A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” Samuel got up, went to Eli and said, “Here I am, you called me.” Then Eli realized the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you say, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at other times, “Samuel, Samuel!”  1 Samuel 3

As the parent of not one, but two competitive swimmers, I spend a fair amount of time sitting on bleachers near pools, waiting for that moment, that narrow window of opportunity when I get to do what I do as well or better than any other person present.

Yeah, I get to cheer.

I shout and jump, wave my arms and stamp my feet for all I am worth, then roughly 1 minute and 13.75 seconds later I sit back down, take a deep breath and regain my composure. In all honesty, I do much more waiting than cheering, since my wife will only let me make a fool of myself once our own boys are in the pool, going for gold.

Fair enough, but it is not always easy to determine when either the older one, Owethu, or the younger one, Tumelo, are amongst those lined up on the starting blocks. All the swimmers have caps on their heads and goggles over their eyes. Each body tends to be long and trim, covered by sun-darkened skin and outfitted with a black Speedo. So the search begins early for the bone of my bone, the flesh of my flesh, and occasionally it does not end until the race is complete and everyone gets out of the pool.

For then, and only then do they remove their head gear, exposing their faces.

I would know the face of my children from any distance, at any time. From the days on which they were born to this day, I have looked upon them with an abundance of love. What is more, I know the signature of their scents, as well as the timbre of their voices.

The lumberjack, he cries Timber, but when a person speaks, there is a unique quality to the sound he or she makes, known as its Timbre.

Now, Timbre should not be confused with Tone, namely the relative strength or weakness of that same auditory occurrence. The highness or lowness of the Tone is called the Pitch, which is in turn determined by how quickly or slowly the waves, delivering the sound, reach your ear. How big or how small those waves are? We refer to that as the Volume of the sound.

So while it is in some way associated with Tone, Pitch and Volume, Timbre also transcends them, a characteristic all its own, related more to the specific source from which the sound comes.

For example, upon getting the family together for Sunday lunch at our home, both my wife and my mother might shout from the kitchen to the back yard, asking how much longer the meat on the grill will take, since the rest of the meal is ready. One shout can be just as strong, just as high or just as big as the next, but I can easily distinguish between the two. I can tell who it is posing the question because, well, like the face of my son Owethu looks like Owethu and the face of my son Tumelo looks like Tumelo, so my mother sounds like my mother, and my wife sounds like my wife. I would know the timbre of their voices anywhere.

This of course begs the question, if it was God speaking, would I recognize the timbre of His voice? The prophet Samuel, as a young child, apparently did not.

We read in the Scriptures that, upon hearing God call out to him for the first time, Samuel thought it was Eli rather, so he ran to his master for further instructions. Did I say the first time? I meant the first three times! Three times God spoke, and three times we bear witness to a case of mistaken vocal identity.

In the end, some wise counsel from a trusted friend helped Samuel discern the source of the sound he heard blowing through the House of Lord, late that auspicious night. Started thus on his way, Samuel would become a towering figure of authority for the nation of Israel, eventually assuming the mantel of divine medium when, and only when the voice of God became quite familiar in his ear.

My hope is that it would be so in our lives as well. May God bring across our paths those people that can help us hear the voice of God by learning to distinguish its timbre from the myriad sounds by which we are surrounded each day. May we soon and very soon experience the liberty of hearing His words of truth and his whispers of love as often as God chooses to speak them over each one of us.

Dana Mahan is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a CTK missionary serving in Southern Africa with Ripe for Harvest.  He is married to Sibongile Mahan and together they have two sons, Owethu and Tumelo.