This article won a $1000 Award of Outstanding Merit from the Amy Foundation in 2009.
In the movie “The Bucket List,” Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play the roles of two aging men who both get the news that they have terminal cancer.
Nicholson plays Edward, a wealthy owner of numerous hospitals who is primarily interested in making lots of money. He’s terrible at relationships. He’s been married four times and is estranged from his only daughter. He is at the center of his world. Those who work for him understand that their job is to please him.
Freeman plays the role of Carter, a mechanic whose lifelong dream was to become a history teacher. All that changed with an unplanned pregnancy. He had to drop out of college, get married and begin supporting a wife and child. For the next 45 years he worked at that same repair shop. He sent his children to college, giving them the dream he never had. He’s a man of deep faith. He’s never been unfaithful to his wife, but as the years passed, the passion in the marriage began to fade.
These two men ”one black, one white”are opposites in nearly every way. They have one thing in common: they know that they have less than a year to live and they’ve ended up sharing a hospital room. Each has to decide what he will do with the time he has left.
Before leaving the hospital, Edward discovers a wadded up piece of paper on the floor that Carter had attempted to throw in the trash. On that paper, Carter had written down some things he wished to do before he dies:
1. Help a Complete Stranger.
2. Laugh Till I Cry.
3. Drive a Shelby Mustang.
3. Witness Something Majestic.
4. See Rome, the Pyramids, Masada, Hong Kong.
When Edward starts reading his list, Carter protests, but it is too late. Carter explains that making such a list was required in his freshman philosophy class as an exercise in forward thinking. The teacher called it “The Bucket List” because the list was supposed to contain things they wanted to do in life before they “kicked the bucket.” Carter said he was just redoing his list.
Edward starts having fun at Carter’s expense. He starts adding his own items to the list like “skydiving” and “kissing the most beautiful girl in the world.” When Carter asks him how he proposes to do that, Edward says, “Volume.” The next thing he adds to the list is “Get a tattoo.”
Edward begins to get excited. Then he says, “We can do this. We should do this.” Carter tells him he is crazy. “The list is meant to be metaphorical,” he says. Edward begins to get to Carter when he asks him if he is simply going to go home and allow people to gather around him and watch him die.
By the time Carter’s wife makes her way back to the room to receive the bad news that his cancer is terminal, Carter has decided he’s given his entire life to his family, and perhaps he has actually earned a little bit of time for himself. Before he dies, he wants to mark a few of these things off his list. He and Edward are going on a trip.
The rest of the movie is about following these two men as they check items off their list, and as they do, they continue to ponder what is really significant about life.
At the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses climbs Mount Nebo. For forty years he has been wandering around in the wilderness with a group of Hebrews. He’s watched an entire generation of people die in the wilderness. From Mount Nebo he can see the Promised Land, the land beyond the Jordan River, which God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying “I will give it to your descendants.”
Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal to you but Moses was 120 years old. Moses is an old man who is coming to the end of his life. The fact that he climbed a mountain says that Moses was still a very strong man. We are even told in verse seven that his sight was unimpaired and his vigor was not abated. Like the two men in the movie, he’s not ready to die. He’s got some things left he wants to do.
There was a purpose for Moses to climb that mountain. God wanted Moses to see the land of promise, but then he told him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it”(Deuteronomy 34:4b).
At age 120, Moses came face to face with his mortality. Moses was going to die. He suddenly had to deal with the reality that his journey had come to an end.
What a journey Moses had. As a baby, he escaped the Pharaoh’s edict that all Hebrew male babies be thrown into the river to reduce the population. Moses’ mother made a basket, coated it with pitch, placed Moses in the basket and floated him among the reeds of the river, where his sister watched nearby. Pharaoh’s own daughter discovered the child, had compassion on him and saved him. Moses means “out of the water.” Moses was raised in the court of Pharaoh like an Egyptian prince and lived like one for the first 40 years of his life.
That changed the day he saw an Egyptian beating up a Hebrew slave. Anger boiled within him as he came to the aid of his own race. He killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand. Later, Moses fled to the desert when his crime was about to be exposed. For the next 40 years of his life, he lived in the wilderness, tending sheep and raising a family.
Then God came to Moses. He got his attention through a bush, which was on fire but was not being consumed.
God said, “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God” (Exodus 3:6).
God told Moses that he had seen the affliction of his people in Egypt. He had heard their cries. He knew their sorrows. God was coming down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians, to bring them out of slavery and to bring them into a large land flowing with milk and honey. He had planned to send Moses to Pharaoh to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. He promised Moses He would there for be him.
I don’t know what Moses had on his list of things to do at age 80, but this wasn’t one of them. Maybe he wanted to construct a nicer tent, grow a longer beard, or raise a larger herd of goats. I don’t know exactly what kind of list a man in the wilderness would have a few thousand years ago. It couldn’t be all that exciting. You’d think this offer from God would be invigorating, but Moses had a 40-year-old bounty on his head back in Egypt. A trip back to Egypt sounded like an invitation to a shortened life, so Moses had plenty of excuses.
