Teaching Youth to Trade Away the Bucket List

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Several months ago, I had one of the most encouraging yet challenging conversations I’ve had in a long time. I wish you could have been with me that afternoon!

Before leaving my car to enter their house, I asked God for wisdom. I knew this would be a heavy conversation. As soon as I knocked on the door, I heard their four small dogs barking like sirens, alerting Jay and Donna that I arrived. After coming inside and lots of dog licks, we sat down around their kitchen table to cups of hot black tea. I noticed that Donna was still wearing her hospital band from her appointment earlier that morning. Jay tenderly held Donna’s hand as she began telling me about her diagnosis. For Donna, this all happened very suddenly. A month earlier, her doctor ran some routine blood work because Donna was reporting extreme fatigue. But now words like “routine” and “fatigue” have been replaced with “oncologist” and “terminal.” Donna has a rare form of Myelodysplastic syndrome, the equivalent of a “stage four” cancer. We had met that day to begin planning parts of her funeral because her doctors give her only months to live.

It was an emotional cup of tea we drank together. But as their dogs sat on our feet under the kitchen table, I heard a resolute, unshakable, fixed trust in the goodness of God and his plans for their life. I saw a husband supporting his wife as she courageously anticipated her last day. I felt both of their confidence that to “depart and be with Christ is far better.”

Some live life with a “bucket list” of all the great things they want to do before they die. Chasing those dreams (so the thought goes), will provide adventure, meaning, and joy throughout their life. Many who approach death fill their final months by pursuing such dreams. But Donna has chosen to occupy her time by spending it with her husband, her family, her church, and her Bible. She doesn’t feel a great need to check more things off a bucket list, because she knows the greatest experience of all, being with Jesus, is just right around the corner!

What does this hard story have to do with youth ministry? Well, if Jesus tells us that “the one who endures until the end will be saved” (Mt 24:13), and if Paul exhorts the Corinthians to run the race so as to win the prize (1 Cor 9:24), then should not a youth ministry aim to prepare students for the ultimate end of life?

Yes, we need to practically prepare students to survive the perils of life in this broken world, but we must not neglect the reality that one day our life here will end. Let us not forget that those in the great “Hall of Faith” of Hebrews 11 endured their present trials by trusting in their future hope.

In contrast to a culture teaching that one finds meaning by finishing your “bucket list,” we must joyfully proclaim that one finds ultimate meaning by knowing, and one day eternally resting with, Jesus Christ.

I saw three key themes in my conversation with Jay and Donna that day, origins of the kind of faith I pray God develops in all of us.

God’s will, not mine
Jay and Donna noted during our conversation that life was not their own, for they were redeemed by the blood of Christ. Therefore we are his. We must yield to the will of the Father. Donna confessed it can be hard to pray for God’s will because we aren’t sure if it agrees with our own. But the critical factor in her ability to pray for God’s will was intimately knowing God’s character. When we know that God is good and wise, we can confidently believe that God does not make mistakes. Donna followed – and still does – the pattern of Jesus, who prayed as he faced death, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39).

May we teach our students about the rich character of God, so they will trust his will, no matter what they face.

Deep Bible Roots
Psalm 139 comforted Donna over many years and especially does so now. She requested that I recite it at her funeral. So I invited her to walk me through each verse and share the meaning and encouragement she sees. As she did, I saw her Bible was highlighted, written in, and well-worn from decades of study. I heard about various words she had studied and looked up. In the process, I found this Psalm coming alive to me in ways I never saw before.

God provides enduring strength for our faith through our dependence on the word. I saw in her the fruit of what Jesus said, that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).

Trading the bucket list for heavenly longings
Both Donna and Jay expressed their awareness of the unavoidable reality in the coming months. But their hands are open with their lives. Neither of them says that they have anything left undone, any regrets, or anything left to experience. They both have a healthy understanding that the most important thing in life, namely the salvation of souls, is something only God can do. They realize God might accomplish those very things through these hardships. But when Donna looks at the dawn of heaven fast approaching the horizon of her life, the joy of what she is about to gain outweighs the sorrow of what is about to be lost.

This perspective is probably much harder for younger generations because they have so much of life still before them. So may we teach our students that freedom from the “stuff of life” is gained as we keep our hearts longing for the intimacy with Christ found in Heaven.

When my students have to face death, I hope they do so with a faith that Donna has right now. I hope I can too. It is a sweet and sobering privilege to see a saint die well. By grace, she is just following in the footsteps of her savior who faced death the same way. In his last day, Jesus trusted the will of his father, relied upon the words of scripture, and valued nearness with the Father above life here on earth. By grace, may we do likewise!

My church did a video interview with Jay and Donna. To hear their perspective and see this faith in their eyes, please click HERE.

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