A very useful engine

Singing a new song

I am young. I am sprightly. I am a hip, hop and happening parent who is “down with the youth”. And therefore everything I am about to say is entirely objective and not in any way an indicator of me being grouchy or old.

What I want to tell you is this: Children’s television is not what it used to be. Don’t get me wrong. The content is largely acceptable. The theme tunes, however, are not. Fireman Sam is still there, but instead of telling me that “He’s always on the scene. His engine’s bright and clean” as it did when I was younger, the music now urges viewers to “Move aside, make way ’cause he’s gonna save the day”. Something of a brash change in tone.

And what about Postman Pat? They’ve had the decency to keep the opening music, but as the closing credits roll, I am now entreated to a guessing game: “Postman, Postman Pat, can you guess what’s in his sack?” A tedious game at best, since the answer is always the same (presumably because otherwise they would have to keep rewriting and rerecording the song). If the suspense is killing you, I can reveal that it’s Jess the cat in his sack.

And then there’s Thomas the Tank Engine. A cheerful – even enjoyable – tune has been replaced by an ear-desecrating inane babble telling anyone who can’t avoid listening that “They’re two, they’re four, they’re six, they’re eight, Shunting trucks and hauling freight, Red and green and brown and blue, They’re the really useful crew!” I kid you not. Every word true.

As observed, I am not a grumpy old man, and bring this to your attention purely by way of constructive information sharing. Well, that, and because of the final line. “They’re the really useful crew.”


A useful engine
Literary historians among you will know that being “a useful engine” dates back to the early days of Thomas, and the episode “The Troublesome Trucks”. As the franchise has developed, “usefulness” has become more fundamental to the series, to the point that being useful seems to somewhat underpin the modern Thomas. The Fat Controller’s ultimate compliment seems to be “Well done Thomas! You’re a very useful engine!”.

There’s a sense in which it echoes modern life: We must demonstrate our usefulness to be of value as people. This means we have to be involved in an endless drive for greater productivity. If we aren’t seen to be productive; to be useful, then we risk losing our value.

But perhaps there is a greater wisdom in Thomas than I give him credit for. Because when he is commended for being useful, what he has actually done is nothing more and nothing less than what the Fat Controller has asked of him. It is the Fat Controller who sees the grand scheme of things. If the Fat Controller sends Thomas to rescue some errant carriage, but sends Percy to operate the branch line, has one been more useful than the other? I would venture not.

It is up to the Fat Controller to make the engine’s obedience useful. Their usefulness is defined not by what they achieve, but by their obedience.


I suspect I am not alone in sometimes wondering whether what I’m doing at any given point really has any use. Am I maximising the value of my time? Am I being as profitable as I can with my efforts? I find it easy to choose not to do things because they don’t seem useful. Or to judge something as a failure because the outcome didn’t seem useful. And I suspect this true of individuals and groups and churches.

But when I stop to think of it like Thomas, who am I to decide whether what I have done is useful?

Mother Theresa of Calcutta deftly cut to the heart of our concern to be perceived as useful (or, in her words, “successful”)

We are not called to be successful but to be faithful.

Perhaps when we are concerned about whether what we are engaged in is useful or productive, a more appropriate question would be “Is it what God is asking me to do?” If it is, then it is up to God to make our obedience useful.

© Original Photo Christine Matthews
© Text 2014 Paul Brownnutt

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Being God’s Toddler by Paul Brownnutt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Today’s post is brought to you by Isaiah 55:11. You can always think about it in the little we know of a guy called “Useful” (Greek “Onesimus”) in the very short book of Philemon