Life is a gift that we keep unwrapping; may we be grateful for the friends who have helped us find our way, and may we learn to appreciate those who share the way, today and those we meet tomorrow.
Someone said, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift…that’s why they call it the present.”
Yesterday is only a gift when it is cherished.
Tomorrow becomes a gift when we’re enthused about some thing we’re planning – some of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling have to do with the energy and enthusiasm in the planning.
Today we bring our past into the present in order to cherish this day. Sometimes we bring the past into the present so we can come to terms with it – to find forgiveness so we can move on and not be dragged down by regrets.
To worship is to consider that which is of worth in our lives; may this time together today help us to be present to the day, to cherish the past and to anticipate the future with a renewed sense of hope.
Sermon: The Bucket List
Our Small Group Ministry program’s main purpose is to provide a way of connecting with one another in a close, personal way, and to connect with ourselves on a deeper level; to get to know several other members of the congregation and to be known, creating a greater sense of belonging as well as promoting spiritual growth.
Pablo Neruda said, “All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are.”
We have common concerns – it helps to share them, thoughtfully, We share a common destiny – it helps to acknowledge that basic but often-unspoken fact of our existence. Sandburg said it directly: “Nothing more certain than death; nothing more uncertain than the hour.”
I’ll have a little more to say about the SGM program – suffice it to say that the topic for discussion this month is ‘the bucket list,’ the things you want to do before that certain death in that uncertain hour.
In the opening passages of his famous book Walden, Henry David Thoreau said:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
The title of the sermon, and the topic for Small Group Ministry conversations this month, come from the movie, “The Bucket List,” which opened one year ago with Academy Award winners Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman playing the main characters.
We’ll review the movie, insert a poem or two, talk about my own bucket list and try to get you to take a look into your bucket list, or ‘life list,’ as some prefer to call it.
The question, in some ways, is, “Do you have any unfinished business?”
I’m reminded of the story of the Bishop who wanted to take advantage of the Christmas Eve crowd – so many of whom come to church just once a year. In his sermon he said, “Every man in this parish is going to die someday.” He noticed one particular man who seemed to be smiling smugly, so he repeated the line, meant as a warning; the man smiled broadly, almost chuckling, so the Bishop looked at him and said, again, “Every man in this parish is going to die someday; what do you find amusing about that, sir?” The man replied, “I’m not from this parish!”
Director Rob Reiner’s main point isn’t that ‘everyone is going to die someday,’ but rather that it’s never too late to live the days we have left to its fullest.
The title of the film comes from a story told by one of the main characters. When Carter Chambers, played by Morgan Freeman, was a freshman in college his philosophy professor suggested that his students compose a “bucket list,” a collection of all the things they wanted to do, to see and to experience before they died. He called it the bucket list – things you want to do before you kick the bucket, a somewhat crass term for dying.
While Carter was thinking about his life-list as a college freshman a different kind of reality intruded when his girlfriend announced that she was pregnant. They got married and suddenly he found himself with another kind of list — a list of the responsibilities he assumed as husband and father. He spent the next 46 years working as an auto mechanic.
He didn’t spend time looking back in regret – he didn’t spend time with his bucket list. He spent time with his family and he spent most of his days under the hood of a car.
Meanwhile, corporate billionaire Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) ‘never saw a list without a bottom line.’ He was always too busy making money and building an empire to think about what his deeper needs might be beyond the next big acquisition or cup of gourmet coffee.
Then life delivered an urgent and unexpected wake-up call to both of them. Carter and Edward found themselves sharing a hospital room with plenty of time to think about what might happen next–wondering how much time was left.
Why does a billionaire not have a private room? Why, because Edward owns the hospital, and to maximize profits he has a policy that all patients must double up, so it would look bad if he didn’t.
Edward and Carter make a most unlikely pair, but they found themselves together through no choice of their own — if there had been a choice, neither would have opted to be with the other, but they were forced to deal with one another on an intimate level – the kind of intimacy a serious illness creates…the masks come off.
