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Bucket Lists!

I love Daylight Saving, as long as it happens in November and not April. That extra hour is a gift that always causes me to ponder with some excitement what I will do with those additional sixty minutes. It’s kind of funny, or sad, when I think about it, since I don’t give that sort of focused thought to the twenty-four hours I’m given every single day. Hours are opportunities whenever they happen, and the challenge is to figure out how to best use all of the hours at our disposal for as long as we live.

Today’s sermon topic is “Bucket Lists!” thanks to the Men’s Group that bid a pretty hefty sum at last year’s church auction for the privilege of selecting a preaching theme. They are a group that thinks deeply about important matters and discusses them at seven o’clock a.m. every Friday morning. They eat bagels and attempt to solve the world’s problems. And sometimes they talk about aging and death and how to use their energy for the greatest benefit while they are able to do so. In other words, before “kicking the bucket.” Only one member that I know of has made an actual bucket list, but all want to be intentional about what they achieve and experience in their lives.

Jesus talked about priorities from time to time. He was asked in today’s gospel reading about the most important commandment. In other words, what should we be absolutely sure to do? Jesus replied by saying that love matters more than anything. Loving God with our whole being and loving neighbors the way we love ourselves is the most important thing to accomplish in life. If someone had asked Jesus what to place on their bucket list, I imagine he would have answered exactly the same way. Love God; love your neighbor.

Daylight Saving reminds us that time moves on. Nights get longer. Days get shorter. We all experience reminders of the passing of time. Yesterday morning I received a text from my daughter with an interesting black and white photo that she had taken of herself. She was wearing a new leopard print coat that she bought to wear at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She wrote, “I did my makeup all 1960s and took pictures. The 60s are in right now.” It was like the 1960s were a historic era like the Civil War to be recreated in black and white. I texted back, “You make me feel old!” and she half-heartedly replied, “Dad, you’re not really old.” Once again, I was reminded of the passing of time.

When I pressed the Men’s group about their thoughts on bucket lists, one reply was something like this: I’m retiring soon, and I have all kinds of accumulated knowledge and experience from my career. What do I do now to develop further as a person, including in a spiritual sense, and how do I use my remaining time well? Another member offered this advice to everyone: “Make a bucket list now! It’s too late to start at 92 (which was his age. You can try to guess who that was, but my lips are sealed!) The group also was very helpful with hymn suggestions, like “There’s a Hole in the Bucket.” Needless to say, I ignored their ideas for worship planning.

Do you have a bucket list? And if so, are you making progress in ticking off the items? If you’re looking for ideas, there is an internet community with 300,000 members that has generated almost four million bucket list ideas. Some are a little outrageous, such as “Stand on the North Pole,” “Run with bulls in Spain,” and “Kayak over a waterfall.”

I love the poem that was one of our readings this morning. It’s really a bucket list in reverse. The author, Nadine Stair, wrote it in the 1950s at age 85 as she looked back at her life with a certain wistfulness. There is a great deal of wisdom in her words as she reflected on how she would live her life differently, given the opportunity. “I’d take more chances, I’d take life less seriously, I’d dare to make more mistakes. I’d climb more mountains. I’d stay barefoot longer in the fall. I’d eat more ice cream. I’d pick more daisies.” What a great reminder for those of us have been trained to take life very seriously, to the point that it is overly calculated and leaves little room for wonder and unexpected possibilities.

It seems to me that a bucket list that is all about bungie jumping and visiting all seven continents and chasing tornadoes might miss out on the greatest benefit of planning ahead to accomplish specific goals. It’s fun to do those dramatic and even daring things, as long as you don’t die prematurely while doing something dangerous and then not finishing your list, but what is the lasting purpose? In our conversations at Men’s Group about bucket lists, we kept coming back to the theme of living with purpose. It think that’s why Jesus was so quick to remind his listeners that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love people. Finding a spiritual center is of greater help in living a life that is meaningful than simply checking items off a list. And investing ourselves in loving ways in the lives of people is much more likely to bring long-range satisfaction than any sort of travel, even going into space, which reportedly is a popular bucket list item.

At this point in my life, I have begun to think about what my legacy will be. What is it that will be remembered about my life by those who knew me and perhaps even by those who have only heard of me? I’m inclined to think about bucket lists in that light.

