Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 18, 2012

Is anybody listening?

          One of our cars is equipped with Bluetooth technology.  When we purchased the car, I’d already been using a Bluetooth earpiece for years, but I expected the new hands-free-just-push-a-button-on-the-steering-wheel device would be even safer, so I sat in the parking lot to learn how to use it.  That was a good thing, because it didn’t work out so well the first few tries.

          Following the directions in the manual, I was able to “pair” the car with my phone pretty quickly.  Then, as the directions specified, I pushed the “phone” button on my steering wheel.  A menu came up on the digital readout, with several choices for me to verbalize to the car.  Cool!  It was ready for my first voice command.

          According to the screen, I could say:  “Call <name>” and the car could access my phone address book, or “Call <number>” and it would simply dial whatever phone number I rattled off.

          I decided my first call should be to my husband to show off my new mastery of the technology.

          “Call Jerry,” I said clearly and confidently.

          There was a set of beeps that went down in tone, as if the car were expressing disappointment in me.  “I’m sorry; I didn’t get that,” said the car in a soothing female voice.

          “Call Jerry!” I said more loudly.

          The same beeps, then, “Please try again.”

          “CALL JERRY!” I nearly yelled, more exasperated than the car’s voice, which replied calmly, “I’m sorry.  Please try again later.”

          Later?  Why?  What later?

          I read the manual again.  I couldn’t find anything I’d done wrong.  Try again.

          Press button.  Menu appears.  “Call Jerry!” I said firmly, clearly, in a medium loud voice.  Disappointed beeps.  “I’m sorry,” said the voice, “I didn’t get that.”  I hit the button again to turn off the voice.

          Back to the manual.  The only thing I could figure is that maybe I wasn’t speaking closely enough to the microphone.  I scanned the manual’s pictures for some arrow highlighting a microphone.  Nothing.  The microphone’s location was not listed in the text, either.  Okay, try yet again.

          Button.  Menu.  “CALL JERRY!” I said very loudly into the car’s atmosphere.  Beeps.  “I’m sorry; I didn’t get that.” 

It must be the microphone.  Now just to figure out where it was…

          “CALL JERRY!” I leaned down and yelled at the steering wheel. 

          “Please try again.”

          “CALL JERRY!” I screamed directly into the digital screen.

          “Please try again.”

          “CALL JERRY!” I shouted up at the visor, then again near the arm rest.  I noticed someone walking by in the parking lot, staring.  I ignored him.

          “I’m sorry.  Please try again later.”

          I sat there for a couple of minutes, my blood pressure rising.  I had places to be.  I would try one more time.  If it didn’t work I’d call someone (who?) for help when I got back to the office.  One more time.

          Button.  Menu.  “Call Jerry!” I said.  I was pretty loud, but tired of screaming at my car.

          Beeps.  But different tones.  Going up this time, as if approving.  “Calling Jerry mobile,” said the car.  Then ringing and a connection.

          Finally!  Success!  My car was listening to me!

          Ever since that day, I have been able to speak in a normal voice and my car understands what I’m saying.  I don’t really know what happened, but I suspect that the car has filed the sound of my voice (not my shouting voice, thank goodness) into its voice recognition software, however that works.

          Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.  [From Mark 1]

          Last week and this, the lectionary gives us “call stories,” tales of people being called upon to do something.  Here is Mark’s take on the familiar story of Jesus calling some fishermen to follow.  Many modern commentators speculate that these guys already knew Jesus.  They’d heard him teach before, or had mutual friends, or worshiped in the same synagogue.  So, even though it’s still a huge deal that they left their livelihoods behind to follow, it may very well be that they were heading off with a somewhat familiar face and voice.

          Many of us moderns read this story and wonder if people are still called today.  I think we are.  But I think that now, as then, we are more likely to follow someone who is familiar, a voice that our soul’s “voice recognition software” has encountered before. 

          I confess that much of the time I’m not very good at listening, kind of like my car on that first day.  I hear too many competing voices, and I have too much on my mind.  Or I’m just not ready to have my attention drawn to some new thing.

          So we make sure our ears are tuned, our eyes are open, our hearts are tooled to listen for the voice.  We put ourselves in places where the voice is most likely to be heard:  among the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the needy.  Alongside people who care about us, our welfare and our future.  We find the occasional quiet space in our souls where there’s less noise and interference. 

          And we listen.

          Then we’re more likely to be able to recognize the voice when it calls  us to follow.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2012


  1. To me, your blog entry today strikes a different cord than the inference you drew about calling and “call stories.” It recalled to me how difficult it sometimes is to communicate even in plain language to another. In some ways, iIt reminds me of the joke about the British ship near a German coastal listening post. In distress, the British ship’s captain calls to the German listening post, “Help needed. We are sinking! We are sinking!” Then the hapless German soldier at the post responds, “Say again! Say again.” To which the captain reiterates, “We are sinking!!” After a pause, the German post operator replies, “Wvat are you sinking? Wvat are you sinking?” Maybe, Melissa, your car software system simply wanted to know what you wanted it to call Jerry.
    Biblical stories oftentimes impress me with their subtlety of meanings: ‘wvat do they mean?” My late mother-in-law read the entire Bible, old and new Testament, every year until her nineties. In conversations with her, she always found it surprising that she found new meaning in the passages she wrote even though she believed the Bible stories should me one thing. (She was a Methodist, which explains a lot.) I would tell her that parables and stories in the Bible were meant to have multiple meanings and that one of the wonderful things about such narratives was that they spoke to us differently as we aged and hopefully gained in wisdom. She never quite appreciated those points, but that never stopped her from reading the Good Book every year.
    As a political scientist, I continue to be confronted with the demands of diplomacy in a world of many languages. While I don’t see a multi-lingual world as God’s punishment to humankind leading to a Tower of Babel, I do remind myself of the need to be understanding when people even very close to me don’t understand to the least reflection what I am saying so plainly and even eloquently. The striving for mutual understanding is a lifelong odyssey and forgiveness for miscommunication is indeed a godly virtue.
    I can think of many ways to interpret the command, “Call Jerry.” Call him on the phone. Call him a saint, a sinner (like the rest of us), whatever seems appropriate to the moment. Call him out for forgetting to bring home turnips for the soup or stew. So I urge you to be tolerant of the confusion of the car voice recognition system in your car. All of us need to be tolerant, understanding, and even forgiving when our plain words are misinterpreted. Even more so as we puzzle out the meanings of the words of God conveyed in so dramatic, figurative, and richly poetic ways as in the Bible and even the sermons of our pastor. Wvat do they mean? Wvat are we sinking [thinking]? It’s an endless task; it’s a worthy journey.

    –Ernie Yanarella

    • Thanks, Ernie, for the smile! And for the reminder. Good thoughts.

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