For all their apparent differences, they soon discovered they had two very important things in common: an unrealized need to come to terms with who they were and the choices they’d made in life, and a pressing desire to spend the time they had left doing some things they had always wanted to do.
The list wasn’t just a mental exercise anymore. It was an agenda, like Thoreau’s reason for going to the woods: to live deliberately – to carefully consider how to spend whatever time they had left.
(Notice the word ‘liberate’ in the word deliberately. They needed to free themselves from being trapped by their illness; not only trapped in the physical sense – they signed themselves out of the hospital – but trapped mentally and spiritually. They needed to free themselves.)
So, against doctor’s orders and against good sense, as well as being against the realities of having a terminal illness, these two virtual strangers check themselves out of the hospital and hit the road together for the adventures of a lifetime–from the Taj Mahal to the Serengeti, from the finest restaurants to the seediest tattoo parlors, from the cockpit of vintage race cars to the open door of a prop plane–with just a sheet of paper with a list, and their passion for life…
Day by day they crossed things off their list and found things to add, all the while taking in the outstanding things about the world — the grandeur, the beauty of the world, the challenges they could choose, which was a metaphor for the way we use our freedom – ways we liberate ourselves by making choices, the deliberate decisions we make about how to spend our time, our life, which define what we value, and which create life’s meanings and purposes.
In the process and without really intending it, they become true friends, not because their relationship is without conflict, but because they find ways to resolve their differences, knowing full well that it’s foolish to waste precious time squabbling about differences.
They also become fast friends because they share a sense of vulnerability, a common destiny. They see things in one another that help them to learn things about themselves and come to terms with unfinished business, providing balance to their bucket list – things I want to do, on the one hand, and things I need to do on the other – each of them have relationship issues to work out before time runs out.
(In the play Equus there’s a line that says, “A friend is someone who helps you to know yourself more moderately.”)
Their relationship is characterized by moments of much-needed humor, the deepening of insights, a growing sense of caring and compassion – a sense of heart, and a no-nonsense attitude.
It is, of course, a metaphor for looking at one’s life; we’re all terminal, and like Thoreau, we want to ‘drive life into a corner…and not when we come to die discover that we have not lived…’
Maybe we need deadlines, like the diagnosis of a terminal illness like Carter and Edward – a way of jumpstarting us to get our life in gear.
But remember, the story is a metaphor, not to be taken too literally, but revealing some deep, universal truths.
When the Greek poet Cavafy was young he wrote a poem he titled AN OLD MAN (trans. by Manolis Aligizakis)
In the inner room of the noisy café
an old man sits bent over a table;
a newspaper before him, no companion beside him.
And in the scorn of his miserable old age,
he meditates how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, the art of the word, and good looks.
He knows he has aged much; he is aware of it, he sees it,
and yet the time when he was young seems like
yesterday. How short a time, how short a time.
And he ponders how Wisdom had deceived him;
and how he always trusted her—what folly!—
the liar who would say, “Tomorrow. You have ample time.”
He recalls impulses he curbed; and how much
joy he sacrificed. Every lost chance
now mocks his senseless prudence.
…But with so much thinking and remembering
the old man reels. And he dozes off
bent over the table of the café.
Remember, this poem was not written by an old man, but by a youth, like Carter as a college freshman working on his assignment to come up with a bucket list. It makes sense for a young person to have a list of things you’d like to do – a life list, since most of your life is (presumably) before you.
For an older person, let’s say in your late 90’s, you know that most of your life is behind you, so the life list needs to be turned around, inviting you to look back – to reflect with a sense of satisfaction, appreciation, understanding and acceptance.
At that stage, the question isn’t so much about what you’d like to do with the time you have left, but a chance to reflect on what have you done, realizing things that, if you hadn’t done them, they would be included on your life list.
