The Conversational God
This evening I participated in an interfaith study session at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois. The theme was Abraham in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures. Each of the presenters had to select an Abraham text from their sacred literature for us to share and discuss. The assembled study group was an interesting mix of students and faculty, from various faiths.
The text I chose is one of my favorites – Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. My reason for choosing it was because it presents such a non-traditional image of both God and prophet. Here, not only does Abraham have the audacity to argue with God, but Abraham actually bests God with the logic of his argument. He establishes a principle and then uses that principle to argue God down from the need to find 50 righteous people in order to save the cities to 10. Here we have in Abraham someone comfortable and confident enough to contend with the Almighty, and a God who is bound to abide by the same rules of conduct as that God imposes upon humanity; the rules of justice and compassion.
While we did discuss those very aspects of the text, yet one of the participants – a Jewish faculty member – threw in another issue; a hot one at that. This individual posed the often asked question: “If God spoke to Abraham, how come God does not speak to us today?” The scriptures – and it does not matter whose scriptures you are talking about – are filled with reports of God talking to people, whether they be Abraham or Moses or Jesus or Mohammad. Yet as talkative as God seems to have been in those days, God appears to have remained silent for quite some time.
But has God truly remained silent or have we just turned deaf?
Many years ago, I heard my mentor, Rabbi Jack Stern, Jr., tell the following story. It touched me so then and it continues to touch me.
It was about 5:00 p.m. on a weekday in downtown Manhattan; on Madison Avenue to be exact. Offices had just closed for the day, their workers crammed the sidewalks and the streets, rushing to go home. The air was filled with the sounds of honking car horns and shouting people. In this hubbub of noise and in the crush of people pushing and shoving, two old friends who had been separated for years happened to bump into each other. Instantly recognizing each other, they stopped and embraced. All around them people were bustling by while they stood their ground, savoring their sweet reunion. Then suddenly, one of the men said to his friend, “Listen! Can you hear it?” “Hear what?” the other replied. “Don’t you hear the little bird caught in that bush in that window box over there?” When the friend turned to look, he saw that the window box in question was maybe fifty yards away. “Do you expect me to believe that you can hear a little bird chirping in that window box, all the way over there, in the midst of all this noise and chaos?” the doubtful friend replied. “Come. I’ll show you.” And with that, they walked over to the window box. The friend who claimed he heard the bird bent over and with the back of both of his hands, he parted the branches of the bush. As he did so, a little bird flew out and flew away. The other friend was absolutely astounded. “How could you possibly hear that little bird as such a distance, in all this noise? You must have Superman hearing!” No. Not really,” replied the friend. “Let me show you something.” With that, he stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a quarter, which he then proceeded to drop on the sidewalk. The minute the coin hit the concrete, maybe twenty people stopped, turned, and looked around, searching. As the man bent down to retrieve his quarter, he turned to his friend and said, “You see. It all depends what you are listening for.”
Is it that God no longer speaks to us or is it that we are not listening for God or that we are listening for other things? That is the real question before us. Have we become so self-involved and so pseudo-sophisticated that we have become incapable of conceiving of a God who actually speaks to us; that God could be shouting into our ear yet we would not hear even a Divine whisper?
I happen to be one of those who believe that not only does God still speak to us but that God is speaking to us constantly. The only thing that stands in the way of our hearing God is ourselves. I know that there are those who, upon reading this, will instantly proclaim that only the insane believe that God speaks to them. To such a claim I must respond that it is only the spiritually pathetic who would cling to the belief that God is incapable of speaking to them.
Now for my confession. I speak to God quite often and God answers. God speaks to me. So grab that straight jacket and reserve a bed in the psych ward. But I have to warn you: All the psychotherapy in the world will not change that reality. For that is what it is; reality not fantasy, experience not illusion.
What makes such a claim so difficult for so many to believe is to be found in the manner in which we conceive of how God communicates with humans. The scriptures of the various faiths talk about God saying this and God saying that, and we take those texts so very literally. When they report that, “God spoke; God said”, our vision is that of a God who speaks words, like we human beings speak words. We envision that thundering voice from heaven. And so we become spiritually jaded, for such a voice has not been heard in quite some time.
There is a certain irony here. For you see, when we apply this type of thinking to God, we postulate a God who is not greater than us but rather more limited than us. For when we communicate with others, we do not restrict ourselves to mere words. We also employ the tone of our voices, the pace and volume of our speech, facial expressions and body movements. When we communicate with others we utilize every tool in our communication toolbox in order to get across our message. We use tools which are not available to God as long as we apply to God that literal verbal communication model. Do we really choose to believe that God has less tools in the Divine communication toolbox than we have in ours? I don’t think so.
Even when we consider all the communication tools we possess, we have to admit that still, our communication skills are extremely limited. What human being has never experienced the frustration of trying to get across a particular message to another person, yet has failed, attempt after attempt after attempt, to get their point across? We all have. Just take a look at literature and song and you will see how meager are our communication skills. Countless are the individuals who, having experienced the powerful joy of love, wished to share those ecstatic emotions with others. So they wrote love poetry and love songs, hoping to bottle what is in their heart and fills their very being. Many have failed. Some have succeeded, but only partially. Throughout the ages, no one has succeeded fully. No one has written that love poem or composed that love song to which every human being can point to and declare, “That is exactly how I feel when I am in love!” At best, we have chopped around the edges of describing love. No one has of yet captured its true essence.
