The bucket list
Synod School includes ‘God at the Box Office’
When the hit movie "The Bucket List" ended and lights came up, the Rev. Bill Humphreys asked for comments.
"In the end, the only thing that that really mattered was relationship," someone said, and the discussion took off.
The discussion took place in "God at the Box Office," a class led by Humphreys at the Synod of Lakes and Prairies' Synod School 2010 here during the last week in July. Described in its catalog as "a learning and personal enrichment experience," the annual event takes place each summer at Buena Vista University.
Humphreys' course was one of more than 65 classes, along with many other activities for children through adults, at the Sunday-through-Friday event.
Humphreys, who is the chaplain at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisc., has led "God at the Box Office" since 2007.
The movie, "The Bucket List," depicts two terminally ill men — and unlikely companions — who escape from a cancer ward and set off on a road trip with a list of exploits they hope to accomplish before they die. It stars Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The movie had received mixed critical reviews, with at least one reviewer calling it “schmaltzy,” but garnered tremendous popular support.
"I try to pick movies that do not necessarily sound religious or have easy, explicit religious themes, but movies that are like most of the movies that most of us watch," Humphreys said. "Students and colleagues on the staff and faculty have real lives, too, and the same themes come up. Sometimes they're even identified as religious."
In addition to "The Bucket List," the class watched "Lars and the Real Girl," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Seven Pounds" and "Tuck Everlasting."
"We look for spiritual or religious themes that are portrayed or addressed in some ways in the movie," Humphreys said. "Maybe it's the role of the minister or the congregation as in 'Lars and the Real Girl,' or some matters of justice in 'Mockingbird' or the Garden of Eden question about living forever in 'Tuck Everlasting.'"
Humphreys doesn’t see himself as the course instructor, but more as a moderator. "Teaching isn't quite the word I'd use to describe my role. I'm the one who selects the movies, considering suggestions from others, and then I'm the one who moderates the discussion," he said.
"I like the variety of views that come with the diversity of the people" at Synod School, he said, adding that they come from "west and east and south and north" and are a mix of "clergy and lay people."
Humphreys asked class members to name which of the two main characters they were most like, mechanic Carter Chambers, played by Freeman, or billionare hospital magnate Edward Cole, played by Nicholson. Carter, a man of faith, started the bucket list with idealistic goals such as "help a complete stranger for the good," while Edward, the faithless businessman, added the materialist items such as "skydiving."
Answering Humphreys' question, the Rev. Phil Barrett, general presbyter for the Presbytery of Des Moines, loudly said, "Both." He explained, "It was delivered facetiously, but there was something behind it," adding that most people have elements of both characters.
"We all have our bucket lists although they may not be very well articulated at the moment," Humphreys said.
For the Rev. Betty Weidert, pastor at Lake City Union Church, Lake City, Iowa, "The Bucket List" showed that individual lives are interdependent with others. "That's what this movie says to me."
And for Humphreys, the movie makes him "hear the echo of my spouse's voice wondering what's on my list."
His wife, who he described as the "bucket list spouse," is the Rev. Laura Loving, who is currently in Santa Fe, N.M., working on a master's degree in humanities. He added, "She's a student in a few courses that require loads of reading and she loves it."
Getting back to the movie, he added, "I also wonder about the seemingly demanding role that money plays in what we can realistically plan to do with our lives, and then there's the somewhat less obvious matter of how we grow our relationships."
Humphreys attended his first Synod School in 1977 and he has "attended pretty regularly since, although not every year," he said.
And in addition to the film class, Humphreys provides a lively morning news review each day before Synod School’s morning worship. "In earlier days, the news report included a report from the cartoon strip, 'Calvin and Hobbes,'" he said. "Get it? Calvin — John Calvin," he added. "One of them had spikey hair so that was a good opportunity to report the news from the comics with a little flair for some drama on my part."
This year, he also teamed with the Rev. Ken Meisner, chaplain at Buena Vista, to lead the post-high school, young adult morning seminar. In the past he has taught "Bible Study for Dummies," led the junior high morning class with Christian educator Kathy Wineberg-Kinsey of Milwaukee Presbytery, and served as school dean.
This year's Synod School, under the theme "Grace Notes," drew 627 participants — a record — but enrollment typically nears 600. "There's a rich Synod School tradition, while at the same time the community changes from year to year as new people join the journey. And the classes and other experiences offered, and the people who participate, come in a wide array of description and experience," Humphreys said.
And as far as his own bucket list, Humphreys said, "I could see taking flying lessons, but I don’t have a yen at this time to have a pilot's license, but flying and landing a commercial-sized airliner would be pretty cool. Maybe some scuba diving. Maybe a week's tour on a tall ship."
Duane Sweep, a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service, is associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies.