Did you ever watch that show? I mean, really watch it, not just occasionally catch few lines while your kids soaked it up in the background. It's about an island full of living trains who are slaves suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and are self-defined by whether or not they're useful to a dictatorial (human) conductor. Ok, I know, it’s not technically the intent of the show’s creators, but when I’ve been forced to endure the cliches of so much children’s programming, what's a guy to do? But that’s the line that stuck out to me, one that’s repeated over and over again: “you’re a very useful engine” is what we hear when Thomas does something good.
I’ve had a hard time finding words again lately, and I have a feeling it's directly related to the fact that I've been busy with all the preparations that come with launching ministries in the fall season. When my hands get busy with tasks, my mind doesn't wander to words the way it needs to in order to write, but rather, my mind gets caught up worrying that I won’t get everything done. And I will confess, this has bothered me a lot more than I may care to admit. I get anxious when I don’t have time to write because I love the process of writing and reflection that it requires, a process that is enjoyable and intense all at the same time. But sometimes I start thinking about blogging experts I’ve read, who say that I'll lose readers if I don't keep posts coming with some regularity (because this would be a travesty).
And in my most honest moments, I worry that I'm not producing enough.
In the book of Exodus, the Hebrew people travel through the wilderness quite a distance. They’ve seen the miracles of the plagues, Pharaoh suddenly deciding to let them go, then changing his mind and in the resulting pursuit, the parting of the red sea, manna available every day … and eventually find themselves camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai. God gives them the ten commandments, but then the author records these few verses:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” [Exodus 20:18-20]
Don’t be afraid, God is testing you?
We’ve all been trained to worry about testing; it always means we’re being evaluated and judged, and the resulting possibility of failure often produces such anxiety that our odds of failure actually increase. But here, Moses says it like it’s supposed to be reassuring, even hopeful. The tragedy of their slavery in Egypt was not just that many Hebrews died making bricks for an oppressive power. The tragedy was that, upon finding their miraculous freedom, the former slaves sought to cling to the life of slavery out of their anxiety of making choices on their own.
In slavery, every choice is made for you on pain of death, and so the ‘right’ choice often feels obvious. As a slave, then, your whole life is not really your own; it is being directed by someone else who generally does not have your best interests in mind. The self-determination that comes with living a freed life feels distant, unfamiliar. And upon attaining this freedom, the unknown territory of the new can be so scary that we long for the familiar routines of slavery - they’re not actually good for us, but they often sound better than being responsible for our own choices and our own existence.
To the point, look at how many times in the wilderness the Hebrews complained about their circumstances and ask to return to Egypt - the occasions are numerous. But this is the very reason the Hebrews spent so much time in the wilderness - they were not yet ready for the responsibility required to live in the promised land. They were proverbial children who had to re-learn how to make good choices as a community. And so God started them all over again in the wilderness with basic survival; ‘depend on me,’ he said, and over the course of many years - a whole generation, really - worked the slave mentality out of their culture. That is why we ought not be afraid of testing;
it’s what keeps us from thinking that making bricks for somebody else is our only purpose.
To put it another way, what if this testing is God’s way of helping us grow? Paul says that if God is for us - and that he is - who could possibly stand against us? What if testing isn’t like taking an exam, but is more like refining impurities because God loves us so much that he wants us to be better than we are now? The first thing God did with these ten commandments was to create a rhythm of life for the Hebrew people to limit the bad habits they’d accumulated in slavery - loving other gods, fighting over each others’ property, lying or murdering to cover it up, etc. In short, these rules were created to help them learn to get along with God and with one another, to trust one another, to live a sustainable life, not just make brick after brick as if they were merely the sum of what they produced.
They were no longer slaves to their labor, no longer merely ‘useful engines’; they began to live as children of a God who loved them.
They’re not the only ones who need to learn this lesson. We too often behave as slaves. For some, like me, it’s finding identity in making writing-bricks or checking off task-bricks. For others, bricks look more like finding an identity in a business or possessions or in influence or in sexuality or intellect or even in family. Bad things happen, and while many (most?) of them have nothing to do with God, I believe he allows some to happen because we often get confused about who we are and need our brains reoriented. Some hard things aren’t persecution, they’re lessons to be learned. We must stop living into our identities as victims of circumstances we cannot control and start taking responsibility for the choices we can make ourselves.
Stop trying to be a useful engine; you’re not just someone’s brick-maker.
You’re a child of God.
May you live as one.