user manual

I don’t know if I’ve ever actually read through a user manual. I tend to make it up as I go. Those booklets that come with cell phones, laptops, ipods, cameras, televisions, any kitchen appliance? I throw them out (but tell my dad I have them in a special box). They are excessive. And usually full of words that I can’t understand and pictures that don’t make any sense. So my thought is why bother trying to understand it when I know it will only frustrate me more? Why not just muddle through and figure things out on my own? Muddling through, sadly, is the easy way out.

But then sometimes you just have to crack it open and suffer through the technical jargon and horrid diagrams to find out what you need to know. Sometimes, you have to just admit that there are things that you don’t know. And then we resent the user manual for knowing more than we do. We hate that we couldn’t just figure things out on our own. We hate that we had to admit our shortcomings and find the answers in a book. We should have been able to do it ourselves.

But the crazy part? If we can’t find that user manual when we need it, if we can’t find the answers that we need, we are so upset about it. We become frustrated, start blaming all these invisible forces for our horrid luck. We toss these manuals aside without a care in the world, but are livid when they aren’t there when we need them most.

This is the sort of relationship I have with the various Bibles that I have had in my possession over the years. They were something I had to keep around, something that I would go to in times of absolute distress, but never something I saw to have real value. One of the first “textbooks” I had to purchase for college (since I had the… privilege of attending a Christian school) was a Bible. I found this to be strange, because I have never really considered the Bible to be a book of any kind (more like a massive manifesto of ancient proportions) and because I already had a Bible sitting on my desk in my dorm room. Apparently, my plum-colored, paperback NIV translation given to me at the tender age of eight was not going to cut it for my "Bible as Literature" course. No, I needed a hardback, bright red, annotated, large print New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha as bonus material. It was a beast, about the size I imagine War and Peace would have looked when it was first published. No book had any right to be that large. But then, this wasn’t a book. It was the Bible, and it could be whatever it pleased.

I hated lugging that Bible around campus. Granted, it only took about five minutes to walk from one side of campus to another. But with the Bible and about five other textbooks crowding my book bag, the five minute walk seemed like a five hour trek with a pile of bricks weighing down my left shoulder. I’m convinced my red NRSV Bible is the cause of my skewed shoulder alignment. I shouldn’t blame the Bible. It wasn’t it’s fault my professor, or rather all the religious studies professors, decided that our childhood Bibles weren’t academic enough for college-level biblical studies. But it was so big and so new and my favorite thing about books was how they came too look after they had been opened, read, reread, with cracked spines and loose pages. It takes time for books to get that way, and I couldn’t fathom reading this Bible often enough for it look like a beloved favorite. The crisp white pages and unmarred cover were intimidating.

In my mind, that Bible wasn’t a book or really the Word of God. Its was a textbook, a user manual, a bunch of pages full of information that probably didn’t really pertain to me anyway. Besides, after spending my entire life growing up in the church, chances were I had heard it all already. The Bible doesn’t change, it can’t. It is always exactly the same, the answers are always the same, the message never changes. So if I had already heard it all once, what was the point in reading it again? Couldn’t I just figure things out on my own, based on the things I could remember? Why would I want to reread the same old stories over and over again?

I developed a love-hate relationship with that red Bible. It was something I needed for school, but something I resented having to go to for the little things. So I kept it around, shoving it on the top of my bookshelf, only pulling it down in when necessary.

When I went to look for it on the day I was doing some (last minute) packing to leave for the Middle East, it wasn’t there. It wasn’t on my desk, under my bed, in the closet, hiding in a box, or with one of my friends. It was just gone. The Bible I had been using for three years, the Bible with my notes, thoughts, post-its, highlighted and underlined passages was no where to be found. I sat on my bed, a bit stunned, and started to cry. After some tears and sighs, I became frustrated with myself, thinking of how ridiculous it was to be crying over something as silly as a Bible. I mean, it was just a Bible. There are millions of them out there, and they are all the same. There was nothing special about my overly large, bright red, NRSV Bible. Thousands of people probably had one just like it.

So I brushed aside my tears, picked up my plum-colored, paperback, frowned-upon NIV Bible and tossed it into my suitcase. When I unpacked my things after I got to Cairo, I picked up the Bible and felt bereft. I paged through the books and chapters and sensed that something was missing. I saw the red ink indicating Jesus’ words and got a headache. It just wasn’t the same.

We don’t like to ask for help. We don’t like to admit that we’re wrong or just don’t know the answer. Somewhere deep inside of us, we know that we should just know everything. We should be able to figure it all out. It isn’t all that complicated or hard. It is something that we should be able to work out on our own. But let’s face it, most days we don’t know the answers. We are confused, frustrated, just plain upset, and we need something to turn to, something that will show us what we need to know. We need God’s Word.

I used to hate that the Bible was the same every time I read it. In all honesty, its something that does still bother me every so often. But on other days, I love it. I love that if I have the same question that comes up over and over again, the same problem, the same doubt, my Bible will give me the same answer. It won’t change its mind, it won’t second guess itself. It will stay true to who it is, the Word of God.

God knew we were going to have questions, doubts, moments of weakness and despair. He knew that on some days we were going to need something to immediately alleviate the frustration that we were experiencing. So He gave us His Word, filled with His Spirit and love. He wants us to go to it in our time of need, rather than resent it as a symbol of our ignorance. He wants us to ask it questions, and He wants to share in our happiness when we find what we’re looking for. He wants us to go to it like a user manual, one that He gave us especially, but not one that we throw under our bed or in a box and ignore. We are to take part in it, live it out and spread its message.

But the Bible isn’t just a user manual. It’s a book, one that God wrote specifically for us. And books, those I love to read. I love to open them and dive right in. I love to reread my favorite parts until the book immediately falls open to those beloved passages. I hope I can learn to love my Bible the way I love my favorite books. I hope I can appreciate it for what it is rather than for all the things I wish it could be. After all, it is God’s book. I’m not sure we could really improve on it anyhow.

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