EPISCOPAL MEN'S CURSILLO #84
August 23rd -26th, 2007
Duncan Conference Center
Delray Beach, Florida
Thereís a church bulletin that announced, ďThe sermon this morning is ĎJesus Walks on the Water.í The sermon tonight: ĎSearching for Jesus.íĒ Itís good to see youíre still awake.
Good afternoon, brothers. Iím Shawn McAllister; I worship at St. Christopherís Episcopal Church in Haverhill (West Palm Beach); and Iím here to talk to you about Piety.
Piety is Faithfulness to God. It is a covenant relationship with God. There are a lot of people who want to serve God; the problem is most only want to serve as advisers. But God is the father, the Chairman of the Board, the CEO, the supervisor, the one who should always be in control. So if, in fact, God is your co-pilot, then you and he need to switch seats. You canít be selective about it; you have to allow God into all aspects of your life. Piety is a call to new life in relationship with ourselves, God and the world. You have to know who you are before you can ever discover who God is.
Albert Einstein was honored by Time Magazine as the Man of the 20th Century. Reverend Billy Graham once told the story when Einstein was traveling from Princeton on a train. The conductor came down the aisle, punching the tickets of every passenger. When he came to Einstein, the great physicist reached in his vest pocket. When he didnít find his ticket, he reached in his trouser pockets. It wasnít there, so he looked in his briefcase, but it wasnít there either. Then he looked in the seat beside him. He still couldnít find it.
The conductor said, ďDr. Einstein, I know who you are. We all know who you are. Iím sure you bought a ticket. Donít worry about it.Ē
Einstein nodded appreciatively. The conductor continued down the aisle punching tickets. As he was ready to move to the next car, he turned around and saw the distinguished old man down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for his ticket.
The conductor rushed back and said, ďDr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, I told you not to worry, I know who you are. Itís no problem. You donít need a ticket. Iím sure you bought one.Ē
Einstein looked at him and said, ďYoung man, I too, know who I am. What I donít know is where Iím going.Ē
Iíve worked all of my adult life as a professional actor and writer, but despite the fact that that has been my identify all my life, thatís not who I am; thatís just what I do. I was married twice. My first marriage ended in divorce; my second wife died from colon cancer in 1998. Iíve got two daughters, three step-daughters, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. My youngest granddaughter is five years old; my oldest grandson is 23, in the U.S. Army, and just finished a tour of duty in Afghanistan. I served as an admiralís writer in the U.S. Navy during Vietnam. I have a lot of friends. Iím known to have a pretty good sense of humor Ö a sense of humor that often targets those friends Ö although I can also be a grouchy old bear, but I do feel as though Iím well liked and respected. Iím surrounded by love. Thatís who I am.
Billy Graham was 83 years old in January, 2000 when he told that story about Einstein. He was attending a luncheon in his honor in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. The point he was making was to assure his audience that when his time came he would be prepared. ďI not only know who I am,Ē he concluded ďÖI also know where Iím going.Ē
How many of us truly know where weíre going?
I donít know about you but Iím still working on it. I know where I want to go. I think all of us want to make a difference in some way. We want our lives to have an impact, however small, on the world. We need to feel as though we have a purpose Ė that our life has meaning. And we want to feel as though our efforts will someday be rewarded. We all have long range goals; however, the older I get the more I realize that my long range goals are becoming more and more short ranged. There are three elements necessary to grow spiritually and to reach your goal to change the world in Christís name. That path is called The Tripod consisting of Piety, Study, and Action.
Weíre focusing on Piety Ė that which is devout, religious, virtuous, dutiful, and moral. It has to come from an earnest, honest place deep inside, not worn like an outer garment. Piety is not the false conception of ďbeing piousĒ by relying on outward signs and ďdoing goodĒ to ďlook good.Ē It is not mechanical by following routines of faith and lacking inner experience. You canít be pious by being hypocritical in appearing religious and only concerned with personal glory.
