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"What's On Your Bucket List?"

Dr. Michael Helms
Award of Outstanding Merit - $1,000

Dr. Michael Helms is a Baptist pastor, having served churches in Georgia since 1988.  He holds degrees from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.  Dr. Helms has been a weekly columnist for the Moultrie Observer since 2000.  He has won five previous Amy Awards and was a finalist in the 2004 Pastor Awards from the Amy Foundation.  His sermons have won awards from the Baptist History and Heritage Society and the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home.  His first book, Finding our Way—An Introspective Journey Through the Labyrinth of Life, was published by Winepress Publishing Group in 2006.  His second and third books, Hoping Liberia, and Finding Our Way Through Advent, are pending publication.  Michael and his wife Tina have two sons, John, a U.S. Marine, and Ryan, a member of the diving team at the University of Tennessee. 

In the movie “The Bucket List,” Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play the roles of two aging men who both get the news they have terminal cancer.


Nicholson plays a wealthy man who owns numerous hospitals whose primary interest is making money. He’s terrible at relationships. He’s been married four times and he’s estranged from his only daughter. He thinks the world should revolve around him, and those who work for him understand their job is to please him.

Freeman plays the role of a mechanic whose dream in life was to become a history teacher, but that all 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 the 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 their marriage has begun to fade.

These two men, one black, one white, are opposites in nearly every way. They have ended up in the same hospital room with the same bad news: They have less than one year to live. Before leaving the hospital, Edward, the rich hospital owner, 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 he could do before he died: (1) Help a complete stranger (2) Laugh till I cry (3) Drive a Shelby Mustang (4) Witness something majestic (5) See Rome, the pyramids, Masada, and Hong Kong.

When Edward starts reading Carter’s list, Carter protests, but it is too late. Carter explains that it was something he was required to do 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 was just redoing his list.

But Edward starts having fun at Carter’s expense. He starts adding his own items like “skydiving” and “Kiss the most beautiful girl in the world.” When Carter asks him how he proposes to do that, Edward says, “Volume.” The next thing Edward adds is “Get a tattoo.” Carter tells him he’s taken baths deeper than this list.

Nevertheless, Edward begins to get excited. He tells Carter, “We can do this. We should do this.” Carter tells him he is crazy. “The list was meant to be metaphorical,” he says. But 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 decides 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 wanted to mark a few of these things off his list. The rest of the movie follows these two men as they check items off their list and as they continue to ponder what is really significant about life.

Don’t we all have a list of things we want to do before we die? Of course some people live as if they will never die and that always affects the things they have on their lists. We should heed the words of the Psalmist: “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 … So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Psalm 90:10, 12 (NIV)

Part of having a wise heart is keeping our list prioritized; if we don’t, our list will be filled with acquiring the material, pleasing the physical, chasing the superficial, resulting in a life focused on the inconsequential. In the two greatest commandments Jesus taught us to concentrate on the spiritual and the relational, for what good will it do if we have the wrong list and succeed in checking off every item and end up “gaining the whole world, yet forfeiting our own soul”? (Mark 8:26) NIV

In the movie, 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 the daughter he’s not spoken to in years. At her house he kisses the most beautiful girl in the world, the granddaughter he’s never met.

Edward speaks at Carter’s funeral. He professes love for a friend he’s known for only three months. As he speaks, it occurs to him that just three months earlier, they were complete strangers and they have helped each other for the good; so he pulls out the bucket list and strikes off another item: “Help a complete stranger for the good.”

He told those gathered for the funeral, “The last months of his life were the best months of mine. He saved my life.”

The movie ends with a mountain climber climbing up a snow packed mountain to carry the ashes of Edward 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 last item on their list is checked off by the mountain climber: “Witness a majestic sight.”

None of us knows the time we have left to live, but the Psalmist has advised us to count our days that we might have a wise heart.  Part of having a wise heart is to make sure the items we have on our “bucket list” are not inconsequential. We need to make sure the spiritual and the relational are placed ahead of the material, the physical, and the superficial. Have you checked your list lately?

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