There was a new story in Friday’s NY Times titled, Seeing Old Age as a Never-Ending Adventure, with a photograph of Tom Lackey, age 89, standing on the wing of a biplane flying across the English Channel, and another of picture showing Charles Smith, also 89, standing at the North Pole having also traveled to the South Pole a year earlier.
The gist of the story is that lots of older folks are, in fact, making bucket lists and living them.
I didn’t realize that Elderhostel had a name change, getting away from the prefix ‘elder,’ and using the more youthful name Exploritas: Adventures in life-long learning.
T.S. Eliot said, “Old men should be explorers.”
The quote on the order of service came to me from a member of the congregation who responded to the sermon title in the newsletter. Mary Elizabeth says, “This summer Matthew and I took the kids (Tess and Cole) to see the pony swim in Chincoteague Island, VA. Seeing a herd of wild ponies swim as a FAMILY back to the main land takes your breath away…worthy of the bucket list beforehand.” The Petersons. I smiled. She ‘got it.’ She got the idea that the bucket list doesn’t have to be limited to things you’d like to do in the future, but to appreciate things you’ve done. They are precious.
Like Thoreau, we all want to ‘live deliberately,’ to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms, and if it is sublime to know it by experience.
At the head of my life list, looking back with appreciation, is marriage – two wonderful marriages – and children, two marvelous children; and grandchildren, two amazingly wonderful grandchildren; and an incredibly beautiful and talented stepdaughter. I’ve been truly blessed, many time over.
Also at the top of the looking-back-with-appreciation list is education and work – what I think of as the responsible stuff, like the useful presents in Dylan Thomas’s famous story of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. That list would include helping parents in their times of need in their older years; family and several special friendships.
Dylan Thomas made a list of what he called the useless presents, things we could have done without but made life fun, interesting and adventurous – ‘to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.’ For me that would include a lot of travel, including the wilderness trips with a men’s group, part of whose purpose was to deepen friendships as well as experiencing the wildnerness.
One thing that particularly stands out for me is the six-month sabbatical I had from January to June in 1992. I spent five months on the road, alone, in a VW Vanagon, without a plan, going to places that looked interesting on the map and staying as long as interest lasted, especially enjoying the National Parks and a contemplative week at Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico.
The only thing on my bucket list at this moment is to complete the memoir I want to leave, especially for my grandchildren and their children.
I’ll conclude by reminding you that the sermon subject is one example of a SGM topic, but the real topic, or ‘subject,’ isn’t assigned, the real subject is the person sitting with you; the real goal is ‘to convey to others what we are,’ and in that process to be more deliberate about who we are becoming.
The optimal size of a group is about ten, giving everyone a chance to speak – to feel heard; and to have a chance to listen to a variety of ideas, opinions and questions raised by the others in your group.
Each group has a facilitator who provides a kind of non-directive, non-controlling leadership; to facilitate is literally ‘to make it easy.’ Cozy.
There’s an inspiration committee – people who work to create the topics and provide readings, quotes and questions to facilitate the group process. A good facilitator makes it look easy while helping the group keep to the disciplines.
The inspiration committee has presented programs like aging, balance, books, compromise, conscience, God?, illness and healing, intuition, loneliness, miracles, Nature (reverence for), patience, prayer, self-care and wisdom.
Try it. I think you’ll like it and in the future you’ll look back and say, “I’m glad I put that on my bucket list!”
The inspiration committee opened the bucket-list topic with some lines from Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complains, libraries, querulous criticisms
Strong and content I travel the open road.
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and will fill them in return.)
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women ‘You have done such good to me I would do the same to you.’
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve…
Allons! After the great companions, and to belong to them!
They too are on the road – they are the swift and majestic men –
they are the greatest women
Comerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
Now let us have faith in the day-to-day, hour-by-hour unfolding of Life, learning what we’re capable of learning, accepting the limits of our knowledge while holding fast to our dreams and cherishing our friendships. We have ourselves and one another and that’s enough to fill the cup up to the brim.