. I haven’t played a hand of blackjack since then. I became acquainted with the pastors of ClearNote Church several months after I joined the card-counting team. They firmly but lovingly pushed me to leave this life behind. I’d balked at their exhortation for nearly a year. I slowly came to see that I was just being a proud punk and heeded their wise counsel. I praise God for patient and gracious pastors! In May of 2009, I decided to move my family from Cincinnati to Bloomington to be part of ClearNote. I came here mainly just to reboot my life and recover. I’m thankful that we have a gracious church family and pastors that love a sinner like me.
Before I conclude, I do want to say that it wasn’t all bad. God was faithful to sanctify me even while I was in a profession like card-counting. Many people on the team are lovers of Christ. They rebuked me for my pride, fiery temper, and challenged me to think about all sorts of things more biblically. This is a testament to the goodness of God, not to the rightness of card-counting.
This is a repost from 2012.