#24: Quit trying to be useful.

Evan and I did nothing to encourage it, but somehow we still ended up with a son who is obsessed with all things transportation. If it has wheels or an engine, he’s a fan.

Of course, it naturally follows that like most little boys, he’d go through a Thomas the Train phase. And yes, we did watch a few episodes about Thomas and his friends on Netflix. Ian also had a Thomas coloring book which, for a few weeks, he insisted I read to him as if it was an actual storybook. (It was a dark time in my parenting journey.)

But as much as possible, I’ve tried to squash his interest in Thomas the Train. This is partly for my own sanity, because some kid shows are just so annoying and I find Thomas to be among the worse. But when anyone asks about Thomas, I can’t help but step on my soapbox and get a little preachy. The truth is, I really dislike some of the messages Thomas and Sir Topham Hatt seem to be sending. I might be crazy, but in that show I find all sorts of messages about patriarchy, colonialism, and relationships that I just can’t stomach. (At first I thought I was reading too much into it, but a quick Google search revealed that I’m not the first to notice these themes.)

If you’re not very familiar with Thomas, here’s the gist. Thomas and his locomotive friends answer to Sir Topham Hatt, a British man in a top hat and dress coat who assigns trains to various jobs. Because they are often desperate to please Sir Topham Hatt, the trains sometimes lie, cheat, and fight with one another in order to prove their worth as the strongest, fastest, and most competent machines. In particular, I am really bothered by the fact that it seems the highest complement you can earn on the Island of Sodor is to be called “a really useful engine.”

Have you ever read the book of Philemon? It’s a teeny tiny book of the Bible, tucked in-between Titus and Hebrews. It’s a letter from Paul to a man named (you guessed it) Philemon, who owned a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had run away from his master, and then somehow got tangled up with Paul and became a Jesus-follower. Paul wants Onesimus to return to Philemon because it’s the honest thing to do, but he’s writing to Philemon to request that Onesimus be welcomed home as a free man and brother in Christ, without punishment or retribution.

Wondering what this has to do with Thomas the Train? Stick with me.

There’s so much richness in this story–we could talk about slavery, freedom, social justice, and brotherhood–but I just want to talk about Onesimus’ name, which means “useful” or “beneficial”. It was an incredibly popular name for slaves. After all, what value does a slave have if he or she is not useful to the master?

I have spent a lot of my life trying to be useful. On the one hand, “acts of service” is my primary love language; I love to identify a need and meet it in a tangible way. (In part, I’m sure this is why I’ve been drawn to careers in teaching and ministry.) But as often happens, our broken world and my sinful heart take what God intended for good and deform it, twisting and contorting it in an attempt to fill a void in my own heart. At some point, I began to believe that my worth was wrapped up in what I could do for other people.

When I left my full-time job, my sphere of influence dramatically decreased. My to-do list shrunk, and my email inbox went quiet. And there went my sense of purpose and value.

The perfectionist and people-pleaser in me wants to be as useful as possible, to both God and other people. And when I’m not? Well…I feel a little bit like Thomas the Train when he realizes he’s going to be late: desperate.

But God doesn’t define our worth by our usefulness. Though he’s gifted us with skills and talents and insights, they are meant to reflect his glory rather than multiply our own. When my boys were born, they couldn’t remotely take care of themselves, let alone do a single thing for me. Still, they brought more love and joy into my life than I could possibly contain.

That’s how God looks at us: not as useful machines roaring down the tracks, but as children, inherently valuable and deeply loved. I think he spends a great deal of time looking down at me and saying, “Sweet girl. Stop worrying so much about being useful.”

“I don’t think that God really wants to ‘use’ me anymore. I kind of hate that terminology now. I know we mean well, of course we do. We say things like, ‘Oh, I just want to be used by God!’ When we say ‘used by God,’ we mean that we want our lives to count for something bigger than ourselves. But the language we use matters. Our words reveal what we truly think and believe about God, don’t they? … I wasn’t created to be used. We were not saved, set free, restored, and redeemed to be used. We aren’t here to work and earn our way; we aren’t pew fodder or a cog. …God won’t use us up. He doesn’t devour all our talents, our gifts, our mind, our love, or our energy but redeems them and brings us joy in the practice of them. …God does not want to use you: God wants to be with you because he loves you.” –Sarah Bessey in Out of Sorts


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