I’ve been thinking about death a bit recently. It’s not a morbid preoccupation, or a sudden interest in ‘dark things’ but more of a close realisation of the natural process that affects us all from birth through to death. Death feels nearer than it did before. I guess it’s a pretty normal reaction for someone who’s just had a near death experience. (see my previous blog entry and there’s more in this one too.) Also this week has been one of those weeks where I’ve had news of a baby cousin born in Argentina and a very close and dear friend of my parents dying, a work colleague’s brother dying, as well as the daughter of a friend of ours who we’ve known since she was a baby, getting engaged to be married… and it’s all a reminder of the circle of life to which we all, everyone one of us are on, whether for a short or long time.
“From the day we arrive on the planet And blinking, step into the sun There's more to see than can ever be seen More to do than can ever be done There's far too much to take in here More to find than can ever be found But the sun rolling high Through the sapphire sky Keeps great and small on the endless round” - The Circle of Life - Music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice
A couple of years back I went to a seminar for women in business and one of the activities we did was to create a list of 50 goals or things we wanted to achieve in the short, medium and long term. I like lists. I’m one of those ridiculous people who makes a list so I can get the satisfaction of crossing things off… and yes even more ridiculous that if I want to be able to cross a lot of things off, I’ll even put on some things I’ve just done so I get that satisfaction!!! Anyway, this 50 goals list was my first attempt at something like a ‘Bucket List’ and was actually a bit of fun, particularly being able to cross off some of the things on the list in the last couple of years, from starting Kereru Publishing to buying a pair of turquoise shoes! It is quite the trendy thing these days to refer to a ‘bucket list,’ and particularly in the age of social media, we are able to show off our experiences to our friends around the globe as we seek new and exciting adventures. The concept of a bucket list has been linked to death because these bucket lists include “X number of things I want to do before I die.”
Last year when Andrew and I were on a tour of Schwenkfeld things in Germany, and I was not feeling so great, I went to the local hospital in Pirna, near Dresden, to see a doctor, it being the only place to find a Doctor on a Sunday morning! I arrived thinking that I had some kind of tummy bug or something equally minor. Three hours later, it was a shock to be told they were keeping me in their hospital as I had to have emergency bowel surgery. When I asked if I could go home to New Zealand, the doctor just looked at me, and said very quietly, “How long is the plane flight back to NZ?”
“About 24 hours flying time,” I replied.
“You don’t actually have that long,” he answered, “We’re going to delay the surgery until first thing tomorrow morning as the chief surgeon wants to do it herself. It’s a case of getting the right person and the right time. But you need the surgery immediately.”
Then he proceeded to tell me the significant risks of the surgery with the best English he could use.
It was pretty good English. It was good enough for me to know that things were not going so well for me. I hadn’t planned to die any time soon. It wasn’t on my radar. But for the remaining hours of that day Andrew and I sat together and I thought about my life to date and I thought about the possibility of death. The very hardest thing of all was being away from my people. I missed terribly my loved ones at home, and although we spoke on the phone to my parents and kids, a phone call seemed so remote, and I didn’t get to speak to all my people, having, neither the time or the energy. Through the night I was in such pain, which maybe helped me, in that the thought of death didn’t frighten me. If it was my time, I was ready. I was at peace. God felt very near to me.
After a teary goodbye to Andrew, and a promise from him that he’d be there when I woke up, they wheeled me to theatre and somewhere on the way I went to sleep… and while it felt like second, over 24 hours later woke to the sound of voices in a foreign language, calling my name. It felt like they were pulling me towards them. I didn’t recognise any of the voices.
“Where’s Andrew?” I asked, foggy headed.
“He’s not here.”
So I knew in that moment, that I had died. I’d gone to the wrong place, I wasn’t alive, because Andrew wasn’t there waiting for me.
This created a further flurry of voices, and then a whole string of sentences in an accented English voice, “It is Tuesday morning. We made him go home. He is with your friends in Dresden. He will be here soon.”
I wasn’t in the wrong place. I wasn’t dead. I was alive. And yet I could not believe it. The thrill of knowing I was alive was dizzyingly wonderful.
I don’t remember a lot of the details of those first few days in Intensive Care. I just remember being so glad to be alive, and see Andrew again, and to know that I would be able to go home and see my family. And all I wanted to do, was to ‘be’. I wanted to be a better person, a kinder, gentler, wiser one, less thoughtless with my words, more generous with my actions, I wanted to show the world that love exists and so does hope and peace and grace. With no words to help me, and a body that had completely let me down, rendering me totally at the mercy of the hospital staff, the only thing I could think to do was to smile. And so I smiled. As much as I could. It wasn’t hard. I was very happy. But apparently it was unusual! I was alive and it was like I had been handed a fresh start.
It’s funny, because these thoughts consumed me initially, and it wasn’t until I was out of Intensive Care that I started to think about the things that I’d left unfinished that I’d now get a chance to finish. A ‘review of my bucket list’. And sure there were plenty of things that I wanted to do again, projects I wanted to finish, places I wanted to visit, things I wanted to learn, but in those heady days of being alive again, all those things didn’t matter so much. I always have several creative projects on the go at any one time. A half-finished painting, an incomplete manuscript (or several), a quilt (or two), sewing projects, (aplenty) excel spreadsheet documents and so on. One day, I’m really going to die. And I know that I’m going to more than likely leave behind a list of things that I didn’t get to finish, didn’t get to do, didn’t get to try, didn’t get to accomplish. It is, I realise, a reality of life.