Eventually, God convinced Moses that all of his excuses were nothing more than a lack of faith in God’s power. So Moses relented, placed his faith in God, and headed for Egypt.
We all have a list of things we want to do before we die. Some of you have a list of things you want to do; you are just so young you haven’t even thought about dying. You are fortunate enough not to have grieved the death of someone close to you, so life hasn’t yet jerked you into the reality that we are mortals.
The Psalmist wrote: “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers” (Psalm 90:4-6).
“The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away (v. 10). So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (v. 12).
If we count our days and gain a wise heart, it seems that we will not only have a list of things to do before we die, but our list will include more than the material, the superficial, and the inconsequential.
When Edward started making his list, Carter told him that he’d taken a bath deeper than his list. How many people do you know who are living lives with lists that are nothing more than lists of pleasure, lists designed to build up the ego, lists which focus on the material, lists filled with things that are passing away?
How many people do you know who never allow the light of Christ to judge their list? Are you one of those people?
We need to count our days. We need to have wise hearts. Because you are reading this book, I know you are contemplating some very serious spiritual decisions in your life. Perhaps your bucket list will be one of them.
We all have a wish list of things we want to do in life but how many of us are putting off significant things that we need to be doing now?
When the father of a good friend of mine died, he said he had no regrets about the relationship he had established with his father over the last several years. While he grieved over his father’s death, he had a peace in his heart because he had not put off the significant things with his father he needed and wanted to do. I’ve known many others who have had to live with regrets of days they cannot get back.
Should God take us up on the mountaintop today and show us the landscape of our lives, we would all see things we’ve yet to do that we want to do. Moses wanted to cross over into the Promised Land. He could see it. He had lived about 43,800 days of life, but God said, “You shall not cross over there.”
The danger of putting off what needs to be done now is that none of us is given any assurance of time, not even the next minute. We have only so many days and none of us know the number.
You cannot read Deuteronomy 34 without some sadness for Moses. He spent forty years in the wilderness with a bunch of whining, thankless, complaining, freed slaves from Egypt. One day, Moses lost his temper. God commanded Moses to speak to a rock in order for water to flow out of it. He struck the rock instead and God said, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (Numbers 20:12).
Part of the grief associated with the end of our lives is the realization that we are leaving some things undone. Some of that may be because of missed opportunity. Nevertheless, not getting everything done we want to get done may not be all bad.
Maybe we should live in such a way that at the end of life, whenever life ends, we still have something left to do on our list. I want to live in such a way that when God takes me, there’s still a spiritual vigor about me. I’m not sure I want to have finished everything. I want to be still doing, even if I live to be 100. I want to say, “But Lord, I’m still…”
Let’s live in such a way so even if we don’t get to scratch off everything on our lists that we’ve lived lives that have inspired others to take up the causes we’ve championed and make them their own. That’s what Joshua did for Moses.
That’s what Edward did for Carter. After Carter dies, Edward’s life changes. He realizes that things like “skydiving” and “getting a tattoo” really are not what living is all about. Although it is awkward, he makes a trip to see his daughter he’s not spoken to in years. There he kisses the most beautiful girl in the world, the granddaughter he’s never met.
Edward speaks at Carter’s funeral. He professed love for a friend he’d known for only three months. As he speaks, it occurs to him that just three months before, they were complete strangers. They have helped one another for the good, so he pulls out Carter’s list and strikes off one more item off his list: “help a complete stranger for the good.”
He tells those gathered for the funeral, “The last months of Carter’s life were the best months of mine. He saved my life.”
Just before Jesus, breathed his last breath on the cross, he said, “It is finished.” He marked the final thing off his list he needed to accomplish before he died. He forgave those who crucified him. We are among those who sent Jesus to the cross because Jesus died for sinners. His life has saved ours, not just because of his life and death, but also because of his resurrection.
The movie ends with a man climbing up a snow packed mountain to carry the ashes of Edward Perryman Cole to join those of his friend, Carter. The narrator says, “Edward Perryman Cole died in May. It was a Sunday in the afternoon and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. He was 81 years old. Even now, I can’t claim to understand the measure of a life, but I can tell you this: I know that when he died, his eyes were closed and his heart was open . . .”
The mountain climber checked off the last item on Carter’s list, “witness a majestic sight.”
As we move through this season of Lent, none of us know the time we have left to live, but the Psalmist has advised us to count our days that we might have a wise heart. I hope your heart is open. If it is, then I trust you will take a look at your list.
Is your list more about the material, the physical, the superficial, or the inconsequential? Do you need to change course? Do you need redo your list and replace any of these with things that are spiritual, relational, and inspirational?
Evaluate your list; make changes where you need to make them. Live in such a way that when your time is up, others will want to carry on the relational work that you did not complete, for your family’s sake, for the community’s sake, for the church’s sake, and for the kingdom’s sake.