One of my daughter’s favorite shows at the moment is “Thomas the Tank Engine.” I haven’t yet figured out what she likes most about it, whether the stories or out of a growing fascination with trains. I suspect that it’s the latter.
A constant theme of this show is “usefulness.” Thomas is always trying to be useful, hoping that he can accomplish his tasks in a timely and efficient manner. He savors the praise of the island mayor when he is told he is a “very useful engine.”
I think this message from a seemingly benign children’s program reflects a common aspiration that many have.
For those of us who have some form of the so-called “Puritan work ethic” ingrained in us, “being useful” is our constant goal. We’re always on the move—running children to activities, scratching tasks off our to-do lists at work and home, running to the gym if we have time, and even getting to the evening church meeting or Sunday worship.
While at church, we may sometimes hear a verse from the Psalms that says, “Be still and know that I am God.” We often take this to mean that it’s good to slow down, to experience God’s presence. To take time and just be.
But we have families to care for. We have career responsibilities. We have piles of laundry and dirty dishes and growing grass. We have sports and band and dance practices.
And if we take even a moment to stop, we might risk not being useful. Perish the thought of a minute of downtime; a chance to catch our breath and allow our blood pressure to return to normal, let alone to acknowledge the Ground of all that we are.
The American cultural message that you have to be constantly moving in order to be useful is so ingrained in us as a society that we may secretly see God’s command to be still as a sin rather than an invitation to restfulness and peace.
“I can’t be still, God,” we say. “I have to impress my boss.”
We don’t know how to be still, because we’ve internalized that it’s not an acceptable thing to do. It won’t get us ahead in life. It won’t allow us to be useful.
But maybe God’s concern isn’t first and foremost that we’re useful.
Maybe God’s concern is that we take time to acknowledge that our value isn’t primarily in our function but in the very fact that we’ve been created and are beloved.
After all, in the first creation story in Genesis, even God rested. And it wasn’t because God was tired, but because God wanted to just enjoy what God had done. The Hebrew word for rest, Menuha, also means “joyous repose.”
Are we capable of joyous repose in this busy world of ours? Are we able to be still and take delight in what God has created us to be?