Even now, almost five months later, with my health getting gradually better, I still feel that the things that are on those lists don’t matter so much to me as just ‘being’. I still want to do them but I don’t need to do them. And this is where I think my faith and belief in a life after death helps. Because I don’t think this life is the end. Things I don’t get to finish in this life, maybe I’ll do in the next life. I love the images and ideas C.S.Lewis plays with in many of his books, the idea that this life is a shadow of the life yet to come. In his Narnia books, partly allegorical with the Christian story, with Aslan the Lion being a Christ figure, my favourite character is the little mouse, Reepicheep. In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Reepicheep who is a brave, adventurous mouse, when faced with the prospect of going on a journey from which he knows he will never return, is eager and willing. At the edge of the world, where the water is sweet and filling, and there is more light than has ever been seen before, is the bright land called Aslan’s Country. “Whatever it is, won’t it be worth anything just to have looked for one moment beyond the edge of the world?” Reepicheep – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
The season of Lent is a time when Christians throughout history, focus on being more like Christ. In some traditions the practice of going without something for the 40 days leading to the events of the Easter weekend, becomes a daily physical reminder of this discipline to pray, to think about Christ, to be like Christ. The ’40 days’ of Lent has been picked up by many Christian people in promoting 40 days of disciplines not related to the Easter story and not necessarily practised through Lent, but practised to be better people and more like Christ. (40 Days of Purpose, 40 Days of Prayer, The Love Dare, 40 Days in the Word… and so on.) Andrew and I for several years wrote material for the New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society. The appeal was called, ‘Self Denial’ and picked up the idea of denying yourself something and using the resource (time, energy, money, goods etc) to give to those less fortunate in our world and those working to make a difference in the different countries where NZBMS worked. The NZ Baptist churches could use the material at any timeframe that they liked, according to their own church year plans. Some churches liked to link the annual Self Denial appeal to Lent, where it fitted neatly with the idea of denying yourself something throughout Lent.
I was thinking about those Self Denial appeals the other day. Our younger children experienced these appeals through most of their early childhood and primary school years. They laugh about it now, but they used to look forward to Self Denial every year almost as much as they looked forward to Christmas. And they love Christmas! Because we’d written the Self Denial material, we packed our church services with plenty of creative things that made it all challenging and inspiring as well as fun. We liked to hold our Self Denial season away from Easter, as we liked the chance to make the most of both. I still am constantly intrigued about the joy our kids found in focussing on the needs of others through these times. In fact, when I think of the people I know who are truly happy, they are people who give generously to others. Giving makes them happy and fulfilled.
It is why the ’50 Things to Do Before I Die – Bucket List’ doesn’t quite cut it for me as a ‘before I die’ list. I’m quite happy to have a list of goals and ideas and dreams to keep me moving through this life. I like to be active and creative and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. And I like to make plans. And I need to do some of these things to relax. But these are not the imperative goals that I know are necessary to be more like Christ. They’re more just ‘nice things to do’. Frank Sinatra’s, “I Did It My Way,” has an emotive, beautiful and powerful tune… but the lyrics are the exact opposite of how I want to end my life or how I want to be remembered.
“And now, the end is near; And so I face the final curtain. My friend, I'll say it clear, I'll state my case, of which I'm certain. I've lived a life that's full. I've traveled each and ev'ry highway; And more, much more than this, I did it my way. …. For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels; And not the words of one who kneels. The record shows I took the blows - And did it my way!” - Music "Comme d'habitude" Claude François & Jacques Revaux, Lyrics Paul Anka”'
A few years ago we went to a children’s performance show where the storyline revolved around a girl who had just found out she was dying and wanted to do all kinds of things before she died. It was a little jarring in parts, because it didn’t take into account, if she was dying there would be medical issues, and pain, and grief. But it did bring up a topic that is a hot topic for most people, the things that I want to ‘do’ before I die. The movie, “The Bucket List” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicolson is based on the same concept. It had some thought provoking moments, but overall the same problem… does it really matter if we get to do all these things for ourselves before we die?
What if we lived our lives so that others’ lives were touched and improved? What if the legacy we leave helps other people in their lives? What if we don’t get to do all the things we’ve dreamed and planned for ourselves, but what we did do, was stop a child from starving, was provide hope to someone who was hopeless, loved someone who was unlovable. These things would be worth doing before we died.
So all of this is heading towards my thinking about my problem with a Bucket List as being a complete list of I want to achieve before I die. Unless I write my list in such a way that it’s not all about my wants and desires, a bucket list is essentially selfish. So I thought what better time this Lent season than to keep a Lenten Bucket List. I’m going to focus on giving and being a better person, I want to focus on being more like Jesus Christ and be more like he wants me to be. But instead of making a list to tick off, I’m going to put a bucket next to my bed and every day I’m going to put a note into my bucket. At least one thing every day that I’ve done to be more like Jesus, one thing that I’ve given away or one thing I’ve been. I guess I could make a list of some ideas of things I could do, but I thought this Lent I would let God guide me towards the needs of people around me.
Of course, I could do this all the time, not just for Lent, and I don’t really need to put things into a bucket to make them actually happen, but the physical act of writing something down and putting it in my bucket and the opportunity to practise a discipline through the Lenten season, seems a good way to follow Christ this year. Because this year, more than any year I can remmeber, I am feeling very glad to be alive and I’m feeling like I’ve got a second chance at making my life make a difference.