The point here is that human communication, at its best, is extremely limited. To postulate that the God who created the universe would be restricted to such a limited form of communication is simply illogical. It does not take a science fiction writer to arrive at the conclusion that a higher form of being would possess far more sophisticated communication skills.
God does speak to us but does so by means far beyond the limits of the spoken word.
So how does God communicate? In the writings of the Hebrew prophets we encounter a recurring imagery which I believe is a key to understanding God’s communication techniques. We continually hear of prophets “being filled with the spirit of God.” What does that mean? It sounds like God’s presence fills their very being. God has somehow or other gotten inside of them and they find themselves so filled with God that they feel they could burst.
What’s that all about? I believe we have a word for it. We call it “telepathy.” I believe that what these prophetic texts were describing was the receiving of a telepathic communication from God. While we can debate from today till tomorrow whether or not there are humans who possess the ability of mental telepathy, I hold that God most certainly possesses that ability. I believe that God can telepathically transmit to human beings, not just words, but emotions and images as well. God can get inside of us so that we can think God’s thoughts and feel God’s feeling, and even see what God sees.
Now it does not have to be an all or nothing affair. God can control how much or how little we receive. Not every one who receives a communication from God has to become God intoxicated, as were some, if not most, if not all of the classical prophets. Indeed, very few have achieved such an intense link with God. Yet all of us have the ability to be touched by God; to feel God’s presence and to “hear” God’s voice speaking directly to us. I firmly believe that anyone can experience this if only they would drop their defenses and open themselves up to the possibility of connecting with God.
Earlier I stated that “I speak to God quite often and God answers.” In truth, I do not consider myself an especially spiritually endowed human being. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a saint. Far from it. I have more than my fair share of human flaws and foibles. Even though I am a rabbi, I do not believe that my ability to establish a connection with God is the product of my rabbinic status. In fact, it is just the opposite. It was my desire to connect with God which led me to becoming a rabbi and not my becoming a rabbi which enabled me to connect with God.
The first time I can accurately claim that I had such a God connecting experience was back in 1970. I know it may sound cliched but it happened in Israel; at the Western Wall, the most sacred site on earth for the Jewish people. At the time, my soul was in turmoil. I was deeply unhappy with my life. I was in my first year in seminary. I was spending that entire year studying in Jerusalem. It was not only the first time that I visited Israel, but it was the first time that I ever flew on an airplane. Until then, I never traveled farther than an automobile could take me in less than a day. As a result, I was not handling very well such a dramatic transplant of my life. One night, for reasons I cannot fully explain, I was so distressed that I felt compelled to go to the Western Wall. So I left my dorm room and walked the dark streets of Jerusalem into the Old City, and then to the Wall. Standing there, alone – for there are not that many people who pray at the wall at about 11 o’clock at night – I placed my forehead against its cool stones and in a practically inaudible whisper I poured out my heart to God. I have no idea how long I stood there, sharing my thoughts, my feelings, my anguish with God, but somewhere along the line, a feeling of great peace and tranquility took hold of me. Once again, I know it sounds cliched, but a great weight was lifted from my heart. I was filled with a sense that everything was going to be all right, more than all right, just fine. I most certainly did not bring that sense with me to the Wall that night. Far from it. But there it was nonetheless. I had somehow or other been given a gift. There was not the slightest question in my mind where that gift came from. It came from God. It could have come from nowhere else. I left the Wall and headed back toward my dorm, but I was a different person, changed not just for the moment but for life.
What I discovered that night in Jerusalem was nothing more than a piece of wisdom which I later learned was passed down to us by one of the early Hasidic rabbis. He was asked, “Where is God?” to which he answered, “Wherever you let God in?” The trick to plugging God into our lives – to connecting with God – is as simple as that. We have to be willing to let God into our lives. We have to be willing to drop our defenses and reach out for God. And if we truly reach out for God, more often than not, we will find God reaching out for us.
I do this and I do it often. However, I have to admit that I usually do it in private. After all, I do realize that even though I know that I am in dialogue with God, to any casual observers it can very well appear as though I am some sort of lunatic, muttering to himself. When do I do this? One of my prime times is when I go for walks; for exercise. Other people feel that they need partners when they go on such walks so as to make their walks more palatable. For me, God is my walking partner. They talk with their friends. I talk with God. And not unlike my experience at the Wall those many years ago, I pour out to God what is in my heart and on my mind. Whatever issue I am struggling with at the time, I share it with God. And somehow or other, more often than not, as our conversation progresses God tosses in a thought here, and idea there, a perspective I had never even begun to consider. Often, not always, but often, God has helped me to see things in a new light.
There are those who would claim that God has nothing to do with this; that I was just processing my thoughts. But I know differently. Not, I think differently, but I know differently. I know differently because there are so many times when the insights I receive have come from so completely outside of myself. They are definitely not my thoughts. They are definitely not my words. I could not have created them, but once they have been placed before me, I am more than willing to adopt them as my own. Indeed, as a rabbi, I have to admit that some of my most “successful” sermons were not really mine, but God’s. While I, with my ego, surely enjoyed the praises they received, I also felt a pang of guilt for taking credit for that which was not mine.
God is my confidant. God is my most trusted and sage adviser. I am still far from a perfect human being, and I do not always travel the road to perfection efficiently, but at the end of the day I know that I have been blessed. For with God as my companion, I live with hope and with the promise that I am capable of growing into my potential, if only I choose to do so.
The God I discovered that night in Jerusalem; the God with whom I travel down the path of my life, is most certainly available to every one of us. The power to connect with such a God is in our hands, far more than it is in God’s. For this God eagerly awaits our call.