How I met God in a McDonald’s | Tracey Lind | TEDxClevelandStateUniversity

How I met God in a McDonald’s | Tracey Lind | TEDxClevelandStateUniversity

October 2, 2019 100 By Ewald Bahringer


Translator: Amanda Chu
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Thirty years ago,
I met God in a McDonald’s. (Laughter) Really. It happened at five o’clock
on the afternoon of January 31st, 1984. It was the day before my second
semester of seminary. I’d entered divinity school to wrestle with two questions
that had haunted me for years: my religious identity and my vocation. Like nearly 40% of all Americans,
I come from an interfaith background – my father was a Reform Jew;
my mother, a skeptical Protestant – and my upbringing was a rich blend
of both traditions with a very healthy dose of secularism. To this day, I joke about lighting Hanukkah lights
under the Christmas tree (Laughter) and hunting for Easter eggs
at the Passover Seder. (Laughter) As a child of the ’60s,
I had a passion for justice, and I wanted to be a religious leader
who would change the world; I just wasn’t sure whether I should
become a rabbi or a minister. (Laughter) I loved to be in a house of God, and I would often play ‘Friday go to temple
and Sunday go to church.’ To this day, I remember setting
all of the chairs up in our family room and lining up all of my
stuffed toys and dolls and preaching to an
inanimate congregation – (Laughter) some days I wish I still had them. (Laughter) By the time I was in ninth grade, I was attending synagogue
on Saturday mornings and I was playing my guitar for Sunday
folk masses at the local Episcopal Church. And while everyone
was kneeling for communion, I sang Gordon Lightfoot’s words: “I’m standin’ at the doorway,
my hat held in my hand, Not knowin’ where to sit,
not knowin’ where to stand.” Took a long time for me to figure out
where to sit and where to stand. And there are still days when I feel
like a rabbi in a clerical collar. (Laughter) By my mid-twenties, my quest led me
to the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, right across the street from
the Jewish Theological Seminary, (Laughter) because I was still hedging my bets. (Laughter) And my first semester in seminary was this prolonged interrogation of God: “Who are you? Do you really exist? What’s your relationship to Jesus,
Muhammad, Buddha, and all of the rest? And why are so many bad things
done in your name?” You know those questions; you’ve probably asked
some of them yourself. And as I struggled with God,
I was also trying to sort myself out, trying to figure out
what I was supposed to do with my life. And while I believe
that vocation is the intersection between one’s passion
and the world’s need, I just couldn’t figure out how to reconcile the contradictions
of my mixed religious identity and my gender and being gay with ordained ministry
and any faith community. And so, I sought out one of the sacred shrines
of modern American life: the therapist coach. (Laughter) Every week, I would go
and I would sit for 50 minutes with someone whom I considered
to be older and wiser than myself. And on my way to my weekly session, I would often pass
this fortune teller’s office, and I would wonder maybe a psychic reading
would be time and money wiser spent. (Laughter) By January, I was utterly exhausted from taking on
someone bigger and stronger than me. And so I found myself
walking down 42nd street one day, on my way to this weekly session, asking God to let me go
and to let me get on with my life. And that’s when it happened. As I was crossing Madison Avenue, a voice called out to me
from withinside of me, saying, “I’m not going to let go of you.” I tried to ignore the voice. I kept walking. I went into my appointment. I didn’t say a word about it, because I didn’t want anybody to think that I was hearing voices
or that I was crazy. And an hour later, when I walked out, it was as if the voice was leaning
on the doorpost waiting for me. “Why me?” I asked.
And the voice said, “Why not?” “What do you want with me?” I inquired.
And the voice said, “Your life.” Well, at that moment, I realized that something was going on
to which I’d better pay attention. So I did what anyone would do:
I walked into the nearest McDonald’s; (Laughter) I ordered a cheeseburger,
French fries, and a small coke; I sat down at a table; and I started writing out the most
remarkable and memorable conversation that I’ve ever had with anybody
in my entire life. 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.” (Laughter) 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 to 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
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. You know, some of my
best listening time is on my commute, when I actually turn off my radio
and get off my cellphone. And then, you have to receive it. The day after my McDonald’s conversation, one of my professors said
that faith is a two-way street – it’s a gift and it’s a willingness
to accept the gift. And whether you name the voice God
doesn’t really matter to me. I think of it as holy wisdom, a gift that can only be
actualized by receptivity. But it’s also a gift that has to be tested to ensure that it’s calling you
to build up and not destroy, to love and not hate, to do good and to resist
evil in the world, and to respect the dignity
of every human being and all of the rest of creation. So ask, wait, listen, and receive – these are the four basic steps
to dancing with your inner voice. And oh, what an amazing dance it is! It’s dancing with the best
dance partner you’ll ever get. You know, in my home – A number of years ago, we discovered this artist
and storyteller named Brian Andreas, and he makes these interesting
people sculptures out of wood and tin that explore what he calls
a human community. And we have one in our entrance foyer, and it reads, “In my dream,
the angel shrugged and said, ‘If we fail this time,
it will be a failure of imagination.’ And then she placed the world
gently in the palm of my hand.” I see this piece of art every time
I come and go from my home, and it’s a reminder
of what the voice expects of me. I truly believe that human responsibility is about using the imagination
that we have been given to help create a better world. I also believe that the gift
of imagination to create that better world comes from the voice, and finally, I believe that the voice whom we call by many names
and hear in many languages and meet in many places,
even a McDonald’s, lives inside of each and everyone of us. And if we’d all hear and follow it, then the peace that we long for will come
and the world will be made whole. So remember, there’s really
four simple steps: ask, wait, listen, and then receive the voice
that resides in you, and follow wherever its dance may lead. Thank you. (Cheers) (Applause)