A favorite cartoon of my kids is Thomas and His Friends, about a group of animated train engines who get sent by their master Sir Topham Hatt on a variety of jobs. The main character is the wide-eyed, loveable Thomas. Either by his cleverness or in spite of himself, he responds to dire situations by successfully accomplishing his task. Children familiar with the cartoon can recite the train master’s recurring accolade: “Thomas, you are a very useful engine!”
We’ve all heard the same praise, or wish we had: “You know how to get the job done. Very useful, very efficient and productive. Quite a multi-tasker. High achiever, for sure.” We might also hear, implicit in these words, a message that when we fail or don’t finish a task in timely fashion, we are somehow of less value or importance.
From childhood to college graduation, we’re presented with the perennial question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” When we hear this so often, it easily translates to, “What occupation will form your basic identity? How are you going to find a useful place in society?”
When I left home for college, I didn’t know what I wanted to be, and “not knowing” haunted me day and night. I knew I loved plants and animals, the outdoors. I liked writing and acting too. But where would these pursuits get anyone? Many times I was discouraged from following a particular interest just because it wasn’t lucrative enough. Or it wasn’t useful.
Finding a meaningful occupation is a legitimate endeavor, but if simply “finding a job” or “being useful” becomes the guiding question of our lives, we've substituted our true identity as relational beings with a utilitarian version of ourselves.
The antidote to a utilitarian identity is not to boycott Thomas but to find an identity based on friendship, first with God, then with others. But the sad irony is that we often identify our friends by the same wrong perception we have for ourselves. Like Thomas, we have friends who do things for us. They help us fix our cars, fix our homes, and fix our taxes. We have our work mates, gym mates, and church mates, all “useful engines” in our lives. And we sometimes treat God the same way, as if he were a giant vending machine in the sky. We drop him our two bits worth of prayers and service and expect to get back what we want or, at least, something of equal value. But no one wants to be treated in such a mercenary way.
I don’t believe God wants to be “useful,” or that he wants us to be. He does not value us most for what we have to offer. He accepts us the same whether we succeed or fail, or when we have absolutely nothing to offer. What he wants more than anything is true friendship based on unconditional love, no strings attached. Only in this friendship can any kind of work or occupation have meaning.
Among Jesus’ last words to his disciples were, “I no longer call you servants . . . . I call you friends.” He wanted them at his side, not because he had a job for them to do but because he wanted their companionship. Whatever work they did, they would do as partners with Jesus. His disciples did not come to him in the first place with degrees and outstanding credentials, shovel ready. They simply came when he called with their hands empty and nothing to offer.
The challenge for us then, is what constitutes true friendship and how do we cultivate it in our lives?
One illustration might help provide part of an answer. I have a friend, Ted, who is perfectly useless. We meet regularly at a coffee shop near his apartment in the low end of town. He’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and has roamed the streets for a fair portion of his life. He’s been in and out of jails, arrested for violent and disruptive behavior. Few employers would take him on, and he doesn’t feel he has a lot to offer the traditional workplace. He’s not what you’d term “a very useful engine.”
Ted is very intelligent. He makes me think. His jokes are either just lame or somewhat off color, but the way he enjoys them makes me laugh. He is the first to admit that he’s a bit rough around the edges and socially inappropriate at times, but I love him. He has nothing to offer me but his friendship. And he’s found a friendship with God since we first met. His faith is utterly genuine, simple yet profound, intelligent yet humble. Best of all, he’s helped me to pray more authentically. Our coffee always includes equal doses of good talk, humor and prayer. He’s quick to point out that actually our whole meeting is a prayer because God is always there, listening, and whatever we say to each other we’re also saying to him. Spot on.
Ted is not very useful to me, and neither am I to him, and we like it that way. When I’m with Ted, I’m reminded of the kind of friend God wants to be to us.