Very few things spark my ire more quickly, and then manage to sustain that anger longer, than TV commercials.
Most of them are inane, but there are exceptions. A few ads cause me to smile and sometimes laugh out loud. Even more rarely, one will stir the imagination or actually make me think about what is being claimed, overtly or implicitly.
The current rare exception is an ad for United Healthcare insurance. Although I’ve only been on a motorcycle once – and briefly at that – in my life, I find myself drawn to this commercial that shows an older man, lean and lined, with his bike and sharing his bio:
“I’ve been riding since I was 17. Flat out my whole life. Ran into a pretty serious medical issue. I was prescribed one drug one place, another somewhere else. Turns out, if I’d taken both drugs together, I’d have been in real trouble. But United Healthcare spotted the danger and warned my pharmacist in time. We only get one shot. And I want to leave this life exhausted.”
Then a pitchperson for United Healthcare takes over to finish up the ad.
At first I was taken by the line, “…I want to leave this life exhausted.” And I still love it because it so vividly matches my attitude about how I want to spend whatever remaining time God gives me to live.
I’m not interested, that is, in retiring into some restful state of non-activity; I want to go out, as the old guy in the commercial says, “exhausted.”
But it is the penultimate sentence of the ad – “We only get one shot” – that has provoked my recent reflection.
Yes, as a Christian I have to affirm that truth. Here there is no doctrine of reincarnation that allows me to bank on doing my earthly existence better the next time (or times) around.
This is the only life in which I’ve got the opportunity to make the best use of the time and gifts extended to me.
That truth would seem to apply equally to both the spiritual and secular realms, as well as the points where those two realms intersect and interact.
It’s surely true that during our lifetimes we get multiple opportunities to make a spiritual or secular decision that inches us toward a more fulfilling and meaningful life – or less so.
But certainly it is also the case that there are particular times in our spiritual and secular lives when a particular decision (or set of choices) has a decisive and a permanent impact on what follows for us and others.
Think about what a religious conversion or an eye-opening and reorienting experience in religious education can mean in a life and in a family.
Think of what we now know about the impact of prenatal care by a mother of a fetus or the kind of nourishment and stimulation the child receives in the first months and years of life.
Think about what we now know about providing or denying kids in grade school, at just a particular time, the kind of quality education that matches their stages of brain development, and how, when missed, will never be available again in those children’s lifetimes.
Think about how many opportunities our political leaders had to provide affordable, accessible and high-quality health care for all people and repeatedly chose not to enact the kind of legislation that would make that possible, resulting in a massive number of deaths and untold suffering.
Or, on a larger scale, think of what choices earlier generations – and our own – could have been made in order to make our planet less endangered and more sustainable, but chose to ignore the warnings about “the fate of the earth.”
In each of these cases, the United Healthcare commercial makes the right point: there are surely times when “we only get one shot” and we had better not blow it.
It calls to mind the preaching of John the Baptist in the wilderness: “Repent and change your ways because God’s heavenly realm (or dominion, or kingdom) is now closing in.”
And it reminds us of the Baptizer’s anger at the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to be baptized but were faking it – going through the motions with no intention of making a decisive, fundamental change in their lives.
They were like the mother who now smokes and drinks during her pregnancy. They were like the parents (and the wider society) who now deny their offspring nourishing food, a stimulating environment and early childhood education. They were like the citizens who now settle for radically unequal funding for public education, resulting in the radically unequal quality of education for our children.
Those Pharisees and Sadducees were like the politicians (and their followers) who now say they are all for people being healthy but are committed to repealing the Affordable Health Care Act without offering a serious alternative that will provide equivalent coverage.
They were like the peoples and politicians of the First World now gathered in Durban, South Africa, for the Global Warming Conference refusing to take concrete actions to stall or reverse the crippling and dying of the earth.
They were like the people now sitting in church pews and in front of TV sets who, in their self-righteous smugness, refuse the invitation to be converted to a radically different kind of life – one lived in the reign of the God of unconditional and all-inclusive love and one wanting “to leave this life exhausted.”
And yet, John the Baptist seems to hold out the possibility that everyone, even the Pharisees and Sadducees, get still another shot at living in that reign and leaving life in that condition.
But it does make one wonder: How many shots do we get?
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.