Scribbling as fast as I could, I wrote “M” for “me” and “G” for the voice.
For the next 30 minutes or so, the voice called me by name, identified itself as God, confronted me with my own issues and my own private wounds, contradicted my newly articulated seminary theology, answered a lot of my questions, called me to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, and reassured me when I protested.
In the course of the conversation, I asked, “So, why are you talking to me?”
And the voice responded, “Well, you’ve been asking for it.”
It’s true. I had been asking and begging and praying and even challenging God to get clear with me, to give me some direction in my life.
And so here I was, sitting in a McDonald’s in the middle of New York City on a winter afternoon, having a private conversation with an invisible voice.
At the end of our time together, I asked, “Okay. So if you’re inside of me, then how can you be God?”
And the voice replied in words that I will never forget as long as I live: “What’s so special about me is that I’m inside of each and every person, and if everyone would hear my voice and follow it, then my realm on Earth would come.”
I then asked, “So what am I supposed to do now?”
The voice said, “Go home.” So I walked home.
What am I to make of this conversation? Was I to believe it to be the voice of God? It certainly wasn’t my own voice, and yet it was coming from inside of me.
And so, contrary to my extroverted nature, I kept the conversation to myself. You see, I didn’t know if I was talking with God, but I knew that if there was a God, I wasn’t going to get a clearer message. And so I decided to receive it, to receive it as a gift.
That conversation in McDonald’s changed my life. It gave me the courage to live and work in some pretty tough communities; gave me the conviction to stand for justice alongside those whom society often rejects; called me to embrace the complexity of religious diversity and to see the world in shades of gray rather than black and white.
And it also compelled me to be honest and transparent about myself, about who I am, who I love, and what I believe.
Over the past decade, the essence of that conversation has accompanied me on my life’s journey and has influenced nearly every decision I have ever made.
It’s the alter… the alter at which I worship. It’s the angel with whom I wrestle. It’s the burning bush in which I stand in front of, bare-footed. It’s the blinding flash of light that forces me to my knees when I want to run away.
But you can also say that the voice is my dancing partner who guides me on the dance floor of life.
The conversation I had with an invisible voice in a McDonald’s is akin to what Jews call the Torah; and Christians, the Gospel; Muslims, the Quran; Hindus, my Dharma; and Buddhists, my Kōan.
The voice might be what some theists call that of God or Allah or Jesus. Some religious and spiritual folk would simply say it was a voice of an angel. Those in 12-step programs might say it was that of my higher power.
Agnostics and atheists, they might interpret it as my conscience. It could be what Jungians speak of as my “Self” with a capital “S.”
And skeptics and cynics, well, they might insist that it was simply a figment of my imagination.
It might be all of the above or some of the above or none of the above, but it was as real to me as I am here talking with you today.
And while the conversation was pretty personal, the message to which I have devoted my life and I think is worth sharing here today on this TEDx stage is that the voice of the one whom I call God and you might describe by another name or another word resides in you.
And if you would hear it and you would follow it, your life would be enriched, your imagination would be set free, your creativity would flourish, and this fragile and endangered world would be a better and a safer place to live.
So you might be wondering: “How can you hear this voice?”
Well, I think of it as a simple Four Step: Ask, Wait, Listen, and Receive.
As in any conversation, somebody has to begin it, and it might as well be you. My experience is that the voice is really very gracious and waits for an invitation to speak.
And then, once you ask a question, you have to wait for an answer. And the voice might take its time in accepting your invitation, so you have to be patient and persistent.
It might come in unexpected ways, through a conversation or a dream or even silence. And it might manifest itself in unexpected times and places, even a McDonald’s on 42nd Street.
And then, in order to hear the voice, you have to develop a habit of listening — the Zen masters call it mindfulness, contemplatives speak of it as meditation, and mystics call it contemplation.
Whatever you call it, you can’t hear the voice without listening, and that means that you sometimes have to silence all of the other noise filling up your airwaves.