In my June 5 religion column today for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, I reflect a little on how we hear God’s voice. I was remembering an incident on one of my trips to China that got me thinking about this…
A few years back on an overnight train from Shanghai to Beijing, I lay in my sleeper berth thinking about the quick-acting professor with whom I had spent the previous week.
I went to Shanghai at the invitation of a Baylor University professor, joining him and some of his MBA students who were studying international business. Each student had been paired with a company in China for a summer internship. When I met this professor for the first time and told him I thought I could connect him with a former UI student from China who had become a successful entrepreneur, he invited me come along.
We met at a small college in Shanghai and spent the week talking about how to navigate the internship within China. At week’s end, several of us continued on to Beijing for a few days. At 9 pm, 2 taxis dropped us at the train station for a 10:30 departure to Beijing, an 8-hour, 820-mile trip.
Shanghai is a city of 20 million people. I think 18 million of them were waiting to catch a train that night in Shanghai’s central train station. The cavernous main room is at least the size of two American football fields. The place was packed with humans – infants and elderly and everyone in between. There was luggage of every sort. I stared at a chicken in a hand-held cage. A man next to me had a tricycle strapped to his suitcase.
High on the wall a bright LED display flashed the times for the arriving and departing cities – all in Mandarin. It was confusing and exhilarating. Every few seconds someone bumped into me, pushing their way toward their destination gate.
Just as our train was about to board, one of the female students in our group was struck with severe stomach cramps. I mean doubled over cramps. She grabbed my arm. She was miserable.
When her pains did not subside, the professor huddled us all around this poor girl. He prayed. We prayed. She prayed. A crowd gathered. The girl asked, “Where is the restroom?” No one knew.
“Do you need a doctor?” someone asked.
“No,” she moaned. “I just need a restroom – now.” Again, she doubled over in pain.
As this unfolded, I thought of my good friend, an E.R. physician back in the states. “Don’t lose your cool,” he always said. “If you do, you’re toast.” The Baylor prof was perfect. He did not miss a beat. He located a restroom. He appointed another female student to be the girl’s constant companion all the way to Beijing, “if we make our train,” he said.
Somehow the young woman emerged none the worse for wear. We made the train, barely. One student looked at me, shrugged and said, “It is what it is.” Mostly I was amazed by our quick-acting leader. He was calm, collected and focused.
After boarding the packed train and finding my way to an 8-by-10-feet sleeper berth, I discovered that 3 of the 4 beds had people in them. As the train pulled out from the station, I waved to my berth mates, said, “Wanan,” (good night) and scooched myself up onto the empty top bunk.
Deeply exhaling I stared out the window into the dark and thought about how well the professor handled the little crisis and how the students gave him their full attention.
In fact, I discovered on our first day together in Shanghai that these students had been in class with this professor for 2 semesters. They admired him. They were friends. When he spoke, they listened.
As the train pierced the darkness, I began pondering hearing God’s voice. I decided hearing it is pretty-much the same way I come to recognize my own wife’s voice. I spend time with her. We had been together nearly 35 years at that point. I recognize the sound of her voice immediately.
Throughout the week it was obvious the students were attuned to their professor’s voice, and especially that night when things got a little harried. But again, they had spent much time together during the school year. They knew his voice and his love for them.
Turning on the reading light and pulling my journal from my backpack, I wrote that without praying we should probably not expect to recognize the voice of God any more than spouses who have drifted apart can be familiar with each other’s voice or what’s in their heart.
On the other hand, I wrote that those who do spend time praying, reading the bible and engaging with people who also do that, should expect to hear God voice.
James chapter 3, I wrote, says that for those who really listen, God’s voice has a James 3 kind of spirit: “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17)