Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sir Topham Hat and Jesus

The Island of Sodor seems to be near perfection.

The breeze is gentle, the birds glide, and trains whistle like they should - sweetly.

But I have a beef with Sir Topham Hat.

This guy.

If you haven't seen Thomas the Train, you might be a bit confused by the look of constipation all the human characters have. No fear, that's just the drinking water on the Island of Sodor.

But I digress. My problem with Sir Topham Hat has nothing to do with his physical appearance. I'm not that catty.

My issue is this: on almost every episode I've been privileged to watch (snuggling a toddler or two, popping goldfish from their grab-it bowls, it's where it's AT on a weekday morning.), we watch the various trains get into and out of certain dilemmas. Not a problem. Until the very end of each story, when Sir Topham Hat announces (without moving his lips - apparently, all of the human characters are constipated AND ventriloquists.), "You are a very useful engine." And the train chugs away happily, as if he or she has received the greatest compliment ever.

But, as a recovering Type A perfectionist, I've spent my life being "a very useful" person. The highest compliment anyone could pay me was, "You get so much DONE!" or "How do you do it all?" I cringe when I remember all the times I shrugged with false humility and inwardly inflated with pride.

My self-efforts were nothing but sin. Perhaps even worse, sins made to look like good deeds. In Bible terms, that's nothing but "filthy rags." And wrapped in a cute Christian package, I was a gorgeous mess.

But any method I use to meet needs for value or importance (or anything really) apart from God is a sin. That's one thing that Jesus found despicable about the Pharisees. And being useful was a big one for me. I still struggle with it today. That self-effort crops up daily, as I check my to-do list (not to see what needs to be done, but to pridefully pat myself on the shoulder for all that I do) or as my husband asks me about my day and I report what I got done. You know you've got this flesh pattern when someone asks how you are doing over the phone, and you report what you're doing. Probably I will fight this flesh pattern all of my life.

There is nothing wrong with being useful. And there's certainly nothing wrong with working hard. The Bible often commands us to work hard and with excellence. Interestingly enough, though, Scriptures talk about a mindset of humble service as we work, not about what results we produce. What I have learned is that my job is humble willingness to be used, Jesus' job is to produce the results. They are not mine. My usefulness and effectiveness are not mine, they are His. Just like they are His fruits, His peace, His power and strength, at work in and through me.

So to praise one or to receive praise for being "very useful" is a bit backwards for me. We are useful because the Holy Spirit animates our lives and produces in us. The act of surrender in those moments is our only role. Although it sounds like an oxymoron, working hard, in that moment of rest, is our joy.

We would be remiss if we did not instill the value of hard work in our children. And usefulness is...well, valuable in our world. But if we somehow communicate the flip-side - that only useful people have value - we have done our children (and ourselves) a great disservice.

Perhaps this is a bit "slippery slope" of me, but isn't an enthusiastic "You are a very useful engine!" not so far off from "And that makes you valuable"?

This idea should grieve every God-fearing person. It's the mentality that aborts babies, euthanizes old people, ignores anyone who cannot produce.

I must admit one caveat: Sir Topham Hat is a business person, he's the owner of the station. So, he's allowed to commend usefulness, isn't he?

It's Jesus who draws the line there. Be a servant of all, strive hard, but only under the direction and animation of the Holy Spirit will this produce true, lasting results.

If Jesus were Sir Topham Hat, which thank the good Lord is where my metaphor breaks down completely, I think he would not say, "You are a very useful engine!" He would say, "You were used today!" Because in God's economy, it's not about producing results, or producing anything. It's about obedient surrender to His usefulness.

It's not our usefulness that makes us valued by God. It's just US. Whether we have a job or we're unemployed, whether we're useful or not, we can rest in Him and then, as we abide (John 15:5), He makes us useful, fruitful. Jesus doesn't need us for anything, but He wants us to be a part of His good works each day.

"Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in us will be faithful to complete it..." (Phil. 1:6)

Thankful to be used, not useful, today!

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