Sunday, September 13, 2009

Our instruction manual

Psalm 19.1-4
Proverbs 1.20-33

Someone claimed on the Radio the other day that the real difference between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom is that only human beings can write - or read - an instruction manual. Instruction manuals combine language and tool making so that we can pass on really complicated designs to people who have never seen them before and enable them to make a copy of their own, or learn how to use a piece of technology that someone else has devised. No other animal can do that.

Mind you, before we congratulate ourselves too much for our superiority to the other animals, let's remember that it's not easy to write a good instruction manual. I saw one example posted on a blog which was intended for making a bike tower, to
hang up bicycles on the wall in a garage or shed and save space. It begins, 'Please read this instruction manual carefully before use.' But then it goes on, "If you lost this instructions, please call us written on the end of this instructions." Does that make any sense to you? What can it mean? If we've lost our instructions, how are we going to call a number - presumably, I think that's what they mean - that's actually written on the instructions?

And then it says, "Bike Tower 3100 is the display stand for ordinary two-wheel bicycles, only. Keep out small babies from Bike Tower 2." The mind boggles. Do the writers imagine that babies are going to be climbing up the wall to reach this thing?

After these important instructions, it goes on to say in smaller print, "In this instructions we explain some duties to you as below for keeping yours and your neighbourhood's safety from any troubles." And it prints three symbols,
two with exclamation marks in the middle of - respectively - a triangle and a circle, and one resembling a 'no entry' sign.

The first, the triangle,
"Means most dangerous things as death or serious injury, or damage to your possessions." The 'no entry' sign "means forbid things." And the final symbol, the circle, 'Means your duty as compulsion things."

Well I could go on. Suffice to say the instruction manual goes on to mention that, "It is your duty that you always adjust the degree of the Frame Hook Beam when you hang another bicycles." Of course, it's not clear what that means, which just goes to show that writing a good instruction manual is not easy. So perhaps we're not so very different from the other animals as we'd like to think!

Mind you, the Bible is an instruction manual, but not for hanging up our bicycles. It's an instruction manual for how to live our lives the way that God intended. And it tells us that there are other good instruction manuals which we can use, too. The beauty and grandeur of the earth and sky remind us, for example, how important it is for us to take care of the world around us. And they do this without speaking aloud, and there's no need for sky-writing to explain things to us, because it's all spelt out for us in pictures - the sunrise and the sunset, breathtaking cloud formations, twinkling stars, and so on. Who wouldn't want to look after a world as beautiful as ours?

And the Bible tells us that another instruction manual given to us by God is the gift of wisdom - the knowledge of what is true, or right, or just and the ability to recognise it when we see it.

The trouble is that a lot of us don't bother with instruction manuals. No one can blame us, of course, when they're not very good. But even when they are helpful, the rule of thumb that a lot of us choose to live by is, 'If all else fails, read the manual!' In our Bible reading Wisdom cries out to people in frustration, trying to tell us that it's foolish to do that, and especially to ignore God's instructions for living.

The way we sometimes choose to behave is a bit like building a city in a hurricane zone, and then neglecting to look after its flood defences. Or like making the climate hotter and hotter, by filling the atmosphere with pollution, and then wondering why the ice is melting and the sea level is rising. If we only listened to Wisdom, we would know how unwise these things are. The only way to be safe and secure is to listen to what God's Wisdom is telling us.

Jesus, of course, never wrote a book, or an instruction manual. Yet the Bible gives us a record not only of his teaching about how to live, but also something much better - a record of how he himself lived so that we can copy the master. That means our instruction manual isn't a lot of boring facts, or things that don't make sense, unless you puzzle out what the writer really intended to say. Our instruction manual is a person.

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