Genuine Piety is found when our whole lives are oriented toward living for God as described by Paul in Colossians 3:17: ďWhatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, and come with him into the presence of God the Father to give him your thanks.Ē When David was hiding in the wilderness of Judea he prayed, ďOh, God, my God, how I search for you! How I wish I could go into your sanctuary to see your strength and glory, for your love and kindness are better to me than life itself. How I praise you! I will bless you as long as I live, lifting up my hands to you in prayer.Ē (Psalm 63) Our deep love for God in Christ directs our daily choices. God invites us into a mutual, committing relationship. We need to recognize that God is real and cares for us and wants our lives to be lived for His glory. Jesus said, ďYou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.Ē Piety guides our lives in Christ.
The practice of Piety is simple and is characterized by living a normal life in everyday surroundings, by being natural, being oneself, by being courageous, through maturity and strength, joy and peace, and by an intentional, regular interaction with God. We were given free choice to decide how we would spend our time in this physical life. We are free to choose what to do with our lives, how to love, whether or not to create, to reason, to be productive or to be idle. It is up to us to decide how to live in harmony with creation and with God. But having the power to structure our lives and our character does not mean we are in total control. The unexpected will happen.
During the Christmas holidays of 1997, my wife, Marie, developed a pain in her chest. It got worse as the New Year began and she underwent a number of tests. The first week of March the doctor called us in for a consultation and we were told she had cancer. It started in her colon and had metathesized in her liver; it was terminal. We were living in Vero Beach where we were members of St. Augustine of Canterbury and our faith was a part of our everyday routine at the time, so when Hospice moved into our lives, the church was naturally a part of the process. There was a cycle of emotions that we went through after receiving the devastating news. At first, we were in shock. Then there was a period of absolute fear Ė fear of dying, fear of leaving things undone, fear of forgetting something, fear of losing all control, fear of losing each other Ė followed by a period of denial. That was replaced by anger. I remember getting really angry at God, demanding to know why He was doing this Ė Marie didnít deserve to have to suffer through such a debilitating disease Ė if somebody had to die, why wouldnít He take me instead? I knew, of course, that this was just a part of the process of living; itís not some sort of sadistic game of Godís. We all know that life is temporary Ö weíre born and we will die. Thatís how it works. I donít think that the when, where and how are necessarily predestined. Itís how we deal with it that matters. Thatís where God comes in; to give us the strength to deal with the traumas of life. I knew that, but I had to vent my anger somewhere and God seemed to be the logical target. My anger didnít last long; we didnít have time to be angry; I got over it quickly. The last phase was acceptance of our circumstance and we set out to take care of all the details that needed attending to, not to mention looking into the avalanche of opinions and diverse treatments for cancer that exist. Accepting reality doesnít mean you give up trying to beat the odds against you. Those of you who have dealt with this disease know what Iím talking about; for those who havenít, the best way I can describe it is itís like trying to lasso a runaway freight train with a piece of string.
At some point, Marie asked me to be her surrogate to make decisions for her when she could no longer make them herself. Part of that responsibility meant having to decide when to pull the plug on her life support system. After agreeing, I went into a bit of a depression. I agonized day and night over such an overwhelming burden and even sought the counsel of Father Mike, my priest, who spent many hours with me praying for strength to handle the task ahead of me. Marie noticed that something was bothering me and one day she asked what was wrong.
