From Head to Heart: The Owner’s Manual

Prayer:  Open our hearts and minds, our ears and eyes and most importantly our wills so that we may learn more of You.  Amen.

I have entitled this topic in our series From Head to Heart, The Owner’s Manual.  By “The Owner’s Manual” I am referring to the Bible.  Of course, the Bible is not a “manual” in the way we usually understand it today.

When I worked at a car dealership, we had access to a host of manuals.  In the parts department, we had a series of binders that contained pictures of various sections of cars and trucks that showed us how each piece was put together.  Each of the various parts of that piece was labelled so that we could find its proper name.  This took a lot of guess work out of ordering replacement parts.  In the service department, they had a series of manuals that showed them how the pieces fit together and also gave detailed instructions about dismantling and re-assembling the various parts of vehicles.

In the United Church, we have a document called The Manual which is a detailed breakdown of how every level of church government should work.

Normally we think of a “manual” as a detailed set of “how to” instructions written in a step by step fashion.  The Bible is not written that way at all.  The Bible is a collection of histories, stories, poems and speeches all designed to inform us something of God, of humanity or of the relationship between God and humanity or amongst humanity.  Although some of these writings contain sections that are systematic treatments of certain topics (Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Romans and Corinthians to name a few), as a whole, the material is not presented in a systematic treatment of topics.  So, if you are looking for information dealing with a specific issue, unless you already know where that information can be found, you will not likely find it.  And, even then, if you do not have an understanding of the particular context of that information or the attitudes behind that instruction, there is a reasonable chance how you interpret it will not be completely accurate.

When we considered Entering a Relationship with God, I said that we can gather with the church for many years and never come to understand that we can have a personal relationship with God; that is very possible to hear all the right words but never hear the message behind the words.  This is also true of the words and message of the Bible.

I have spoken to you about the Bible several times in the last ten years.  I have addressed the Bible from different perspectives.  Today, we will consider it from a very different one.  Today we will consider “canon.”

Cannon, spelled “c-a-n-n-o-n” is a tubey thing that shoots stuff, but what does the word canon spelled “c-a-n-o-n” mean?  Primarily it is “a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged” and by extension “any list or collection of items meeting that standard.”  The various writings that make up our Bible are considered “canon.”

The collection forming the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament met the following conditions:

  1. They had to be written in Hebrew, with a few exceptions being made for Aramaic sections of Daniel, the writings of Ezra and Jeremiah 10:11 (Larue, Gerald A. (1968). Old Testament Life and Literature. Allyn and Bacon. pp. Ch. 31.) The rationale being that Hebrew was the divine language whereas, Aramaic the common.
  2. The material had to be widely accepted within the Jewish community. For example, the scroll of Esther was commonly used at the Feast Purim making it possible for it to be included in the canon.   However because the scroll of Judith had no such widespread support, was not acceptable.

This condition also spoke to the notion of the writing being special, something that had the power to lead people closer to God.

  1. Any scroll being considered, had to, in one fashion or another speak of one of the great themes of the Hebrew faith such as the Covenant (the contract between God and the people) or Election (God choosing them as God’s people.)
  2. And the original had to be penned during or before the time of Ezra (the return of the exiles from Babylon.)

Christians accepted the books of the Hebrew Bible as scripture.  As for the books contained in the New Testament or Christian Scriptures, the main criteria was that of being “God breathed” or inspired.  In early Christian circles the notion of being “God breathed” meant that the authors and editors of the Bible were led or influenced by God with the result that their writings may be designated in some sense the word of God.  This is something like the Jewish notion that since Hebrew is a divine the language the Hebrew Scriptures are the very Word of God and thus have the power to lead people closer to God.  In addition, these writings had to:

  1. Be the writings of the early apostles which included Paul and Jude.
  2. Had to be written or completed in their final form sometime before 150 C.E.
  3. Be widely accepted as worthy of being read out loud in a gathering the church.

As you can see, these sets of criteria are very similar – both assume the writings are the “word of God”, both assume that the special nature of these books was well recognised by the communities of faith and not just the clergy, and both assumed that there was an expiration date on what could be considered as “canon” thus unofficially stating an end date for what is commonly referred to as “revelation.”

But I think we also need to consider what happens to people when they take seriously that the Books contained in the Bible are themselves a “canon,” that together they set a standard for our relationship to God, one another and ourselves.  It is true that there have been widespread disagreements about how we understand the words of what we call scripture and terrible abuses perpetrated in the name of scripture.  However, for the most part, those who have taken more seriously the message of the Bible rather than the just the words of the Bible, have seen hearts and lives transformed and great, seemingly impossible things have been accomplished.

The second school that God has established for us to judge whether the voice we are hearing is that of God or the voice of another else, is the Bible.  But it is hard to use this tool if we are not familiar with it and it is hard to be familiar with it, if we have never read and are not continuing to read it.  As well, it is difficult to know the message of the Bible if we only consider the words of the text.  The Bible can be sourced as the basis for almost anything.  The words of the scriptures must be understood in light of the great themes of the Bible which we can only really come to see by setting aside all our preconceived notions and allowing the Holy Spirit to help us get past the words that are used.

What follows is a brief list of some of those themes.

  1. God always chooses what is best for humanity. Sometimes, this means that the “needs of the many outweigh the needs on the one” to quote Mr. Spock from Star Trek.
  2. God will never force us to accept God as God
  3. God choses to work in, through and on behalf of those who are willing to accept God’s attention far more so than those who are not.
  4. Being one of God’s chosen does not exclude us from evil. In fact, it could also be said that while those in a personal relationship with God are subject to greater blessings and privileges, we also subject to greater suffering and responsibility than those who have not accepted God as God.  Why?  Re-read item #1.
  5. Being one of God’s chosen does mean that in the end, everything will be ok and in the meantime God supplies all our needs.

The best way to approach reading the Bible is systematically.  Set aside time each day and read a predetermined mount.  For example if you read about 6 chapters a day, you will complete the entire Bible in less than a year.  Actually, assuming there are more or less 1190 verses in the Bible depending on the version, if you were to read 6 chapters each day, Monday through Friday (or any other 5 days,) it will take about 334 days or 48 weeks to read the entire Bible.  This gives you 28 days of “mulligans” to get caught up when life doesn’t go according to plan.  (You can also complete this challenge in 30 days if you read 40 chapters a day.)  There are different approaches people take but if this is the first time attempting to read the entire Bible I would suggest the easiest and by far the most difficult approach.  Begin at page 1 and read it to the end.  This is the best way to see how the message unfolds, grows and is shaped.  Of course, this also means spending several days in a row reading lists and the like.  But know this, those lists are very important.

A concern of some may be that they have tried reading the Bible in the past and it just made no sense.  To that, may I suggest two things.  Before you begin to read each day, pray and ask God to show you God’s heat.  When you read, don’t worry so much about understanding it with you head, that will come in time.  Rather, let your heart be the focus of understanding.  Sometimes if instead of asking, “What is going on?” (facts we interpret with our brain) we need to ask “Why is this going on?” (motivations we sense in our heart.)

Next time, we will consider From Head to Heart: Following in the Footsteps, the third on our list of ways through which we can use as an aid to discerning whether the voice we ae hearing is that of God’s or another.

Prayer:  Open our hearts and minds, our ears and eyes and most importantly our wills so that we may learn more of You.  Amen.

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