Monday, January 26, 2015

Bucket Lists

Last week, I was a part of a gathering of highly successful men and women -- I was the slacker on the fringes of the group. One of those participating, a relatively young man, had recently had a heart attack from which he was recovering, and he spoke of developing plans for an upcoming dream vacation. He said that priorities had changed since the unexpected heart attack, and now he was working on his bucket list. Everyone nodded.

The purpose of what follows is not to oppose bucket lists. Every good thing that we have is a gift from God, and while pleasure is not an ultimate, unbounded principle, surely it is right that we should enjoy good things that God has given us. While some Christians have chosen asceticism as their approach to life, the Bible is not really a book for ascetics, particularly given that Jesus, though poor, was criticized for being a "gluttonous man and a winebibber" (Luke 7:34). He taught both how to rejoice with those rejoicing and how to weep with the weeping. While our best life is not now, certainly there is much that can be enjoyed while here.

Yet, the 2007 movie featuring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson seems to have struck a chord with the culture, to the point that it has changed the way that many think about their mortality. This is the case in spite of the rather far-fetched plot. One wag has suggested that the grand lesson of the movie is that one who is dying should hope he winds up sharing a room with a rich guy that happens to own the hospital. Be that as it may, many people now seem smitten with the idea that one facing the issue of their mortality owes it to himself to, in a phrase from another era, "go for the gusto."

A generation ago, a person experiencing a life threatening event would have been far more likely to talk about realizing the need to prepare to meet his maker or perhaps about becoming more focused on family concerns. Indeed, the largely forgotten climax of the movie involved Nicholson's reluctant and moving reconciliation with his daughter and family. Though the climactic scene of the movie, it is the part that hardly ever gets talked about in the bucket list conversation.

Given that our culture is becoming increasingly secular, it is not surprising that it would become enamored by a view of life ("go for the gusto") that has the corollary thought that one only goes around once. However, if the materialist is wrong -- and most of those planning bucket lists would not consider themselves raw naturalists in philosophy or religious belief -- then the bucket list does not deal with the issues of death and eternity as much as it avoids them. That is to say that the bucket list serves as a distraction from the need to answer the greatest questions facing the human race.

No view of human existence that fails to account for human mortality is worth much, as it fails to account for the one fact that is certain for everyone that survives birth. Yet, modernity, by prolonging life, has made more possible the delusion that we can avoid thinking about death. Modernity has bred irreligion, not because it has made religion intellectually untenable, but because it has helped postpone the need to face questions to which religion provides answers. This also explains why modern man has tended toward inwardly focused spirituality in place of outwardly focused religious faith. Spirituality is for one who only fears not finding meaning in this life. Religion is for the one who knows that external help is required surely for this life, but also for the life that is to come.

Jesus -- the one described by many as a great teacher and held by his followers to be Savior and Lord -- taught this by means of a stark question: what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul, or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mt. 16:26). In modern terms, the question might be what value is there in checking off all of the items from the bucket list and losing your soul? What will you give in exchange for your soul.

Those are terrifying questions, because they point to the fact that what we accumulate or experience in this world won't mean anything in the world that is coming. What will help in the day of judgment when we stand before a God who is holy and just?

The Christian answer is that when we were without strength, Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6). Whosoever shall call upon Christ shall be saved (Rom. 10:13).

It has been said that those who think about death while fully alive are best equipped to think of life at the time of death. God's gifts of creation are intended to be enjoyed in their proper place. Enjoy them as they are intended to be enjoyed. However, in health or sickness, we should be prepared to meet our God.

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