If you’re of a certain age, you might remember when dolls or, “action figures,” that could talk were popular. Such involved pulling a string that activated one of a half dozen pre-recorded random sentences—think Woody in Toy Story.
Only rarely did these sentences have anything to do with the scenario you were pretending to act out. Your sister “borrows” G.I. Joe to have a tea party with Barbie where the conversation would go something like this:
Barbie: “I love to read and play soccer!”
G.I Joe: “We must hold this position. Dig in!”
These days, however, the talking toys kids find under the tree and get on their birthday are a lot more sophisticated. 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 imaginary friend.
A 21st-century iteration of the classic Barbie doll, for example, was unveiled at a couple years ago at the New York Toy Fair. Instead of a string, Hello Barbie as it is called, uses a Wi-Fi connection and a complex speech recognition algorithm to have what seem like real conversations with kids.
A reporter from CNBC “interviewed” Hello Barbie at the Toy Fair, and she performed so well onlookers were convinced there had to be someone behind a curtain with a microphone answering the questions.
Hello Barbie isn’t without critics, though. Child advocacy groups are concerned about privacy. The data these toys collect, and they are collecting data, could be used to capture and modify the doll’s conversations, and use subtle advertising for more Barbie products.
The toymakers counter that parents can sign up to hear recordings of their child’s interactions with the doll— which sounds a lot more like a plot out of a Cold War spy movie than wholesome child’s play.
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.
The 2013 movie Her, for example, explored the pitfalls of those blurred lines as a man falls in love with the voice on his phone, showing that if adults are getting more and more wrapped up in speaking with disembodied voices, we have to wonder if it’s a good thing for our kids.
It all reminds us that in today’s society, there are a lot of voices in our heads, all competing for head space. So how are we to teach our kids, and even ourselves, to listen to the faithful voices?
Well, Jeremiah can help us.
Discerning the right voice was an issue long before we had talking dolls and smartphones. The Bible is full of stories where people, including kids, heard a voice, and had to decide whether to respond.
Abram was hanging out in Haran when he heard a voice saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
Moses was tending sheep when he heard a voice coming from a burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15).
Samuel was a little boy sleeping in the temple when he heard a voice calling his name (1 Samuel 3:1-18).
Isaiah was in the temple when he heard the Lord say, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8).
Elijah was in the cleft of a mountain when he heard the “still small voice” of God say to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:12-13).
And then there’s today’s text, where a boy named Jeremiah hears a voice and decides to get interactive with it.
The voice in all of these stories is, of course, the voice of God. But we have to wonder how each of these biblical heroes heard it and, perhaps even more importantly, what made them answer.
A 21st-century kid might have an increasingly tough time differentiating between a real voice and a computer-generated one, but young Jeremiah knew right away the voice he was hearing was God’s. But how did he know, and how do we know, when we’re hearing the voice of God—especially amongst all the other voices in our head?
There are two ways in which we can begin to decipher which of the voices in our heads are the faithful ones, and which are not.
First, God’s voice is best heard in the context of a community of faith (vv. 1-3).
The superscription of the book of Jeremiah tells us he was the son of a priest named Hilkiah and lived in a town assigned to the priestly class of Levites.
Growing up within a priestly community, Jeremiah would have known the stories about Abraham, Moses, Samuel and so 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.
The voice of God thus came to Jeremiah, not out of the blue, but 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 or a virtual assistant instead of with friends or family, we need to remember we’re wired to hear God’s voice best within community.
It’s in community we can check the inner stirrings of our hearts with others who can help us discern the voice of God.
Regular connection to Christian community is a key to making sure the voice we’re hearing in our head is actually God’s, and not something else.
Secondly, Jeremiah shows us: God’s voice is best heard in conversation with God (vv. 4-8).
We don’t know exactly how God’s call “came” to Jeremiah. Perhaps it was a dream, an inner voice, or maybe during a time of prayer. But, like Moses and Samuel before him, Jeremiah decides to test the voice by entering into conversation with it, even pushing back a bit.
