Toys today are a lot different from toys when I was a kid—no surprise there, right? What is surprising though is what many of them seem to do—they all seem to talk. Sure I had some talking toys. I would pull a string and Mickey Mouse would invite me to sing or play. Or I could push a button and G.I. Joe would vow to defeat Cobra Commander. But the talking toys my kids have today are much more interactive and a lot more sophisticated. Although much of the time the sophistication only goes as far as the child is capable of taking it.
A.J. has a device that he can interact with, but it requires him to push certain buttons in certain orders. He can’t yet, so he just pushes all the buttons, which means my wife and I are left hearing the constant retort of the toy saying, “Move the cursor key to select. Move the cursor key to select. Move the cursor key to select.”
But some of Violet and A.J.’s toys are voice activated, which is where things get really interesting. In fact, the same speech recognition technology that enables us to have a conversation with our smart phone is now being used to turn dolls into a high-tech version of Chatty Cathy.
A 21st-century iteration of the classic Barbie doll, for example, was unveiled at last February’s New York Toy Fair. Instead of pulling a string or even pushing a button, Hello Barbie, as it’s called, uses a Wi-Fi connection, complicated algorithms, and speech recognition technology to have what seem like real conversations with kids.
A reporter from CNBC “interviewed” Hello Barbie at the Toy Fair, and performed so well onlookers were convinced there was someone behind a curtain with a microphone answering the questions.
The bottom line is that as speech recognition technology gets more and more complex, it’s going to get harder to tell whether you’re having a “real” conversation or a computer-generated one which means that the hard job of sifting through all the voices that speak to us day in and day out, in order to hear and follow the right ones, just got even tougher. Not just for kids, but for all of us.
Discerning the right voice was an issue long before we had smartphones and talking dolls—and such a thing happened a lot throughout the Bible—in fact the Bible is full of stories where people, including kids, heard a voice, and had to decide whether or not to respond. For instance…
Abram was hanging out in Haran when he heard a voice saying to him, “Go west, young man!” The actual citation from Genesis is, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
Moses was tending sheep in the middle of no-wheres-ville when he heard a voice coming from a burning bush.
Samuel was a little boy sleeping on a cot in the temple when he tells us he heard a voice calling his name.
Isaiah was in the temple as well when he heard God say, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Elijah was in the cleft of a mountain when he heard a “still small voice.”
And then there’s today’s text, where a boy named Jeremiah hears a voice and decides to get interactive with it. The voice, of course, is the voice of God.
A 21st-century kid might have an increasingly tough time differentiating between a real voice and a computer-generated one, but Kid Jeremiah, and all the others, knew right away that the voice they were hearing was God’s. But we have to wonder just how each of these biblical leaders and heroes heard God, how they knew it was God, and, perhaps even more importantly, what made them answer. Jeremiah’s story offers some clues.
For starters, one of the best ways to hear God’s voice is in the context of a community of faith. The superscription of the book of Jeremiah tells us that he was the son of a priest named Hilkiah from Anathoth, a town just north of Jerusalem that was one of the cities assigned to the priestly class of Levites—one of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Growing up within a priestly community, Jeremiah would have known the stories about Abraham, Moses, Samuel and many others who had heard God’s call. He would have been schooled in regular prayer, and would have witnessed the people of his village poring over sacred texts to determine God’s will and way for their lives.
Therefore, when the voice of God came to Jeremiah it didn’t come out of the blue, but rather in the context of a community devoted to God; a community where people discerned God’s voice together.
In a world where technology tends to isolate people, and where a kid can have hours of conversations with a doll instead of with friends or family, we need to remember that we’re wired to hear God’s voice best within community. It’s in community that we can check the inner stirrings of our hearts with others who can help us discern the voice of God through Scripture, worship and prayer, making sure that the voice we’re hearing is actually God’s, and not simply an advertisement for our own desires.
Not only can God’s voice be heard in community, God’s voice can be heard, and maybe is best heard, when in conversation with God. We don’t know exactly how God’s call “came” to Jeremiah. Perhaps it was a dream, or an inner voice, or maybe it was during a time of prayer. But, like Moses and Samuel before him, Jeremiah decides to enter into a conversation with God—a two way conversation.
Of course there is a risk when engaging in such a conversation. It was comedian Lily Tomlin who said, “Why is it that when we talk to God we’re praying, but when God talks to us we’re schizophrenic?” So that might happen. But it’s worth noting that Jeremiah’s conversation does take on a certain form that might help with such accusations. Jeremiah decides to scrutinize, and confirm, and even test the voice when entering into conversation with it, even pushing back against it.
Look at the nuance of the conversation… God tells Jeremiah that he has been appointed to a prophetic mission before he was even born. Now having been schooled in the story of Moses, Jeremiah raises a conversational objection, saying, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy!” a comment that comes out of being well aware of what becoming “a prophet to the nations” will entail. By scrutinizing and pushing back in the conversation, Jeremiah can sort out whether his call is something coming from within himself, which could be easily dismissed, or whether this was coming from God— a call that could not be discounted quite so fast.
It’s an interesting pattern in the Bible— those who are the most powerfully used by God are those who take the time to test God’s call with a conversation. In fact, conversation is one of the keys to a lasting relationship that’s not built on an algorithm.
The Bible reveals a lot of these kinds of conversational prayers; the Psalms are full of them, as are the stories of biblical leaders and heroes, including Jesus who has his own pushback conversation with God in Gethsemane.
The bottom line is that though society might call us crazy or schizophrenic, God invites this kind of conversation. What we need to be mindful of, however, is that God will always have the last word!
We sometimes forget that prayer is a two-way street and not just us giving to God our worries and requests, nor is it God giving us a series of commands. Plenty of people have claimed to have been ordered by God to do something, but failed to enter into a conversation with God to determine whose voice they were actually hearing—a list of domineering religious cult leaders comes to mind as examples.
A computer server can pump out sentences in response to a person’s voice, but it can never know the heart of a person, his fears or her feelings. God allows us to bring those fears and feelings to the table when we converse with the divine.
Yes, God wants our obedience, but God desires that obedience emerge out of a deep relationship rather than out of mere obligation. Regular prayer is a running conversation with God that allows us to, as I John 4 tells us, “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). God invites us, both individually and collectively, to test the God talk we hear in prayer and in fellowship with other Christians, so that we can hear God’s voice clearly, so that we can know fully and faithfully what God is calling us toward.
It’s important to know though, that our conversations will lead to a deeper relationship, which is great, but, when we have a deep relationship with God, our conversations lead to a radical honesty about our shortcomings and weaknesses in comparison to God’s glory.
This happened to Jeremiah when he recognized that he had a shortfall in experience and ability to speak. But, that’s when this deep relationship goes even deeper. Our shortfalls, our weaknesses, are never barriers for God. In fact— to cite a saying— God doesn’t call the qualified, rather, God qualifies the called. God was the one who put the words in the mouth of Jeremiah, enabling him to say and do what needed to be said and done. And God will always do the same with us.
We have an assurance that the God who calls us will continue to be in conversation with us, and will always give us just what it is we need. By being engaged in a faith community and by practicing a regular prayer life we can best hear what God is saying. These are the conversations that we need to record and review often. We need to question, scrutinize, and even push back a little. For in doing so, we can be certain if we are hearing God or just ourselves.
So may we have fun with new technology and all its complicated algorithms and speech recognition, but may we, even more so, seek to hear God in community and in prayer, because hearing God can be far less complicated, but far more life transforming. Amen.