That is not to minimize the fun that having a bucket list can generate. Or to suggest that every item in a list that is written or just in the back of our minds needs to be very serious or spiritual or aimed at a lasting legacy. Sometimes it’s good to plan for enjoyable experiences that we would never otherwise allow ourselves. Some of us have been raised with a deeply embedded Protestant work ethic that discouraged what was seen as frivolous or a waste of time. We’ve been told not to be selfish, and so we can feel guilty about taking time for ourselves or doing things for our own enjoyment. Some of those entirely fun experiences should definitely be on our list!

Yesterday one of our newest attenders was at an organizational meeting here for our summer mission trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. When asked why she had signed up, she said “I have always wanted to be part of something like this.” That sounds like a bucket list item to me! Sometimes an adventure, for example a mission trip, can be a way to explore the world and also express love for God and for our neighbor.

I don’t believe that sermons are primarily about telling people what to believe or what to do or how to improve their lives. Preaching at its best, I think, provokes deeper thought from its listeners and inspires them to find their own ways to apply ideas, especially those that spring from the reading of Scripture. One of the ways to stimulate that kind of response is by asking pertinent questions. A question that comes to my mind today is this: Is it helpful to you to have a plan of action so that you will not look back near the end of your life and say “I wish I had picked more daisies?” If so, will you include in that plan concrete actions that are rooted in love?

At the risk of being too specific in suggesting how to do that, I would like to suggest four items to include in your bucket list. They are:

  1. A place to go – to expand your world

  2. A skill to learn – to widen your experience

  3. An action to take – to improve the world for others

  4. A relationship to renew or repair – to live in peace with someone who has been important to you.

Hopefully bucket lists are not just about what we do. The can be about who we are and how we live. When we have goals like taking a direct action that will hopefully improve the world around us, or when we take the initiative to repair a relationship, that speaks about our highest values. The satisfaction and the good that can result is immeasurable. I also think it’s important to not just do the things that come naturally to us. That does not mean we have to jump out of an airplane if we are afraid of heights. It just means stretching our limits and exploring our untapped inner resources. That is often the path to the greatest personal growth.

Two days ago, I received word that a seminary friend named Jeff died after struggling for two decades with M.S. Jeff was generally acknowledged as having the most brilliant mind within our group of friends. He also thought big and was always considering possibilities the rest of us thought were a little odd. A mutual friend shared a story with me: “In the library one day, he came around the corner and said, "I believe the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church" and walked away. Half an hour later, he came back and said. "I think I am going to become an Episcopal priest" The friend continued, “He was one of the smartest people I ever knew. His PhD was some obscure treatise on the ancient Church fathers and Augustine... far beyond my pay grade...” As Jeff’s illness progressed, he became unable to speak. He continued to teach online courses as long as he could, very painstakingly hitting one key at a time and then correcting every mistake because he could not allow himself to make errors or take shortcuts. I imagine if Jeff had a bucket list, he did not achieve all of his goals, but his ability to persevere and inspire others was amazing.

On the same day I learned of Jeff’s passing, I found out that a very close friend from the same group of students has just been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Thankfully she has responded well to the first round of chemotherapy. It was a reminder that we never really know what life will bring us and when. There is great value in deciding now how we wish to live and what we wish to accomplish.

Rosemary Dineen is one of the saints that we remember today. She was with us for a relatively short time before she passed away last spring. She often asked me to preach about death and about dying well. I kept putting it off, since I didn’t really know what wisdom I could share on that topic. She asked me again on the last Sunday I saw her here. I’m not sure what I could have taught someone who lived with such determination in the face of illness while actively seeking out ways to volunteer and help others, and who was clearly at peace with her own death. She certainly taught me some important things about living and dying. The others we remember today have done the same. They were all remarkable human beings who we will remember as the saints of God.

In the movie “The Bucket List” with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, two men diagnosed with terminal illnesses spring themselves from their hospital and travel the world to fulfill the items on one of their bucket lists. They learn a lot about each other as they travel, and they discover that unfinished business with family relationships is perhaps the most important priority for them. In speaking of death, Freeman’s character Carter Chambers tells his friend Edward that they will be asked two questions at the entrance of heaven: “Have you found joy in your life?” And “Has your life brought joy to others?”

Have you loved God? And have you loved your neighbor as yourself?

May your life be filled with experiences that move you beyond what you imagined possible, and may you and others experience great joy as a result.


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