God told Jeremiah that Jeremiah had been appointed to a prophetic mission before he was even born (v. 5). Having been schooled in the story of Moses, Jeremiah raises a conversational objection, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy!”
By pushing back in 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.
Jeremiah’s response to God, “Ah, Lord God” is language that usually preceded a prayer in the form of lament or complaint. The Bible reveals a lot of these kinds of conversational prayers; the Psalms are full of them, as are the stories of biblical heroes, including Jesus who has his own pushback conversation with God in the Garden of Gethsemane.
We often forget prayer is a two-way street and isn’t God just giving a series of commands. God invites this kind of conversation, even if God will always have the last word!
God wants us to bring our fears and feelings to the table when we converse with the divine. Yes, God wants our obedience, but God desires that obedience to emerge out of a deep relationship rather than out of mere obligation.
Regular prayer is a running conversation with God that invites us to listen and explore and even question God’s call, in prayer and in fellowship with other Christians, so that we can be sure to hear God’s voice clearly, and faithfully.
Now I know I said there were two things Jeremiah was telling us, but there is something else to note: God will always supply the resources we need (vv. 9-10).
When we have a deep relationship with God, our conversations lead us to a radical honesty about our shortcomings in comparison to God’s glory.
Jeremiah recognized he had a shortfall in experience and ability to speak. But Jeremiah show us these were not barriers to God.
In fact, our text reveals again that God—to cite a modern day saying— doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called.
God was the one who put words in the mouth of Jeremiah, and God will be the one who ensures Jeremiah’s not to be afraid because together they will do something extraordinary.
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 tyrannical religious cult leaders comes to mind.
Add to that, a computer server can pump out sentences in response to a person’s voice, but it can never actually know the heart of a person, his fears or her feelings.
Which is why some of the most powerful words we can hear are the repeated promise of God: “I am with you” (v. 19).
We have an assurance that the God who calls us will continue to be in conversation with us, and will continue to lead us.
Those conversations are the ones we need to record and review often as we follow God wherever God leads.
So may we make every effort to sort through the voices in our head, through community, conversation, and faith.
May we remain mindful that with God, we are enough and we are capable.
Because even though we have countless voices in our head—and now computer generated voices—the voice that matters the most, is the one calling us to do something extraordinary.
The voices in our head will always be loud, but they are rarely ever clear.
The voice of God, however, is rarely loud, ready for some push back and always prepared to lead us faithfully toward accomplishing the extraordinary.
May we always be ready to listen to that voice in our head. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer, February 10, 2019: Scout Sunday
God of all, we long to hear your voice. We long to have an experience like Jeremiah, and others, who heard you calling to partner with you to do something extraordinary. Yet we admit that though we long for such, we have let the voices of others drown out yours.
So we pray you help us to do what we need to do so that your voice can be heard, and then followed. Enliven us to the possibility of what can be done when we partner with you in faith and willingness to present ourselves to you as those ready and willing to listen, and do as you call us to do.
Holy God, we add to our prayers how grateful we are to recognize today our young people engaged in the honorable tradition of scouting. We are proud of them, and gladly acknowledge their importance to us and our community.
We thank you for their leaders, who give valuable time and effort to convening and training them. We know the values they espouse as scouts come from you, for you have taught them the meaning of discipline, the virtue of work, reverence for life and nature, and the ethics of honesty and trustworthiness.
Beyond that, you have shown us the importance of caring for others in the community, and for serving them in humble yet meaningful ways.
So we pray for all scouts—here at First Christian, around Stow, and all across our country—that they may continue to find joy and blessedness in their programs. May these years of scouting help them grow into adulthood as strong and responsible men and women who will make valuable contributions to their churches, their communities, their countries, and the world.
So we pray your Holy Spirit will rest upon them, call to them, and guide them, especially at the more difficult points of their journeys, always at work to lead them to partner with you to create something extraordinary.
Hear now we ask the prayers we share with you during this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of Christ Jesus, who taught us to pray saying, “Our…”