ďI love you with all my heart,Ē I told her, ďand Iím willing to do anything for you, but I donít know if I can handle the responsibility of having to make a life and death decision about you when the time comes.Ē
She took my hand, looked me square in the eye and said, ďIím not asking you to make that decision, Shawn. That decision has already been made. All Iím asking you to do is to ensure that I die with dignity.Ē
What a moment that was. And what an incredible peace it was that came over me. I could handle that. It was extraordinary how composed she was all through her ordeal right up until the last moment. She was diagnosed in early March and died 3Ĺ months later on June 17th. It happened so fast, but she never faltered despite the pain and rapid deterioration of her body. She showed remarkable strength. I think a lot of it had to do with her faith. She knew God would take care of her. You see, faith is not believing that God can do it; faith is knowing that God will do it. She believed that her dying was a transition; that while she was leaving this world she would be born to eternal life. We didnít view God as the cause of the situation; He wasnít the culprit putting us through this ordeal; it was just a natural course of events. Instead, He was a big part of helping us deal with it because we invited Him in. God is love; and love is meant to be shared. We shared our faith and love as an ongoing part of our life together and it spread to family and friends. The love of my family and the fact that Piety was just a natural part of our daily routine allowed me to cope with this traumatic family crisis as well as I did. It continues to come back to me every day. Not all of us are meant to proclaim the gospel from a soap box. By living according to Godís teachings, we become a manifestation of His will and, therefore, a tool to spread His word. Thatís how most of us spread Godís message. Only a few of us are meant to preach Ė the rest teach by example. Marie still is my inspiration. I can only hope that when my time comes I face death with half as much poise and dignity as she did with just an ounce of the faith she displayed.
There are many elements of Piety. Some practices of Piety include personal prayer and devotions, the daily office of morning and evening prayer, attending Eucharist, obtaining spiritual direction, retreats, and meditation, to name a few. The practice of Piety is necessary to sustain a life of grace. And a key element of Piety is perseverance in our mutual love relationship with God.
My relationship with God has been a rocky one, especially before I met Marie. It can probably best be described as a roller coaster ride. I spent a large part of my young adulthood as an agnostic. I neither believed nor disbelieved and, quite frankly, I didnít much care one way or the other. That is until I was challenged during a deep discussion about religion by an atheist friend.
ďThatís a cop out,Ē he said. ďSitting on the fence is cowardly. Either you believe or you donít believe. You canít have it both ways. This middle of the road crap is for the birds. Make up your mind and commit to it!Ē
I was stunned by his blunt assertion. But he was right. I thought about it for days on end. I dug deep into my soul searching for the answer. This was an important decision. What if I was wrong? What difference would it make? Eventually I came to the conclusion that I would rather believe and be wrong, then not believe and be wrong. And so, after an absence of more than 20 years I returned to the church. Thatís right! It was an atheist who showed me how to turn to God. Talk about working in mysterious ways!
One of the things I had always been taught growing up was that we were physical beings who would someday have a spiritual experience and meet God. This didnít make sense to my logical mind and became one of the biggest conflicts I had in coming to terms with any religious belief system until I realized that we are, in fact, spiritual creatures that are currently having a physical experience. We knew God before we got here. Paul says that ďthere are natural bodies and spiritual bodies.Ē Even modern science has determined that life is energy-based, not based on matter as was once believed.
Another conflict I dealt with had to do with accepting something I couldnít see or touch. I wanted to believe, but that same logical mind of mine wouldnít allow me to be a hundred percent committed to something intangible. The turning point came one evening during chapel in the year 2000. Midway through the service I felt a presence in the room unlike anything I had ever experienced before. This was not the combined energy of all those in the room ó as a professional actor I can recognize that. This was something more. It was a spiritual presence more powerful than anything I had ever felt before. This wasnít my imagination. I canít tell you definitively what it was, other than it was real. It was both a strange sensation and a familiar feeling. I felt as though I was in the company of Christ. That moment had a dramatic impact on me. For the first time in my life, I had something tangible I could associate with my belief in God. Iím not going to pretend that the road is not still a rocky one. It probably always will be. After all, Iím still looking for answers. It doesnít matter. Whatís important is that, for once, at least Iím traveling in the right direction. Acceptance of life is the first requisite of living it and the acceptance of God is the first requisite of giving life meaning.
Before you retire tonight, ask yourself, do you know who you are? Do you know where you are going? And do you know how to get there?
Our regular practices of Piety will lead us to want to know more about God through study, and to serve others to lead them to God with action, which in turn will deepen our love and commitment to God; thatís Piety.
Peace be with you, my brothers, and go with God.